Notes from the slopes midway through Aspen’s historic 2020-21 ski season
It’s a winter like no other, with the lifts spinning and skiers skiing through a global pandemic.
Playing out against a backdrop of spiking Aspen area infections, school and restaurant closures, rolling quarantines, global economic crises, the insurrection in Washington, a real estate boom here and an upside-down year on Earth, one of the few things that’s the same as ever is clicking into our skis and breezing down a slope.
We’re now halfway into ski season 2020-21 and the Aspen Skiing Co. has kept the mountains open (knock wood) and evidence suggests little risk of COVID-19 transmission through open-air chairlift rides, distanced lines and the same old downhilling.
We had new choices at season’s opening, whether to pony up for the more expensive Premier Pass as Skico attempted to price out locals, go for the new Weekday Pass or the 7-Day. Or maybe forego a pass entirely and not stress about a season that looked doubtful.
We’ve all tried to figure out how to avoid fogging up ski goggles while properly wearing a mask (we’ve failed, of course and gotten used to skiing with foggy goggles) and embraced peeing in the woods again (the snow around “the Winkie Tree” on Aspen Mountain is yellower than usual) and ridden the Little Nell chair more than ever. It’s changed when we ski and ride, where we go and how, and with whom we ski.
We’ve witnessed some heated exchanges about masks and distancing in lift lines, but generally Aspen skiers are compliant and happy to be here. We all miss indoor après and gathering around the fire at the Sundeck, we miss gondola rides with Australians and South Americans and, well, anybody outside of our households (“ski quaran-team” is the Skico coinage). We miss high-fives.
As we surpass the midpoint of this historic ski season, the skiers and snowboarders on the Aspen Times staff here offer our on-mountain observations.
THE EVERYDAY SKIER
Just as the world keeps spinning during the current global pandemic, so do the chairlifts at Aspen-Snowmass. And it’s a good thing, too. I’m one of those diligent every day skiers this season and I get out on the slopes daily for a few reasons: I find my mental health is far improved when I make the time to go outside, I also truly just enjoy being on the mountain in most conditions and some extra motivation comes from the hefty price of my ski pass this season, so you bet I’m going to use it as often as possible.
Besides the mask wearing in lines (which let’s face it, at this point in the pandemic doesn’t feel so weird anymore) the social distancing and lack of a true après-ski scene, this season doesn’t feel outrageously unusual … or perhaps I’m too quick to adapt so I can continue to do what I love.
One of the strangest ways I’ve seen the pandemic impact is in the crowd level. Typically you can predict when the crowds are going to be heavy – an epic powder day, for example – but not this season. Some days I’m walking right on to the gondola on Aspen Mountain in the morning when there are a few fresh inches to find and I feel as if I’m one of 50 people on the mountain, other days it’s grey and hasn’t snowed in weeks and there is a line down the stairs at Gondola Plaza and still other days, the largest crowd of skiers can be found going uphill on Tiehack rather then down.
But if that’s the most unpredictable thing about this ski season amidst a pandemic, then I’m here for it with my mask on and a friendly “Hey, how’s it going” for all the employees who are making my daily turns possible.
— Rose Anna Laudicina, co-host of ‘The Drop-In”
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…
There are obvious downsides to snowboarding amid COVID regulations — trying to breathe through a face mask during a powder day is like trying to rip a clogged bong; I didn’t even know I had that muscle let alone that it could get sore.
I’m slowly getting used to drinking cold beers outside Gwyn’s, but I still haven’t ventured into the Sundeck for anything other than to use the restroom.
Having said that, some things remain unchanged. The mountain is probably where I do most of my socializing still, but it’s largely unscheduled and fleeting. (True friends don’t need to see your face to know who you are, because they remember your on-mountain fit.)
While I would like to share more gondola cars and safety meetings with friends, it has been nice not having to worry about some single crashing your bucket. The increased privacy is a perk, but there’s something to be said for the unintentional comedy/column content you’re missing out on with every lonely lift.
I’ve found that I’m even more regimented during COVID, but that’s mostly because I have little to no faith in Tiehack parking or any enthusiasm for public transportation.
