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Eager early-season crowds are helping Colorado ski resorts fine tune operations before the holiday crush

Ski areas are tweaking traffic flow, adjusting lift line mazes, revisiting uphill policies and repositioning workers as they adjust operating plans in the first few weeks of the strangest ski season ever

Crowds at the base of Arapahoe Basin ski area on Nov. 25, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Winter Park delayed its opening a couple weeks to early December and the pent-up demand almost overwhelmed the Grand County resort on its first Saturday. 

Lines were long on Dec. 5 and, as skiers kicked off skis and snowboards to load up the base-area gondola, distancing faded. By midday, the resort had made changes.

“We realized that people need a little help with social distancing, especially when there’s not any marks on the floor, which is hard to do outside,” said Jen Miller, spokeswoman for Winter Park, where workers ended up painting lines in the snow and installing maze ropes. “Certainly Saturday was a good exercise. That’s one way to put it.”

Nothing like a horde of eager skiers to help resorts identify gaps in their pandemic-influenced plans.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

Across the state, skiers pining for turns after nearly nine months off snow have flooded Colorado’s ski areas in recent weeks. And the early-season surge has helped resort bosses tweak operating plans before the holiday crush. 

Most adjustments involve restrictions on uphill policies and reconfigured mazes, and additional staffing to help organize people and enforce new regulations addressing physical distancing and mandatory masks in lift lines.

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Davey Pitcher’s Wolf Creek was the first resort to open in Colorado, so he’s had a bit of a head start. 

He started off lean in late October, with only bathrooms and lifts. He phased in rentals and retail at Thanksgiving, with only 11 people at a time allowed in the shop. Food service started in the first week of December — all outdoors. 

Pitcher starts loading chairs early, sometimes by 7:30 a.m., so no one is hanging around in a line. His initial fear that people would linger in the parking lot after skiing or at lunch never materialized.

“They come to ski and when they are tuckered out they head home,” said the longtime owner of the southern Colorado ski area that has harvested the most snow — 99 inches — of any resort in the state so far this season.

But there have been hiccups. 

A worker in the Wolf Creek ticket office tested positive and fellow workers had to quarantine. Food service workers stepped in to fill the positions. Ski patrollers did the same when a lift operator tested positive and mandatory quarantines left the lift team shorthanded. 

Managers make adjustments every morning at outdoor team meetings. Distancing in lift lines has required consistent tweaking, Pitcher said.

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He met with local leaders and public health officials to discuss the requirement that everyone in the Wolf Creek parking lots wear a mask. It was difficult to enforce and there was not a similar rule for parking lots at stores or other businesses in Archuleta and Rio Grande counties. But his team is vigilant on masks in lift lines and anywhere around the base area.

“It feels like most people are really giving it a go. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the level of participation from the skiers,” Pitcher said. “Everyone seems ready to follow the rules. Everything we are doing is to keep us all skiing.” 

“We see guests getting used to everything”

“We are all making adjustments where we have to and fine tuning things,” said Jeff Hanle with Aspen Skiing Co., which shut down ticket sales around the Thanksgiving holiday to control crowds. 

The company also stopped selling sightseeing tickets for the gondola at Aspen Mountain after noticing people were riding up and lingering at the mountaintop Sundeck restaurant. 

The urns of free coffee at the base of Aspen Mountain used to be self-service. Now there are staffers there handing out cups of Joe and cocoa. More workers are helping organize lift lines as well.

“Fine tuning,” Hanle said. “Nothing major that we weren’t expecting.”

Pitkin County next week will start requiring all overnight visitors to sign online affidavits they have tested negative for the coronavirus in the three days before arriving in the Roaring Fork Valley.  

At Arapahoe Basin, they’ve been tweaking the mazes to spread out skiers waiting for lifts. More staffers wander those mazes to make sure masks are covering faces. 

The ski area recently stopped selling full season passes but is offering passes for weekday skiing. Alterra Mountain Co. is handling reservations for Ikon Pass skiers wanting to book days at Arapahoe Basin. 

“We tell them how many reservations we can handle and they do all the work,” said resort boss Al Henceroth. 

Henceroth has years of traffic records to study and project visitation to his mountain-top ski area. As he opens more terrain, it’s easier to predict those patterns. When terrain was limited shortly after opening, he urged his regular skiers to consider weekday skiing to help alleviate crowding on weekends.

“For 50 years resorts have been trying to move traffic to weekdays,” Henceroth said. “COVID may do that more than the past 50 years of trying.”

Vail Resorts started planning for a pandemic ski season shortly after it closed all 34 of its North American resorts in March. And the company learned some lessons from operating its resorts in Australia this summer. 

So all the changes the company has made at its resorts so far this season have been “micro-adjustments,” said John Plack, spokesman for Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas.

Vail Village is plastered with signage urging visitors to wear masks and stay distanced from people not in their party. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

For example, staffers are positioned above busy lift mazes — like Chair 4 at Vail’s mid-mountain — directing singles, doubles and larger groups into specific lines. That’s helped smooth the loading process. 

There are empty lanes for lift attendants to walk and help organize groups well before the lift terminal. 

The company’s mandatory reservation system went online for the entire season this week, allowing skiers to book seven priority days for the season, in addition to any available days that particular week. The reservation system was built to control crowds if pandemic restrictions tightened, and so far the company has only had to deny reservations at its Breckenridge ski area in Summit County.

Early season reservations for Epic Pass skiers filled Keystone and Breckenridge last month, but as Crested Butte, Vail and Beaver Creek opened and resorts started to add terrain, the company has been able to spread Epic Pass skier across more terrain, Plack said. But the company did restrict employee passes on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13, citing below average snow that has limited the ability to open more terrain and accommodate reservations made by guests and passholders. 

“We see guests getting used to everything,” Plack said. “The whole goal of everything we did this winter was to get open and stay open.”

Steamboat ski area has joined several other resorts with overhauls of once permissive uphill policies. As thousands more skiers explore the world of skinning, most Colorado resorts have created policies that limit uphill traffic to early mornings and evenings, when the lifts are closed. 

Steamboat managers met with local uphillers earlier this month and explained the changes, which include a $20 fee for the season and prohibit skinning when the resort is open. 

Steamboat boss Rob Perlman said it was a “great conversation” and the uphill community was largely supportive of the changes. 

Steamboat also is reaching out to its traveling guests long before they arrive to share new rules to limit the spread of contagion. The effort includes a new website guide that essentially asks visitors “to acknowledge we are all in this boat together and with that comes a shared responsibility,” Perlman said.

“This year will require flexibility and we will continue to assess and adjust as mountain conditions, skier numbers, and COVID levels change,” he said. “It’s going to take continued cooperation from everyone to ensure a healthy and successful season.”


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