Smooth start to Snowmass ski season a day early with 86 acres of skiable terrain

Springlike temperatures and little crowding at Snowmass for a one-day-early debut


Social distancing at its finest: A single skier rides the Village Express chairlift on opening day at Snowmass on Nov. 25.

Bluebird skies, spring-like temperatures and a few inches of snow from Monday night’s storm helped Snowmass skiers and snowboarders cruise into the season Wednesday for opening day.

Low snowfall and warm temperatures in recent weeks made for limited terrain on Wednesday — only about 86 of the resort’s 3,100-plus skiable acres were accessible for the first day on the slopes.

Pete Smith, a longtime ski patroller at Snowmass, said Wednesday’s debut was a “very, very smooth and easy opening.”

“The lifts are running and the skiing is good,” Smith said.

Aspen Skiing Co. announced last week that they would open both Snowmass and Aspen Mountain one day before the originally scheduled Thanksgiving opener to help mitigate crowding at the resorts.

(Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk will open with limited terrain on Thanksgiving to mitigate crowding; Highlands will be a one-day-only affair and Buttermilk will remain open through Sunday before the resorts officially open for the season in December.)

The Village Express was the only lift offering top-to-bottom skiing and provided access to most open terrain at the resort. Though the lift has run only to its mid-station in years past, snowmaking and some natural snow accumulation allowed the Village Express to carry riders to the top of the lift, which unloads at the Italian restaurant Sam’s.

Skiers and riders could also take the Elk Camp Gondola to the Elk Camp Meadows beginner area, where the Meadows chairlift and magic carpet were operating. Due to early-season snow coverage, skiers and riders were required to download on the Elk Camp Gondola.

For the most part, the strategy seemed to work: despite limited terrain, Snowmass was hardly crowded as eager beavers scored their first turns of the season. Wait times were brief for the Village Express chairlift throughout the first half of the day; the line rarely extended beyond the inner “maze” set up between the gates and the loading area, and there were still some empty chairs going up the lift until mid-morning.

At the Elk Camp Gondola, most riders saw no lines at all; the Sky Cab Gondola, connecting Base Village to the Snowmass Mall, was likewise quiet with little wait time throughout the morning.

There were, however, longer waits to access the ticket office and retrieve lift tickets and season passes.

Skico introduced new contactless kiosks to reduce the strain on ticketing services this year, but some of those kiosks saw little use on Wednesday. Although users could successfully scan a QR code on their phone to retrieve tickets from the stations, a “glitch” affected the activation of some day tickets, said Jerry Gillepsie, a resort ambassador who provides information to guests.

Wednesday was Gillepsie’s first day back in his ambassador job; he has spent 17 years working at the resort, where one of his aims is “trying to keep everybody happy.”

Despite the tweaks in operations this year to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, “I don’t think anything’s changed,” Gillespie said. “It’s been great.”

Physical distancing measures, frequent sanitization efforts and mandatory mask zones aim to mitigate the spread of the virus and allow the resorts to ‘get open and stay open’ for the season.

And on opening day, most resort guests and employees didn’t need much of a reminder to comply with measures to keep guests safe and ensure access to the outdoor playground that is Snowmass.

“People are being really pleasant and mellow about restrictions,” Smith said.

For those skiing opening day this year, even a masked and distanced experience was worth the return to the slopes and much-needed respite from a long and unusual year.

“It’s great to be here,” said Oakleigh Ryan, who came to Snowmass from Janesville, Wisc., with a small “pod” of family and friends after getting tested for COVID-19.

“We are thrilled to be able to be here,” Ryan said. “It’s a bit of normalcy in a crazy time.”