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Early closure of ski resorts triggers “feeding frenzy” for uphill touring and backcountry ski equipment

Vail Resorts put the brakes on use of its mountains for skiers seeking turns without lifts, but independent backcountry ski shops across the state are reporting record sales.

A pair of skiers skin uphill at Loveland Ski Area on March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
A pair of skiers skin uphill at Loveland Ski Area on March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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VAIL — Sean Glackin’s phone exploded within minutes of the news that Vail ski area was closing. The outdoor retailer’s entire rental fleet of alpine-touring skis was quickly rented by a flood of uphill skiers the following day.

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“It’s like a feeding frenzy. It’s kinda nuts,” said Glackin, the owner of Alpine Quest Sports in Edwards.

Across Colorado, the sudden shuttering of resorts has spurred a run on uphill ski equipment. Forget toilet paper. The hottest commodity in Colorado high-country right now is alpine-touring skis. 

Ski resorts across the state may not be spinning lifts, but the skiers are still skiing. Hundreds, if not thousands of skiers are regularly climbing resort slopes. Breckenridge and Keystone were allowing uphill all week until Vail Resorts on Friday pulled the plug on access at its two Summit County hills, plus Vail, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte. 

With other ski areas allowing uphill traffic, the Vail Resorts decision marks a split in the Colorado ski industry, which until Friday had largely moved together in reaction to the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. 

Ryan Huff, a spokesman for Vail Resorts, said the company has support from the Forest Service on the decision block access. 

MORE: Colorado’s governor advises going outdoors to ease coronavirus isolation. But take it easy, first responders plead.

“Given that there is no terrain risk mitigation and no ski patrol currently at our resorts, uphill traffic is unsafe for skiers and riders, those sledding and first-responders,” Huff said in an email. 

Ski resorts, under their permit to operate on public lands, are allowed to restrict access based on operations and “emergency situations,” White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said. 

“Given we are dealing with a serious situation and in an effort to adhere to state and county orders regarding limiting group gatherings, the Forest Service will amend resort operating plans to help with the situation we are dealing with,” Fitzwilliams said. “This is a once-in-a-100-year situation that we all need to do our part to help manage it.”

Fitzwilliams said Forest Service lands are open to the public.

“But there are circumstances where we may have to limit because of crowds gathering in areas,” he said. 

Loveland ski area is allowing uphill traffic, but warning skiers they are recreating without the possibility of assistance from ski patrollers. 

Sam Wheelock, of Golden, along with Jazz Allen-Perkal, back left, and Kelly Dohn skin uphill in the backcountry on Friday March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown.. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Arapahoe Basin, a resort that has embraced the uphill movement, was forced to shut down uphill access when hundreds of skinning skiers arrived at the ski area on Sunday — the day after the ski area announced its closure — which violated the state rules on gatherings. (A-Basin on Friday announced it was letting go 430 seasonal workers and cutting its 70 year-round employees to three-quarters time effective April 1.)

 Copper Mountain and Eldora also have closed mountains to skinning skiers. 

Winter Park and Steamboat ski areas are permitting free uphill travel on limited slopes. Telluride on Thursday opened its slopes for uphill access. All the resorts — which typically allow uphill access at no cost — are posting signs and online messages warning that upward-bound skiers are on their own, with no patrollers to offer aid and no avalanche mitigation work to reduce hazards.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Aspen Skiing Co.’s Roaring Fork Valley ski areas remain open for uphill, with hundreds skinning up Buttermilk this week. 

“We encourage people to treat the ski areas like the backcountry,” said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. “Be smart, be safe and make informed decisions. There are no ski area services in place should there be an incident, so be extra diligent and err on the side of caution in what and where you choose to ski. Get some exercise, breathe fresh air, but follow all the existing guidelines from health professionals.”

Aspen Skiing Co. on Friday officially ended the lift-served ski season at Buttermilk, Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, dashing hopes that the mountains might reopen in April. The resort operator has left the door cracked, oh-so-slightly, on a possible limited-services opening at Aspen Highlands in late April if conditions — and health officials — allow. Copper Mountain also nixed its season for good on Friday.

MORE: Coronavirus is running so rampant in Colorado’s mountains residents, visitors should “minimize all contact with other people”

When the gravity of the contagion settled on the Eagle Valley earlier this week, Glackin got nervous for his workers, who were getting pretty close to people when fitting them with rental touring boots and skis. They were spending hours disinfecting equipment as it came back and before it went out again.

As more people were coming in to rent skis and boots, Glackin changed course. No more rentals. Everything was for sale, with credit cards accepted only over the phone and skis and boots delivered curbside. 

Customers at Alpine Quest in Edwards shopped through the front door on Friday. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“We have never sold this much. We usually sell half this much stuff in two months,” said Glackin, who early Friday had a pair of remaining, previously rented skis available for $1,000. “We’ve pretty much sold everything. Hopefully this money will help us get through the next two months and keep my employees on the payroll.”

JT Greene, the owner of Wilderness Sports in Dillon, had his biggest day of the year on Sunday, the day after Summit County’s Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Copper Mountain announced they were closing. On Monday, he closed his store to shoppers, who pointed and paid for stuff they needed through the front door. He’s kept renting alpine-touring skis and hoped to sell his entire rental fleet during a sale on Friday. 

With the county’s REI, Christy’s Sports, Sun & Ski Sports and all the Vail Resorts retail outlets closed, Greene is one of the few outdoor retailers left open in Summit County.

Wilderness Sports Owner JT Greene brings out purchased ski equipment for a customer on Friday March, 20, 2020, in Dillon. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“People are really needing this gear right now and we want to give them the tools they need to get outside,” said Greene, whose team is talking with customers through the front window, helping newcomers to backcountry touring find the right set-up. “We hope we are helping people get out there safely. It’s a crazy time. It kind of feels backward, you know. We would usually be getting ready to transition to bikes and summer but we are in full-winter ski mode.”

Wilderness Sports Owner JT Greene makes adjustments on new pair of skis and boots for a customer on Friday March, 20, 2020, in Dillon. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jon Kahn, the owner of Denver’s Confluence Kayaks, has been busy this week renting uphill ski equipment. Like Glackin, he’s moved to curbside service to limit traffic in his store and reduce exposure of his employees. 

“Things are upside down and backward but we are moving forward,” Kahn said. 

Doug Stenclik co-founded Cripple Creek Backcountry in 2012 hoping more skiers would soon turn to touring as resorts became more crowded. 

“We’ve been preparing for this for eight years,” said Stenclik, who grew the now three-store and online retailer into one of the country’s top sellers of alpine-touring and avalanche safety equipment. “I hoped it would be under better circumstances though.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Stenclik has retail locations in Vail, Aspen Highlands and Carbondale — all of which he closed on Friday, moving all sales online — and his stockpile of backcountry skis and equipment is vast. 

“We will never run out of stuff because it’s all we do,” he said. “You know how some people were prepping for the apocalypse? We have been prepping for the day the lifts suddenly stop turning.”

Since the resorts closed on Sunday, Stenclik’s staff of 16 has been working 14-hour days. Skiers are lined up outside the Aspen Highlands store, where only one or two customers at a time are allowed inside. And those customers aren’t really getting the white-glove treatment like they did last week. 

Read more skiing stories from The Colorado Sun

“We kind of have to toss boots at them,” Stenclik said. 

Like Glackin, he’s suspended demos and is only selling equipment, which retailers typically do at the end of the season anyway, offering previously rented skis and boots for cut-rate prices. On Friday, Stenclik said he would soon close his three stores and transition to only selling online. In the last several days, sales are up about five times over the same period last year. He’s seeing locals who have long considered getting an uphill skiing set-up but were too busy, now have extra time on their hands as ski towns stumble into an unprecedented shutdown. A few vacationers who couldn’t change their plans before the resorts closed and have come in for new equipment. On Wednesday, he said the past week has been “a roller coaster.”  

Kornblum Katz, of Denver, skins uphill at Loveland Ski Area on Friday March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I went from worrying about laying off most of my employees last week to being excited about a little bump to being worried about how busy we are and burning out my employees,” he said as he drove late Wednesday to meet his team for their nightly “mounting party,” where they all sip beers and mount bindings on skis “like a full assembly line.” 

“I definitely wish this was happening under different circumstances,” Stenclik said, “but it’s just been bonkers.”

Nathan Fey, the head of the state’s outdoor recreation office, has been working with the governor and the new Emergency Economic Advisory Council  to craft messaging urging backcountry travelers to exercise even more than usual caution when venturing into avalanche terrain. 

“What concerns us now are these reports of so much traffic in these easy-to-access backcountry destinations like Berthoud Pass and Loveland Pass and it’s clear from reports on the ground that people are going without the proper equipment, without the proper skill sets and they are not adhering to CDC guidelines,” Fey said. “If anything does happen in the backcountry and you end up needing critical care and perhaps need to be transported to the hospital, that’s when things go completely sideways. 

“So we are trying to send out this message: Don’t go to remote parts of the state. Practice CDC guidance and social distancing in the backcountry,” he said. “But even more importantly, if you don’t know what you are doing in the backcountry, don’t go.”


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