The 2020-21 ski season won’t resemble any other, but new amenities will at least offer comfort
As I stroll through the Sundeck on Sunday, I feel a strange sense of nostalgia for the future. It’s about 4:30 p.m. and visitors are still trickling out through the building’s heavy wooden doors. Fifteen minutes ago, the warning alarm blared from Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol headquarters to signal the last chance to download the gondola on Fall Closing Day.
I scan the cavernous dining room, darkened bar, and cordoned-off cafeteria and wish for a busy, invigorating winter, same as always.
But I know it is not meant to be: once snow falls, this familiar place will be very different. The million-dollar question on everyone’s mind since the mountain shut down skiing operations abruptly on March 14: How will this place look and feel during the 2020-21 winter season?
I rode the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain with a few friends to celebrate a birthday. The Sundeck patio was a zoo — socially distanced, of course — with every dining table, couch, bench and Adirondack chair occupied with leaf-peeping tourists and locals here to celebrate one final hurrah. We basked in the sun, ate burgers and chips, greeted friends, made toasts, threw frisbees off to the side with the dogs. There was no hanging inside by the bar, no live music, no wok station (“all summer!” opined one stir-fry fan), just lots of masked people milling about, hanging out, and soaking up spectacular 360-degree views on a bluebird afternoon.
The most notable physical change up top was installed beginning last weekend: The foundation and metal frame of Aspen Mountain’s new warming hut. I was admiring the structure, looking toward the gondola hub, when I heard a ski patroller call out from behind me, “Doesn’t it look like the Taj Mahal?”
It does, kind of. The tall, arched skeleton is simple and elegant, the top pointed in a gentle tuft like a dollop of marshmallow fluff on a mug of hot chocolate. The rectangular footprint is situated on the blank expanse of hillside a few steps from the Sundeck’s side door. All of the patrollers I spoke to about their new neighbor seemed super enthusiastic. Any way to get the mountain open — and stay open — safely is good for all of us, they said. An added bonus for patrollers: the hut will buffer noise from the gondola building, now out of their sightlines from the patrol shack.
Though consensus estimates that the hut will be able to accommodate approximately 30 guests, who may enjoy food and drink bought and brought over from the Sundeck or elsewhere, Skico did not respond to requests for comment.
As for the Sundeck, a wander around the building offered clues. In an impromptu chat on the back stairs of the Aspen Mountain Club, a chef on break told me, “The inside of Sundeck is gonna change totally. Obviously, it’s going to be way busier (this winter), and we’ve been limiting people (this summer). How do you maintain that? We (may) have to have one or two security people. Because we’ve been doing it ourselves the whole summer.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity because plans have not yet been finalized, the chef sounds weary — as he should. The Sundeck cooks, as well as cashiers, bussers, bartenders, managers and others who are on the front lines of Aspen tourism, no doubt felt the added stress of policing crowds. Just as every service industry, hospitality and retail professional across America. Mostly it was tourists who showed up wearing their masks as a chinstraps or not respecting social distancing protocol—even after seeing signs, riding the gondola, encountering more signs, entering the building, and facing even more signs before entering the food service area.
Suddenly we notice a family of about 10, which has been shooting portraits on the wedding deck, traipse behind the stairs on which we’re sitting. Taking the technically off-limits shortcut around the rear of the Sundeck, adults and children are stepping over piles of dirt and construction detritus as we speak.
The Sundeck’s food and beverage menu is still in the works. Service, according to the employees I spoke with, will transition to mainly grab-and-go fare — meals and à la carte items such as sandwiches and sides to mix and match and/or assemble oneself (such as salad kits) — to eat at limited indoor tables, outdoors by heaters, and in the new warming hut.
To make this possible, Skico must be shelling out a pretty penny for a mountain of sustainable food packaging.
Backlash among customers expecting the typical posh, sit-down dining experience is inevitable. That our on-mountain experience is heading downhill — in the view of spoiled folks — makes an easy target for general frustration about life during COVID. Regardless, my chef source maintains a practical mindset. To foster safety “we’ll (have to) funnel people through quicker than we ever have,” he said.
Meanwhile, another warming hut of sorts is being staged midmountain: the restaurant at the bottom of Ruthie’s Run, which served its last meal about a decade ago.
Deck floorboards are being replaced, heaters will be installed, and the area indoors may be cleared out as a spot to briefly escape the cold. It’s an historically tough spot, on the Lift 1A side of the mountain and off-limits to most beginners. Food service will probably not be included, either.
Sitting alongside the chef on the back stairs, my dear friend Lizzie Cohen perks up during this part of the conversation. The possibility of Ruthie’s opening its doors again to the public this winter is huge news.
“Oh, I remember!” she exclaims. “From the time I was 12 to 16, it was open. It was the place we went every other day for lunch with my family. It was warm and beautiful — I loved it.”
A few years ago, Cohen returned to the mid-mountain property to visit friends who lived there and worked in mountain operations. It looked entirely different — the furniture had been cleared out and replaced by sofas in the guys’ living room — but stepping inside sent chills up her arms.
“I remember walking in, and I did have this whoosh of memories,” she recalls. “Just, like, the smell. It was so cool. I love the idea (of the warming hut).”
Stripped to the bare essentials — the baselayer, if you will — the prospect of an on-mountain experience without bells and whistles doesn’t feel bleak to me. Skiing is about being outside on mountains covered in snow, usually served by machines to get people to terrain and keep conditions safe. And now we have warming huts for that.