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A skier traverses a run at Vail Mountain on December 18, 2019. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

Vail Resorts on Thursday unveiled the details of the plan for skiing at its 34 North American resorts — beginning Nov. 6 at Keystone — and, as we suspected, the 2020-21 season will be unlike any before. 

Here are the not-surprising changes: 

  • Masks are required for everyone on the mountain. 
  • Physical distancing will be the rule, with quick, cashless lines through rental shops and on-mountain eateries and no sitting next to strangers on chairlifts.
  • Anyone going to ski school will be required to conduct an online health screening before hooking up with an instructor and class sizes will be limited. 

And then there’s the reservation system.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

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This is where things get wonky as Vail Resorts plans to manage on-mountain access by requiring mandatory reservations to ride lifts at all its resorts, with Epic Pass holders getting first dibs on ski days. But forget the dreamy scene where you wake to a foot of fresh and race to the ski area.

“I realize not everyone will agree with our approach,” Vail Resorts chief Rob Katz wrote Thursday in a letter to the company’s guests. “Some (are) feeling we are being too conservative or aggressive.”

Per the company’s overarching strategy — now more than a decade old — of pushing as many skiers as possible to buy season passes before the lifts start turning, Vail Resorts is giving pass holders the early line on reservations. And the company really wants skiers to not just buy ahead, but plan their ski days weeks and even months ahead.  

  • Pass holders will be able to lock-in seven “Priority Reservation Days” for the season between Dec. 8 and Apr. 4. Every time a skier uses one of those days, they can reserve another day. So pass holders can keep a bank of seven reserved days rolling through the season. 
  • A reservation window from Nov. 6 through Dec. 7 will give pass holders an opportunity to book their days before the company starts selling single-day lift tickets. (So yes, the early season skiing, in November and the first week of December, will be for pass holders only. The company will not be selling day tickets for the early season.)
  • In addition to Priority Reservation Days, pass holders will be able to make as many week-of reservations “as availability allows.” That “as availability allows” clause is going to be something to watch. 
Skiers and snowboarders are pictured at the base of Vail Mountain’s Eagle Bahn gondola on Dec. 18, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Reservations won’t work at the company’s partner resorts, which may or may not have their own access management plans. Partner resorts include Telluride, Sun Valley, Snowbasin and a host of Canadian, European and Japanese hills.

Vail Resorts said it did not believe reservations would be required at those partner resorts, but that could change.

EARLIER: Safety and stoke: A-Basin’s coronavirus reopening provides glimpse of what next ski season may look like

All reservations will be booked through the website. All lift tickets will be sold online, too, with no walk-up sales at resort ticket windows.

Vail Resorts on Thursday also announced the expansion of its free “Epic Coverage” insurance plan, allowing skiers to roll over their pass dollars to the 2021-22 season if they don’t get the reservations they want and don’t use their pass by Dec. 7. This is a complex policy with all sorts of deadlines and details.

The deadline for using pass holder credits from the previous season — which ended abruptly on March 14 — has been extended to Sept. 17. 

To up the ante for local employees in a season that will see hiring and staffing challenges, Katz, in a letter to workers on Thursday, said employee and dependent passes will be exempt from the mountain reservation system.

And, of course, the kicker for the coronavirus ski season is that all these plans can — and likely will — change. For the better, maybe, or for the worse if COVID-19 cases spike. 

Finally, there is no indication of what could be coming for uphill travel policies at resorts. Backcountry gear makers and sellers as well as avalanche education folks are bracing for a big spike in the numbers of skiers eschewing lifts and earning their turns. How resorts handle this anticipated shift will be another issue to watch in the coming months.

Arapahoe Basin was one of the few resorts in North America to reopen in the spring after shutting down because of coronavirus. They, too, enacted a reservation system with mixed results.

A snowboarder wearing a medical mask at Arapahoe Basin on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

When A-Basin opened up its online system to allow people to secure a reservation, so many logged on at the same time that it crashed. The resort pivoted to a lottery process to pick who would get one of the 600 skiing slots allotted for the 12 days it was open in May and June.

From there, things on the mountain went OK, but many were upset that they weren’t able to secure a reservation.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins