Skiing in the time of coronavirus

Rose Anna Laudicina
Aspen Times Weekly

Uphilling in the time of coronavirus

On March 23, Aspen Skiing Co. sent out an urgent plea to those still utilizing the mountain while operations had ceased to observe social-distancing rules or risk the company closing the area ski mountains to recreation.

“Many Front Range areas (and Sunlight) have affirmatively banned uphilling due to overcrowding,” Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said in an email. “We do not want to have the same challenges here.

Here are some ways you can recreate responsibly on our local ski mountains.

* Maintain at least 6 feet of distance with others on the mountain

* Do not gather in groups on the mountain

* If a parking lot at the base of the mountain is full, pick a different time to uphill or pick a different, less crowded place

* Remember that services such as ski patrol are not available on the mountain so utilize caution when recreating and be mindful of changing conditions, “an on-mountain accident is the last thing emergency responders and health professionals need to deal with at this time.”

* No snowmobiles allowed on any Aspen-area ski mountains

On the final day the ski mountains across Colorado were open before being shut down by order of the governor due to the COVID-19 pandemic, truly one of the final days that life seemed to be normal, I received my 100-day pin on Aspen Mountain.

To be clear, this isn’t a story about the dedication it takes to get to Day 100 on the mountain nor is it a story to fish for compliments. Instead, this is a story about the week leading up to my 100th day and what has happened since.

The quest for 100 days and subsequently the coveted pin that goes with that achievement is something that many avid skiers and snowboarders in the Roaring Fork Valley prioritize in their winter season goals.

In The Aspen Times office there were four or five of us gunning to hit the 100-day mark (if not more than, by the time the season was suppposed to end). Some days we held each other accountable, encouraging a work break to get on the mountain, while other days we took solo excursions to get out of the office and onto the lifts, enjoying solo shred sessions and the mental break that skiing and snowboarding brings.

March in the mountains started off relatively normal as stories of coronavirus in America and Colorado didn’t begin dominating local news networks until March 5 or so.

On March 1, Aspen Times Editor David Krause and I met up at the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain to document locals getting their 100-day pins on the 100th day of the Aspen-Snowmass season. While neither of us were a part of that elite group, we did discover that it was his 67th day on the mountain and my 88th day, the year that each of us, respectively, were born. We celebrated this fun coincidence in numbers with pancakes and hot wine at Bonnie’s.

Life on the mountain seemed to go on as normal for the first few days of March; there were parties at Buckhorn Cabin to attend, light crowds in the morning that swelled to larger crowds as visitors woke up and stumbled to the lifts and après scenes at which to be seen.

Then, after the first case of coronavirus with ties to Aspen — an Australian who was vacationing in Aspen had returned home and tested positive for coronavirus — was reported March 8 on, some things started to change.

Monday, March 9, was noticeably quieter than other early mornings despite the fresh 2 or 3 inches of snow. I chalked up the low skier attendance to spring conditions that made the snow early in the day hard and crunchy, and assumed people were waiting until the snow softened to come out. I even noted this in “The Drop-In” I filmed that morning (I’m also one of the hosts of The Aspen Times’ on-mountain video series, “The Drop-In”).

One quick note of my ski routine: Since The Aspen Times is located in downtown Aspen, I typically ski Aspen Mountain on the weekdays because it’s the most convenient for office ski breaks. On a normal day I get to the gondola around 8:45 or 9 a.m. to make some early tracks before things get too crowded.

The next day, after news broke that some of the Australian woman’s travel companions were in self-quarantine in Aspen and were being tested for COVID-19, mountain attendance seemed even more sparse in the morning, but spirits were still high. The mountain felt similar to how it does prior to the holidays: where just locals are out but there is underlying anticipation that everything is about to get hectic.

On Wednesday, March 11, I was at Snowmass helping film a “Drop-In.” Crowds seemed to be normal for a mid-week ski day as evidenced by the fact the Village Express line was steady and my coworkers and I were loaded onto the six-pack lift with three strangers.

I was pulled from filming duty midway through our video shoot with the Aspen Divas synchro skiing team to help deal with breaking news about positive test results of COVID-19 in Aspen.

One of the ski instructors working with the group asked about the results and expressed concern about having to cancel the synchro skiing competition on Aspen Mountain in April if things continued to get worse, but otherwise, it was just another day on the mountain.

By Thursday, March 12, Aspen Skiing Co. had dug out the Little Nell ski lift at the base of Aspen Mountain to give skiers and snowboarders the option to avoid the gondolas, although not many people were taking them up on this offer.

When I noticed Little Nell running, I asked one of my co-workers heading to the mountain for the afternoon to inquire why they were running it, since at the time Skico had not made an official statement.

The lifties response was that it was a nice day out so they were running the lift, no mention of coronavirus.

Other noticeable changes were lifties had stopped taking people’s skis or offering assistance loading and unloading from the gondola, or if they were helping, they were wearing latex gloves for protection. Riders were giving more space in line and not as quick to jump into gondolas with people they didn’t know.

The conversations at the base of the mountain had shifted, as well. More talks about the virus, speculation about what would happen, and less light-hearted talk about the weather and snow conditions.

It was around this point I wondered if shutting down the mountain was a distinct possibility. We joked in the office about how it would be funny if the mountains shuttered after my 99th day, leaving me one shy, while somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced this would happen.

Once Friday morning rolled around, Day 99 for me, full protocols were in place on the mountains.

The gondolas were being deep cleaned every night, a practice that had begun earlier in the week.

A sign at the Silver Queen Gondola load station (a sign of the times, if you will) read “Cabin Preference? Let the lift operator know.” This gave riders the opportunity to request a private cabin, something I know many Aspenites have wanted to be able to officially do for years.

A women near me in line told her husband that she wanted to wait for an empty gondola, even if it meant a longer wait, because of the virus.

The same was true for the chairlifts. For the most part, no unaffiliated parties were riding together and many chairs were loaded with just one rider.

Hindsight is 20/20, but there was an uneasy feeling in the air, that while we were all going through the motions and acting like things were normal, everything was about to come to a head.

To address the virus in the room, in Friday’s “Drop-In” video, my co-host Kelsey and I discussed social distancing and the precautions that Skico was taking in light of the coronavirus, and I think we honestly thought that the new rules were good enough to keep us skiing until the end of the season.

Day 100 came and went in a blur. I enjoyed a ride up the gondola with two friends and coworkers, grabbed breakfast at Bonnie’s and skied some surprisingly awesome snow.

Everybody seemed cautiously optimistic, stoked on good snow conditions and the start of the weekend but all around conversations inevitably turned to the coronavirus topic.

People in line at the Ajax Express chairlift noted how the lines were made up of more than 50 people, in defiance of new social distancing rules. Someone even jokingly yelled out, “Someone call (Colorado Gov. Jared) Polis, there are more than 50 people in this line,” to which one of his friends replied, “Good luck trying to shut us down, Polis.”

The mountain was crowded, it was almost like we all knew this was the end. Or perhaps in a time when things were out of our control, everybody flocked to the mountains, the one thing that seemed stable.

That evening, when the lifts stopped, Skico announced mountain operations were suspended due to an order from Polis.

On Friday, March 20, one day after Polis extended the ski mountain closures until April 6, Skico officially called it and announced the season was over at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.

“With the extension of statewide closures, we are officially calling it a season at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass,” said Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications.

While Hanle said there is a chance Aspen Highlands could reopen, “if we are given advice that we can reopen sometime late in April by state and local health agencies, we would evaluate conditions for a limited opening,” it’s hard to put much stock into that happening.

So assuming the official ski season is over, 142 people earned their 100-day pin this year, according to Skico. Nineteen of those people, myself being one of them, ended with exactly 100 days.

Although the lifts may be shut down, many in town, myself included, can still be found trudging up the mountain on an uphill setup or splitboard, taking advantage of the snow that remains. Some are still gunning to 100 days and counting their uphill sessions.

We won’t get pins highlighting our accolades for all the extra days we earned our turns, but we will get a feeling of personal accomplishment, a moment of mental clarity and a reprieve from the uncertain state of things we now find ourselves living in and the crazy town below the mountains that we’ve all chosen to ride it out in. •