Surreal Sunday: Aspen Skiing Co. staff, mountain visitors react to ski area closures

Maddie Vincent and David Krause
The Aspen Times

Just before 9 a.m. Sunday morning at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, few people gathered to start their day on the Aspen Mountain slopes.

One or two were playing with their dogs. A few more were skinning up the Little Nell run. None were in line to get on the gondola, which wasn’t running after Gov. Jared Polis ordered the state’s downhill ski areas to close Saturday evening.

“The governor decided he didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to continue to operate,” Mike Kaplan, Aspen Skiing Co. president and CEO, said Sunday morning. “We received final confirmation at 6:32 p.m. last night.”

Kaplan stood with a small group of Skico staff at the top of the stairs to the Silver Queen Gondola, talking with people who may have questions about the closure and how long it would be in place.

The executive order issued by Gov. Polis directed Colorado ski resorts to close for one week “due to the presence of (COVID-19) in mountain communities with limited care capacity.”

“The challenges posed by COVID-19 are unique and place significant burdens on hospitals and medical personnel,” the order states. “We are aware of the great cost that mountain communities face if our downhill ski resorts close, even temporarily… But in the face of this pandemic emergency we cannot hesitate to protect public health and safety.”

A statement issued Saturday night said Polis would monitor the course of the COVID-19 outbreak statewide and may amend his executive order accordingly.

Until then, Kaplan said Sunday that Skico is working to stay nimble and adaptive to the ever-changing situation, and urged locals and visitors to be fluid and thoughtful as well.

“We are staying in regular contact with the state and our local officials about the potential for reopening and when that can occur,” Kaplan said.

“I keep telling people this is a fluid situation, and it really is. … We want to make sure our emergency responders and health care system can deal with the sick, so if you do uphill and ski on the mountains, take it easy. Keep cool and be thoughtful.”

Sunday morning at #snowmass on the first day of the ski resort shutdown by order of the governor’s office. For more go to

Posted by The Aspen Times on Sunday, March 15, 2020

But as uphillers climbed Little Nell on Sunday morning beneath stationary gondola cars and Skico officials talked with people outside of the closed resort, Marcia Griffin, an Australian woman who is on her 39th visit to Aspen, questioned if the state’s decision to close its ski areas will do more harm than good.

“When I was skiing yesterday, I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is the healthiest, best place in the world I could be right now,’” Griffin said. “I think leaders need to act out of logic, not panic, and feel the anxiety and stress this will cause may be just as dangerous as the virus.”

At Snowmass, there was a similar scene of stalled lifts and uphill ascents on skis. But David and Therese Akers, a couple from Oklahoma who have been visiting Snowmass for over 30 years, showed up to the Village Express lift unknowing of the ski area closure.

“We wondered where everybody was and wondered why the lifts weren’t going and then when we got down here the fellas over there informed us (of the closure),” David said.

The Akers said they’d flown into Aspen from Denver on a plane with about 16 people Saturday night, arrived in Snowmass Village, went to dinner and interacted with several people at their lodge before skiing down Fanny Hill to the lift Sunday morning, but no one mentioned the governor’s order.

David Akers said he knew the couple was “rolling the dice” by coming to Snowmass, but decided that because not many people are self-isolating in Tulsa, they’d have about the same chance of getting COVID-19 at home as in the village.

“This is a very strange moment in history we’re going through. I’m not among one of those people who is critical of people who have responsibility of making these decisions because no one has ever dealt with this before,” David said.

“People are trying to balance a lot of competing factors and the economic factors could cause a tremendous amount of destruction for a lot of ordinary people…I don’t know what the balance point is.”

Rich Burkley, Skico’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, said the company is working with state and county officials to find this balance point, too. He was walking around the Snowmass Base Village on Sunday talking with visitors and employees.

Burkley said Skico pushed to keep Aspen-Snowmass open Sunday, but that Polis felt if the four mountains were the only ones open in the state it would create a humanitarian issue of large amounts of people coming to the Aspen area.

“We certainly don’t know what the answer is holistically, this could be an overreaction on one end or it could be the right thing to do, so we’re completely neutral there,” Burkley said of the ski area closure.

“I think given the way the dominos were falling in the world we were ready for it, but we thought we could buck the trend. …Once the Vail domino toppled we knew it was probably pretty challenging. We really pushed for one more day so we could do more of an orderly transition, but that didn’t happen.”

Burkley said Saturday was one of the most surreal of his Skico career.

“It was crazy. In fact I don’t think I can say there’s been a day in my career of 30 years that was quite as surreal as yesterday was,” Burkley said.

This surreal feeling was evident at the Four Mountain Sports in Aspen, too, as people went in Sunday morning to return their ski gear and seek reimbursement for the coming days they would not be able to ski or snowboard.

Tony Drives, a Four Mountain Sports store manager, said the Skico rental and retail shop would work to get as many of its rental gear back as possible over the coming days, but that his understanding was staffing would be limited and no other sales would take place.

When asked what the culture and attitude among the store’s customers and employees had been like, Drives said customers seemed a little irritated and freaked out, but that employees seemed in relatively good spirits after a company email stated Skico would work to support its laid off employees moving forward.

“We’ve been telling people that we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen but that we’re here to help as much as we can,” Drives said.

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