After a lot of wasted concern, I’ve found that the anger over lift lines is misplaced. However, something that is perfectly placed is the Silver Queen Gondola lift line. If there’s not a more tempting group of people to spray — all lined up in the corral, conveniently standing at the base of Aspen Mountain — I don’t know it. Well … maybe the Ajax Tavern diners on the other side.
—Sean Beckwith, “Lit Life” & “Writing Switch” columnist
SOLO RIDES & BONNIE’S BREAKFASTS
The first of the few on-mountain blessings this winter is having the gondola all to myself on Aspen Mountain. I can read the newspapers cover to cover, or call my mom without interruption.
Because of my fear of heights, in a normal season I am constantly burdening random people who share the chairlift with me when I tell them the safety bar will be coming down at takeoff. This year, I don’t have to force my phobia onto strangers.
I haven’t run into many lines, but Skico ambassadors and lifties have been good about “reminding” people to wear masks, but not so much on social distancing in the lines.
I’ve had plenty of meals outside on-mountain, but thankfully Brigitte Birrfelder— owner of Bonnie’s Restaurant on Aspen Mountain—has been able to operate at a limited capacity inside. So I’m still savoring those oatmeal pancakes while talking town politics with the usual suspects and regular Breakfast Club members.
I will deal with the lines but please don’t take my pancakes away. It’s the little things that mean so much in these trying times.
—Carolyn Sackariason, city reporter
FINDING A FIRST CHAIR CREW
What I’ve noticed about on-mountain pandemic crowds is that Sundays are like a pre-COVID weekday. Between our few visitors going home and locals using the Weekday Pass, the Sunday crowd seems only to be those who paid for the weekend and the kids from the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC).
And this season, I’ve changed my tune on skiing with a crew. Dropping my Groucho Marx-inspired stance of “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” I’ve found a group with two redeeming qualities: they’re all older than me and all faster and better than me.
I’m nearly 50 days into my snowboarding season, and all but one have started in the first-chair crowd at Snowmass. This is my third full season living in Snowmass Village, but a lot of the past two seasons have been split almost evenly between here and Aspen Mountain (for first chair before work or lunch laps).
Working at home, I spend more weekday mornings with a coffee in-hand lined up at the Village Express. It has afforded me a few conversations as we idled away the time.
After about a month of saying “good morning” at 8 a.m. to a rotating group of a dozen or so folks, I felt welcomed into group and started sharing runs. The freshly groomed runs and sparse morning crowds have allowed me to work on my technique, and being around people who are better at something is a great motivator to improve.
—David Krause, Aspen Times editor
YOUR PANDA PEAK CORRESPONDENT
The pre-school and kindergarten crowd has endured much disruption and adapted to many new rules and restrictions since the onset of the pandemic. But they (and their parents) got a treat at the opening of ski season 2020, as Skico opened the bunny hill on Panda Peak on Thanksgiving weekend – more than three weeks early and before the rest of Buttermilk – giving beginners a place to themselves and giving local families a place to see one another safely.
For those of us with young kids underfoot, it was a welcome blessing. An all-weather picnic scene sprang up, too, with has continued through the season – any weekend day, you’ll find at least a few distanced families sitting on sleds, slurping thermos soup and opening brown-bag lunches downhill from the Panda Peak lift (where Home Team BBQ is fenced off from mountain access).
AVSC also moved the youngest kids ski schools to weekdays, which meant a lot of us had to drop out. But at the same time, Skico dropped prices for half-day group lessons, so we’ve been able to put school classmates together for their own pod’s sessions on Buttermilk.
—Andrew Travers, Aspen Times Weekly editor
THE PASS-LESS UPHILLER
An obscure baseball player by the name of Willie Keeler is credited with coming up with the phrase, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
I’ve adopted his philosophy on the slopes this winter. Once Skico raised the prospect in November of implementing a reservation system, I cashed in my pass. (Reservations haven’t been implemented.)
Instead, I’ve been skinning, cross-country skiing and exploring ungroomed, low-angle routes as often as possible. The ungroomed routes have been the highlight. Some friends showed me a route on the outskirts of Snowmass Ski Area that have felt like a private playground (thus, no specific disclosure).
