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Crowds at the base of Arapahoe Basin ski area on Nov. 25, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Since 2006, Magellan Strategies has polled voters, helping to measure Colorado’s political winds. Last month they turned their analysis to skiers, asking a mountain of questions about the pandemic-muddled season. 

The political strategy firm’s survey of 788 skiers — about 480 of them living near ski areas and the rest hailing from the Front Range — showed a surprisingly large number pondering a season on the sidelines. About 31% of the respondents said they were not planning to ski this season because of the pandemic. And 39% said they had not purchased a pass this season, which means they likely will not be riding chairlifts since most resorts are using day-ticket supplies to control crowds. 

The poll, conducted between Nov. 10 and Nov. 16, had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The skiers who said they were ready to sit out the season cited fears that others might not follow safety guidelines outlined by resorts — like social distancing and mandatory masks — as well as a frustration over reservation systems and concerns over costs in a declining economy. 

A very large number of skiers thought that skiing would be shut down due to the pandemic at some point this season, with 36% of respondents giving a shutdown a 50-50 chance; 29% guessing there was a 75% chance resorts would close; and 18% saying resorts would most certainly close. 

“That really does show you there are not a lot of optimistic people out there, with a majority of the community looking ready or assuming it will be shut down at some point,” said David Flaherty, the co-founder and chief executive of Magellan Strategies. 

But a majority of respondents — particularly skiers under 25 — expressed trust that resorts would provide quality turns even with new rules to limit the spread of COVID-19. And 69% said they were confident the rules installed to limit COVID-19 would protect visitors and employees.

When asked what kind of rules would help them feel most protected from COVID-19, most skiers suggested protocols that resorts already have planned for the season: limiting capacities, requiring masks, distancing skiers in lines, cleaning and restricting indoor activities and access.

Magellan’s study — which included questions suggested by The Colorado Sun — detailed hundreds of verbatim responses that explored beyond statistics. Those comments about why skiers might avoid riding lifts this season are telling, with both ski-town locals and Front Rangers worrying about a flood of travelers from afar and the spread of the virus in resort shuttles, restaurants and lodges.  

“I can go a year without skiing downhill,” said a Park County woman who is “strongly” considering not skiing this season. 

“Because travel now is stupid and frivolous,” said a Pitkin County man.

“I will ski no matter what, but it may just be alpine touring in the backcountry,” said a Routt County woman. 

Flaherty’s survey also explored if and how skiers planned to explore the snowy backcountry. About 62% said they had skied in the backcountry before. And 81% of the roughly 300 skiers who said they had never ventured into ski terrain beyond a resort boundary said they did plan to do it this season. That mirrors a growing recognition that backcountry use will spike this season as resorts work to control crowds and access during the pandemic. 

When skiers who intended to explore the backcountry were asked about their plans, 42% said they intended to buy avalanche safety equipment and take an avalanche awareness course. About 26% said they planned to take a course, where, by the way, the need for safety equipment like a beacon, shovel and probe pole will be emphasized loudly and frequently. 

Of the nearly 500 skiers who had experience in the backcountry, 37% had both safety gear and education; 20% had equipment but no formal avalanche education; and 29% said they had neither gear nor education. 

That last number — more than 140 people — saying they had ventured into the backcountry but had no avalanche education or safety equipment, has Colorado’s search-and-rescue teams on edge. Volunteer rescuers and avalanche educators are worried that an influx of new backcountry travelers in Colorado’s notoriously dangerous avalanche terrain could lead to more incidents and calls for help.  

“Avalanche danger is going to be insane, not because of snow but too many people not knowing what they are doing in the backcountry!” an Eagle County man said. 

Finally, the survey asked for general thoughts about the upcoming season, and that’s where the long-held animosity between locals and visitors became most apparent. And beyond worries about the virus, locals are concerned the reservation system at some resorts might limit their access.

“Locals lay the framework year-round. Keep their voice heard in decision-making meetings,” said a Boulder County man.  

“I think we should be encouraging less tourists if anything, they’re the ones that are bringing the pandemic here and don’t follow our guidelines,” said a Pitkin County woman.

Flaherty said it was interesting to see the varying viewpoints between skiers near resorts and those who travel to ski. 

“Locals really wanted their voice heard,” Flaherty said. 

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out.

Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things

Location: Eagle, CO

Newsletter: The Outsider, the outdoors industry covered from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state

Education: Southwestern University


X (Formerly Twitter): @jasonblevins