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High peaks, lofty prices as skiing prices out middle class

Skiers and snowboarders searching for "the steep and deep" this winter may find the concept has taken on a much less appealing connotation: The price of the sport is getting so steep that some believe it may be becoming the exclusive domain of those whose pockets are exceedingly deep.

"You have the haves and the have mores," said Douglas Quinby, principal analyst at PhoCusWright, which conducts market research on the travel industry. "When you factor in the airfare of the typical ski trip, the accommodations and the length of stay, you're talking about a pretty significant penny."

Lift tickets in Aspen, Colo., now cost more than $100 during peak periods.
Scott Markewitz Photography | Aspen Skiing Company
Lift tickets in Aspen, Colo., now cost more than $100 during peak periods.

Coupled with lift tickets that can top $100 per day and clothing and equipment that can cost thousands, it's not surprising that both the industry and its fans are concerned about the sports' long-term viability for those of more modest means.

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Skiing, of course, has never been considered an inexpensive activity, but the sport has seen a significant upward shift in visitor demographics in recent years.

Last year, 54 percent of skier visits, defined as one skier/snowboarder riding for one day, came from households earning more than $100,000, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). That's up from 48 percent five years ago, a 12.5 percent increase.

In contrast, visits from households earning less than $100,000 during the same period slipped from 52 percent to 46 percent—an 11.5 percent decrease.

"They're chasing existing customers who have the money to spend rather than going after new customers," said Roger Marolt, a lifelong skier and Aspen resident. "They're creating all these expensive amenities to attract them, which drives the price of skiing up even further."

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The average weekend lift-ticket price last season was $85.52, which was actually a bargain compared to the $129 you'd have paid if you walked up to a ticket window at Vail or Beaver Creek last Christmas. This year, Deer Valley, Jackson Hole, Park City and Sun Valley have all joined Aspen and Vail in charging $100 or more for a lift ticket during peak periods.

Such prices clearly play into the perception that skiing is the exclusive domain of the well-heeled, but it's also true that few people pay such stratospheric rates. More than half of so-called ski travelers (as opposed to day-trippers) now buy their tickets at least a week in advance and just under half buy them online, garnering potentially significant discounts by doing so, according to Quinby's research.

Many get discounts as part of lodging packages that include multi-day lift tickets; others by taking advantage of "dynamic-pricing systems" that peg prices to seasonal demand and how far in advance they buy.

"Selling lift tickets at the window is like the airline industry selling all its tickets at the counter," said Evan Reece, co-founder and CEO of Liftopia, which sells online advance tickets, rentals and other products to 250 resorts around the world.

For those willing to commit in advance, the site offers deals such as day tickets at Smugglers' Notch, Vt., in December for as low as $38 (43 percent off) and 5 of 7 day tickets at Sun Valley, Idaho, in January for $261 (45 percent off). There's even a one-day lift ticket and bacon Bloody Mary deal at Arapahoe Basin, Colo., for as low as $58 (24 percent off).

Other skiers and snowboarders save big bucks by buying season passes, some of which pay for themselves in as few as five or six visits. Traditionally offered by individual resorts and pegged toward locals, newer passes such as Vail Resorts' Epic Pass (unlimited skiing at 12 resorts for $729) and the Mountain Collective pass (12 days at six destinations for $379) extend the concept to those who don't live at the base of the hill.

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"If you look at the season pass deals out there, by some definitions skiing has never been more affordable for our core participants," said Michael Berry, NSAA president.

And therein lies the proverbial rub. That core audience is getting older and they're not being replaced by enough new participants to grow the sport. Last year, the median age on the slopes was 38, compared to 34 a decade ago, a worrisome shift for the industry.

The overall result is little or no growth in participation and the potential for future declines as baby boomers "age out" of the sport. Last year, skier visits hit 56.9 million, an increase of 11 percent over 2011 — which was the worst season in 20 years — but still below the sport's 10-year average of 57.4 million.

The challenges are only expected to grow. As the major resorts spend millions on new lifts and posh lodges, smaller areas — so-called "feeder and breeder" resorts — can't afford to offer competitive amenities. In 1978, there were approximately 700 ski areas in the U.S.; last year, there were only 477.

"It's just heaven—it's only gotten more beautiful and more fancy—but only the one percent can afford to have a real family vacation there." -Elizabeth Rodgers, lifelong skier

The future of the ski industry, Quinby said, looks increasingly like the travel industry at large: a two-tiered market in which wealthier participants are more optimistic, more able to travel and more willing to accept higher costs. The rest, by contrast, are less optimistic and less likely to spend — with one major caveat.

Regardless of their economic status, skiers and snowboarders are nothing if not passionate about the sport, and most will find a way to satisfy their passion.

They're people like Elizabeth Rodgers, a lifelong skier who lives in Boise, Idaho. She can hit the local slopes at Bogus Basin, where season passes sold for $229 earlier this year, or drive 2.5 hours to Sun Valley, where day tickets during peak periods are $105.

For Rodgers, a mother of two who skis about 20 times a year, the economics are simple: "Bogus is much smaller but it's accessible, it's affordable and you can still ski a lot."

And Sun Valley? "It's just heaven—it's only gotten more beautiful and more fancy—but only the one percent can afford to have a real family vacation there."

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—By NBC News contributor Rob Lovitt. Follow him on Twitter.

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