How the Aspen Skiing Co. prepared for ski season’s opening day in the pandemic
Aspen Skiing Co. officials invested hundreds of hours this fall into crafting an operating plan to keep their four ski areas running through this pandemic-plagued winter.
The big question is whether or not it was all for naught.
While Aspen Skiing Co. is opening Aspen Mountain and Snowmass a day earlier than planned, questions abound on whether the lifts will keep spinning through the holidays — let alone for the entire season — due to rapidly escalating coronavirus cases in Pitkin County.
“We really need to turn this around now if we want to have a ski season,” said Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications, on Nov. 16.
Skico opened about 100 acres on Aspen Mountain and 86 acres on Snowmass on Wednesday. The hope was locals would sate their thirst for snow by skiing on Wednesday and leaving the slopes to tourists on Thursday. To further spread crowds, Skico opened Panda Peak at Buttermilk for Thursday through Sunday and Thunderbowl lift and terrain at Aspen Highlands for Thursday only. Highlands and Buttermilk are still scheduled to open for the season on Dec. 12.
But COVID-19 is keeping everyone guessing.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan posted a letter on the company’s website last week warning about COVID “spreading like wildfire across our community.” The consequences will be immense if the Roaring Fork Valley can’t reduce its incidence rate.
“It’s putting what we all worked so hard to accomplish — a safe and long-lasting ski season — in jeopardy,” Kaplan wrote.
While much is still unknown, this much is certain: it will be a ski season like no other. The après-ski scene? Forget it. Spraying Champagne at Cloud 9 during lunch? Isn’t gonna happen. Striking up a conversation with strangers on the Silver Queen Gondola? That’s highly unlikely.
Skico submitted its 53-page operating plan to Pitkin County in mid-November and received approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Nov. 16. The blueprint dives into the nitty-gritty of just about every aspect of Skico’s operations and describes precautions to keep customers and staff safe.
Skiing and riding is the easy part, Hanle said. Social distancing and wearing facemasks on the slopes is a piece of cake.
“The hard part is the pinch points,” Hanle said.
Think of all the places skiers and riders typically congregate: bus stops, parking lots, ticket offices, ski school, lift mazes and on-mountain restaurants.
“Those are the most difficult aspects to manage,” Hanle said.
It took a proverbial village to come up with a plan. Skico officials worked with Pitkin County public health officials and third-party health experts to draft the plan. They sought counsel from Colorado Ski Country USA and National Ski Areas Association, trade groups for the ski industry. They scrutinized ski operations in the Southern Hemisphere.
Skico also looked at what worked and what needed adjusting during its summer operations for the winter.
“You work cooperatively with every party that you can find that can bring value and insight to what you have to do,” Hanle said. “It worked well.”
Unlike other ski resorts, Skico initially resisted use of a reservation system for the slopes. However, the company disclosed last week that a reservation system is “highly likely” for passholders for periods of the season.
Skico’s operating plan said it “has developed a backup reservation system that can be implemented” if the COVID-related metrics “move to problematic levels.”
Here’s a glimpse at what skiers and riders may encounter in their quest for some turns.
The hassle factor of getting to the slopes will be enhanced this season. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which operates the public bus system, aimed to increase capacity to 75% on buses that were making one-way trips of 15 minutes of less. That would have included skier shuttles between Aspen’s Rubey Park and the ski areas. The plan was nixed when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released guidance Nov. 2 that calls for maximum capacity of 50%. RFTA tries to have buses on standby along popular routes and busy times, but some waits may be inevitable. Masks are required on buses.
In addition, expect parking lots to fill quickly since so many local residents and tourists will be reluctant to take a bus. Parking is always in short supply. It will be even more highly coveted this season.
Skico is promoting drop-off areas at the ski area bases. It not only wants lodges to send customers via a shuttle, it hopes private parties will have a vehicle driver drop off the group.
Get it done online
Skico is advising customers to streamline tasks by tackling lift ticket purchases, ski school registration and equipment rentals online. For those who don’t or can’t comply, expect lines in ticket offices. A limited number of people will be allowed inside at one time. Every other lift ticket station will be used. Plexiglas shields will separate customers from staff.
Most furniture in areas like the Snowmass ticket pavilion and the Aspen Highlands lobby will be removed to “discourage loitering,” the plan said.
Skico will train the employees expected to greet the waves of arriving skiers and riders to thank individuals who are wearing masks and adhering to distancing requests. They will also remind people not following the rules to get into compliance.
“Aspen Skiing Co. will let individuals know immediately that they will not be able to participate if they are not willing to follow the requirements,” the operating plan said. “Employees will not allow guests that are refusing to follow requirements into facilities or onto lifts.”
Negotiating the maze
Skico has designed new lift mazes to force social distancing. Lines are inevitable, particularly on powder days, because there will be open space between lines and passengers will be required to distance.
“Chairlifts will load with parties that are comfortable together,” the operations plan said. “No guest will be loaded with anyone outside of their party if they object to doing so.”
Skiers and riders will be required to wear masks while loading, unloading and riding lift and gondolas.
On the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain and Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, customers will be asked to load their own boards. (They will be assisted, if necessary.)
Windows in the cabins will be left open despite the weather.
For many people, hiking Highland Bowl will require even more vigor this season. Everyone will be hiking from the top of the Loge Lift.
“We will not run the Bowl cat for public use this season,” the operations plan said.
Brown bagging it
Old school brown-bag lunches might make a big comeback this year because of the restrictions on indoor seating in restaurants. All restaurants, on-mountain or otherwise, are restricted to 25% capacity to slow the spread of COVID-19. Doormen will be counting people inside to stick to restrictions.
Tents will be erected at Elk Camp, Ullrhof and High Alpine at Snowmass as well as Sundeck at Aspen Mountain and Merry Go Round at Aspen Highlands to increase capacity.
Bathroom breaks on the slopes will be a little more complicated than in past years. Proper spacing will be enforced by marking where people can stand while waiting and some stalls will be decommissioned. Porta-potties will be placed outside some facilities to increase bathroom capacity.
Skico’s Kaplan started warning customers back in July that this season would be different and that some “annoying” precautions would be necessary. But it doesn’t have to be a bad season, he insisted.
“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,” Kaplan wrote in an email to customers.
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Longtime Aspenite Mark Howard’s new memoir, “A Rewiring Life,” chronicles a life of change across five decades in Aspen.