The explosion in popularity of alpine touring since the pandemic hit has been well-documented. It was already popular in Aspen. My golden rule is to be hiking prior to 10 a.m. and preferably before the lifts start at 9 a.m. Skinning is what you make of it — casual or hard-charging, solitary or an opportunity to chat with new friends encountered on the slopes. My route of choice this season has been up Tiehack, down West Buttermilk, up West Buttermilk and down Tiehack. Nice workout and there’s definitely fewer concerns about dodging alpine skiers, like kids in the trees as approaching the summit of West Buttermilk lift from Tiehack.
While most of my cross-country outings have been sidecountry traverses, I also visited Aspen Golf Course early in the season (always convenient), Spring Gulch (always a treat), Ashcroft (always a slice of heaven) and Grand Mesa (always very unique). After turning in my ski area pass, I purchased a five-punch pass at Ashcroft. Now that winter has appears to have actually arrived, I plan on visiting there more frequently.
From what I’ve witnessed at the Spring Gulch, Ashcroft and Grand Mesa, interest in cross-country skiing has soared this winter. Fortunately there’s enough terrain at each of them that it doesn’t feel crowded away from the trailheads, at least not yet.
—Scott Condon, ski industry, environment and midvalley reporter
When Aspen scored its first bona fide powder day of the season last week, I was in a line for the gondola that snaked all the way around the block.
On my first Aspen powder day since moving here from Tahoe last year, I found the stoke was high and the line moved fast — though most interpreted the 6-foot distancing rule as more of a gentle suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule — and I was at the front in about 55 minutes.
This was the one of only a few times all season that I’ve waited in a line for more than five minutes. Barring a few busier days after a fresh storm cycle, I’ve come to expect wide open space and few crowds any weekday that I hit the slopes.
Yes, the lines sometimes scrunch up. And yes, sometimes people allow their mask to slip below their nose or forget to pull it back up at the bottom of a run.
But there’s also an immense comfort in the normalcy of skiing during a very weird time. I’d probably have a face covering anyways, and I usually bring snacks and hydration no matter the year.
Skiing has also been my one and only in-person social outlet. I moved to Aspen mid-pandemic — no COVID bubble for me — and for the first time in my life, I don’t have roommates to share my snacks and random thoughts with.
It isn’t an easy adjustment, and I miss being around other people. So when I get desperate for human interaction, I hit the slopes for a few laps with co-workers or go solo and strike up conversations with strangers on the chairlift. The small talk keeps me sane, and the snow keeps me smiling.
—Kaya Williams, Snowmass Sun editor
STAYING SOCIAL (& DISTANCED)
I’m only now getting into the teens for days this winter. Usually gung-ho about reaching the century mark — even though I’ve never actually gotten there — finding motivation between the pandemic and our worrisome lack of snow hasn’t been easy.
I still like sneaking up Shadow Mountain for some quiet, often solo, afternoon laps. Although, riding with friends is way more of a joy these days, as it’s one of the few places we can actually socialize in-person together without breaking any of those exhausting virus safety rules. Like so many, I’ve spent more time these past months thinking about mental health than ever before, and it’s amazing what a few laps with friends can do. I’ll take that over an apple a day any day. And, thankfully, it seems Mother Nature has gotten her act together, which is reason to believe the next few months will finally bring the bright light to the end of this long, dark tunnel we’ve all been in.
—Austin Colbert, sports editor
The most comprehensive source we’ve found on the COVID ski season around the world is from Aspen’s own Christian Knapp, co-host of the monthly podcast series “Resort Riding in COVID Times,” on the feed of “The Snowboard Project.” Since September, Knapp – the former Aspen Skiing Co. chief marketing officer – has reported on the ups and downs and weirdness here in the Mountain West and far beyond, interviewing operators in New Zealand, Asia and Europe without ski company spin or rose-colored glasses. A big takeaway from these must-listen dispatches: no two ski towns have tackled it the same.
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With so much uncertainty still around travel, events, celebrations and plans in general, spontaneity has taken on a whole new meaning.