There will be a 2020-21 ski season. Temperatures will drop. Snow will fall and enthusiasts will return to the slopes. Of that you can be sure. But will skiing and riding at a Colorado ski resort feel the same this year? Don’t count on it.
Advance reservation requirements, limited seating in base lodges, reduced lift capacity and masks have created a mountain of pre-season anxiety.
Patricia Campbell, president of Vail Resorts Mountain Division, told snowsports industry leaders last spring, “We want people to get out and do what they love, but people need to be flexible as the situation will be constantly changing.”
Rick Kahl, editor of the trade publication “Ski Area Management,” added that before heading out, “It’s important to know what the preconditions are such as the need for parking reservations and temperature checks once you arrive.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment will require now-common safety measures for skiers and riders to follow, including physical distancing, wearing masks except when actually skiing or snowboarding, and gathering in small groups.
Avoid places where people congregate, such as lift lines, lodges, restaurants, and restrooms and you’ll mitigate risk substantially.
Welcome to the new normal.
What’s Different This Season?
Pretty much everything.
The stay-at-home orders created a huge pent-up demand for outdoor recreation this past summer for golf, cycling, camping and hiking. Now it’s skiing’s turn.
Don’t plan to just roll up and buy day-of lift tickets to ski or ride anytime you want, especially on weekends and holidays. While the pandemic will reduce the number of international visitors and corporate meetings, visitors to Colorado will still be competing against Front Range skiers on Saturday and Sunday. On holidays, resorts will likely be maxed out.
Regardless of the day of the week, most resorts will require advance reservations online, giving priority to season pass holders. No pass? You’ll be able to purchase tickets online but only if the resort isn’t sold out for the day.
“For the vast majority of days during the season, we believe everyone who wants to get on our mountains will be able to,” said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz in a letter to guests. “However, we are not planning for the majority of days, we are planning for every day of the season.”
Some resorts, such as Eldora and Copper Mountain, will require online parking reservations to reduce capacity, although if you ride public transportation or get dropped off, you won’t need to make a reservation.
Be prepared to boot up in your car as base lodge entry will be limited.
There will be longer waits for parking lot shuttle buses as capacity is limited, you’ll be asked whether you’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, and dine-in service will be drastically cut in favor of grab-and-go box lunches. Say goodbye to salad bars and buffets.
How this affects lift lines remains to be seen. Skiers will not be required to ride a lift with people outside of their own party. Single skiers may have to wait longer than usual for a nearly-empty uphill ride, whether on a chairlift or gondola whose windows will be kept open regardless of the weather. When loading lifts, skiers already line up six feet apart — about the length of a ski — but be prepared to slide along larger, reconfigured lift mazes with ghost lanes in between to encourage distancing in all directions — front, back and side-to-side.
Not a fan of lift lines? Consider skiing Bluebird Backcountry, a new backcountry-only ski area without lifts located on the Continental Divide about 30 minutes from Steamboat Springs. The ski area will welcome a maximum of 200 guests a day on the mountain, spread across 1,200 acres of in-bounds terrain, which is nearly the acreage of Arapahoe Basin.
Ski school lessons will be limited to a maximum of 10 students, and some areas will offer terrain based learning using instruction “stations” on the hill, again to enhance social distancing.
Rental services will require advance reservations and likely move outdoors, including boot fitting so curb your expectations about that experience. Bindings will be pre-set to smooth the process and avoid bottlenecks; you may be assigned a specific pick-up time.
To avoid rental lines entirely, consider rental delivery service Ski Butlers which will deliver to your room and can go touchless guiding you through the fitting process.
Apres-ski and tightly-packed nightlife? Don’t plan on it. “That’s not what skiing looks like in a pandemic,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said at an October 20 press briefing.
You’ll See More of These
Expect to see more outdoor portable toilets to reduce crowding in base lodge restrooms. Some indoor stalls and urinals will be blocked off to limit capacity. Look for lots of sanitation stations and touch-free faucets, paper towel dispensers and doors.
Resorts are investing in outside propane heaters to increase socially distant dining. They’re so popular during the COVID-19 era that a national shortage exists.
Here’s a clever work-around: Telluride is gaining praise for its plan to recondition old gondolas and turn them into heated dining cabins outside restaurants.
You’ll also see more ATM-style kiosks to pick-up tickets purchased in advance, and those big white instant structures — essentially wedding-style heated tents on steroids — to increase social distancing in base areas.
Signs, signs and more signs. There will be signs reminding you to stand apart, wear masks, stop skiing if feverish and wash your hands. Get used to it.
Bring It On
This isn’t the first time skiers have faced a winter crisis. Skiers figured out a way to pursue their runs during the 1973 gas crisis when rationing caused long lines at the pump. Let’s not forget those historically low snow years, for example, 1980-81 and 2017-18 in the West, and 2015-16 in the East, not to mention the disastrous 1976-77 season when snowmaking wasn’t as advanced as it is today.
The good news now, versus mid-March when skiing switched off like a light, is the knowledge that comes with several months of life during a pandemic. What’s more, skiing and riding, enjoyed in hundreds of acres of fresh air and natural environment, is a sport made for a pandemic. For one thing, skiers have been wearing head, face and eye coverings for a century.
“The fact that we ski outside in ultraviolet sun and in the wind, it’s common for us to wear goggles, gloves and face coverings. All of those things bode very well for us as a sport,” says Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).
More good news: The NSAA recently launched its SkiWell BeWell guidelines, emphasizing that wintersports promote health and well-being, which can reduce the risk of infection. So there’s that.
Aspen Snowmass CEO Mike Kaplan says, “No doubt, next ski season will be more of an old school experience, but that could also translate to less noise, fewer distractions and, hopefully, more meaning.”
Snowsports enthusiasts will demonstrate great resourcefulness and resilience again this coming winter. Whether sliding on snow one day or 20, we’ll all be happy to get back out again. As the debate over masks and lockdowns continue in some quarters, you want to talk freedom? Go skiing or riding.
For specifics on COVID-19 protocols at your favorite Colorado ski resort, be sure to check their website prior to departure.
Is Your Ski Day COVID-19 Ready?
Before you head to the slopes this winter, here are some handy items to bring along to make COVID-19 regulations a bit more palatable.
Collapsible Water Bottle — Stay hydrated with your own water. The more you drink, the smaller it gets. Besides, it eliminates the need for cups and extra trips indoors.
Extra Face Masks — Pack several face masks because you’re going to need them everywhere. Sorry, but Buffs or fleece mufflers aren’t considered COVID-19 resistant masks. When you mask up, your runny nose and eyes will make your mask wet and uncomfortable. Bring some fresh ones. (No one said this was going to be easy.)
Heat Packs — These convenient flameless hand warmers are great any time of the year. They easily fit inside mittens and thinner toe warmers can go into your boots. Buy them at a big box store to save money.
Food — Purchase a sandwich at a supermarket or prepare one in your condo. Small plastic storage containers are perfect for keeping your PB&J from squashing. Bring instant oatmeal for a hearty instant breakfast or lunch. Even if the resort charges you 50 cents for a cup of hot water, you’re still ahead of the game. Also carry plenty of snacks for quick nourishment while on the lift.
Backpack — Rather than stuff your pockets, consider a backpack to carry your gear. Some resorts will require you to take off the pack before lift loading, but that’s a minor inconvenience. Include a small first aid kit and a whistle for safety’s sake.
Portable Car Mat — You’re going to be asked to boot up in your car since base lodge capacity will be tightly controlled. Put a portable mat down to protect your socks from parking lot mud and grit.
Hand sanitizer — No surprise here. Look for 2 oz. travel-size bottles of Purell or Germ-X which, thankfully, is now easier to find than at the start of the pandemic. So are antiseptic wipes to use if you do manage to score a table to sit down.
As the Scouts say, “Be prepared.”