Aspen locals could be in for a season-pass curve ball this winter

Doran Laybourn makes a turn through powder on Ajax.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. plans to open its four mountains on schedule this winter under a controlled environment with outdoor bathrooms and no sit-down dining, and it also is considering blackout-dates for local skiers so it can manage the crowds.

Skico senior executive Rich Burkley brought up the touchy subject of blackout dates — at least among the local ski and snowboard crowd — on Thursday during a video conference meeting with local health care authorities and public officials.

“We are looking at spreading pulses throughout the day, throughout the weeks, and throughout the season,” said Burkley, the company’s senior vice president of strategic planning. “So we may be asking locals to ski a lot more in early December than in the holiday season, when we may have other capacity-constraint limitations in place, as well.”

Skico, like the Aspen School District, Aspen Valley Hospital, local businesses and local government, is grappling with how to efficiently operate during a global pandemic while limiting the spread of the virus.

Much of what they decide is at the mercy of local and state public health orders, which have shown a pattern to change often because of rising and dropping infection rates. Aspen Valley Hospital CEO David Ressler reported at the same meeting that the hospital has returned to “comfortable” status due to a downward trend in the number of coronavirus tests it is administering daily.

That’s a good sign, but Ressler cautioned the hospital’s operating capacity —a driving force behind local public health orders — is a fragile situation during the pandemic.

“We certainly don’t want to send a message of complacency,” Ressler said, “because that is far from the reality. We believe we are doing the right thing as a community. And this is a message to double down and not let our foot off the gas.”

Burkley said no decisions have been made about season ski passes and their offerings. He called the situation the “biggest unknown” for Skico at this time.

“The longer we wait, the better idea we have of what we can offer for our guests and locals,” he said of the 2020-21 passes, which previously have ranged from one- and two-day-a-week passes to unlimited skiing all season.

Skico previously decided to delay the release of ski pass options and prices eligible for the chamber of commerce discount until after Labor Day. The price structures typically are announced and put on sale in mid-August.

Skico also is looking at offering weekday passes, which would signal a new approach toward its business. It could also provide incentives for passholders to ski Buttermilk rather than Snowmass during certain times, Burkley said.

“We are probably going to be looking at changing local skiing habits,” he said “So you may ski Two Creeks (Snowmass) on an afternoon versus other areas that you would normally do on a Saturday morning.”

Skico already is selling its full-season pass for 2020-21 without the chamber discount; those passes are fully refundable through Nov. 20.

“We recognize skiing and snowboarding is fundamental to everybody in this valley,” Burkley said, “and our goal is to be fair and as equitable for all users with all of the capacity restraints.”

Skico shut down its mountains March 15 in response to Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order closing all Colorado ski resorts. It plans to open all four — Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass — this season.

Burkley said that if ski areas can reopen later this winter, “We know capacity is going to be limited. We don’t know how much, and we hope it’s not zero. We’re trying to do everything to prepare for it.”

Skico also is leaning toward not opening its on-mountain restaurants to in-person dining.

“We’ll probably focus on a lot more grab-and-go-type menus,” Burkley said. “I don’t think we’re going to have any sit-down dining on-mountain next year.”

As well, Skico could create picnic areas where people can eat while on the hill, Burkley said. Examples include using the defunct Ruthie’s restaurant near the top of Lift One on Aspen Mountain and the Spider Sabich area at Snowmass, among other possibilities, he said.

“Every little warming hut becomes a picnic area,” Burkley said. “We’re going to have picnic areas all over the mountain. Think of Buckhorn Cabin (on Aspen Mountain) is expanded in a socially distant format.”

Locker rooms likely won’t be accessible, and bathrooms will be located outside, Burkley said.


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