Snowmass ski season preview: Stay flexible, stay safe
Adaptable mindset, advance planning key to a successful season
It has been a long nine months since the lifts stopped spinning at Snowmass in March. And with several new inches of snow on the mountain just before the season begins Wednesday, there’s a palpable excitement in the air.
But the winter season at Snowmass will inevitably look different this year due to COVID-19 restrictions: face masks, socially-distanced lift lines and an emphasis on outdoor dining are all part of the new normal on the mountain.
An adaptable mindset — plus a bit of advance planning — will be the key to a successful season, said Tucker Vest Burton, a spokesperson for Aspen Skiing Co. Following COVID-19 safety guidelines and anticipating changes will help to protect the mountain experience and allow the resorts to “get open and stay open” for the season.
“As we’re going into winter, we’re staying inside more, there’s going to be less opportunity (to socialize safely),” Vest Burton said. “The fact that we get to ski and hopefully kind of feel that community togetherness on-mountain, even though you might be waving at someone from a distance, I’m excited about that, because we haven’t had that in a while.”
According to Vest Burton, Skico is working closely with county health officials to ensure that the resorts follow all local health and safety guidance. The goal is to get open and stay open while “keep(ing) our neighbors and ourselves safe,” Vest Burton said.
Monday’s storm delivered nearly half a foot of fresh snow to the slopes at Snowmass — the first sign that winter has returned after a recent warm-and-dry weather pattern. But don’t expect to find early-season powder stashes just yet: only 86 acres of the 3,100 skiable acres at Snowmass will be open on Wednesday, covered mostly in man-made snow.
The Village Express is the only six-pack chair running Wednesday. Trail access includes Max Park, Fanny Hill, Lunch Line, Upper Scooper and Lower Hal’s.
The Sky Cab Gondola (also known as the “Skittles”) will connect between Base Village and the Snowmass Mall.
The Elk Camp Gondola will provide access to the Elk Camp Meadows beginner learning area, where the Elk Camp Meadows chairlift will operate. Skiers and riders must download on the gondola; there will be no on-snow return route to the base of the mountain.
Due to limited terrain and early-season preparations, there will be no uphill traffic allowed during operating hours (between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.) through Sunday, Nov. 29.
MASKS ON: COVID-19 SAFETY ON THE SLOPES
The fundamentals of skiing and snowboarding — pointing the tips downhill and exploring the mountain — won’t be affected much by COVID-19 restrictions. (Staying at least six feet away from other skiers and riders while barreling down a run is good practice in any year, not just 2020).
But mask mandates and social distancing at the resort will undoubtedly impact the experience of getting up the mountain and staying fueled throughout the day.
“We have a lot of restrictions that we’re trying to abide by,” said Susan Cross, mountain manager at Snowmass. “We need everybody to work with us to make it successful all work together”
Face coverings are required at all times on the mountain when social distancing is not possible: waiting in lift lines, loading and unloading on chairlifts and gondolas and gathering at the entrance to terrain parks will all be mask-mandated moments on the mountain. Face coverings will also be required in all indoor areas, except when actively eating or drinking, and in any outdoor area where guests cannot practice social distancing.
“That’s not negotiable — you have to have a face covering on,” Cross said. The resort can deny lift access and entry to indoor spaces to guests who refuse to mask up until they comply.
There will also be new signage throughout the resort to ensure that people keep their distance and wear masks. Many positions at the resort are incorporating COVID-19 safety and enforcement into their existing roles; Skico has also created a new “Doorman” role this year, designed to monitor restaurant capacity, mitigate crowding and ensure mask-wearing compliance for guests.
Off the slopes, a mask ordinance extension approved by Town Council in early November establishes a mandatory face covering zone, indoors and outdoors, in all three commercial hubs of the town — Snowmass Mall, Snowmass Center and Base Village. That mandate applies to any person over the age of 2; violators may be subject to fines from the town.
Signage and spacing in lift lines will also help enforce social distancing while waiting for the chair — but keep in mind that lines may appear longer than they usually are because guests must wait at least six feet apart from the next group.
Social distancing on the lift will likely look different depending on the capacity of the chair. On a six-person chair like the Village Express, passengers will be spaced as follows: one group of three or more riders, two groups of two riders (sitting on either end of the chair), or three individuals (one on either end of the chair, and another in the middle), Cross said.
“If you arrive together, you can ride together,” Cross said. “You can’t just start making friends to put six people on the lift.”
Skico will do their best to accommodate individuals and small groups who aren’t comfortable riding with others on the same chair.
“But we’re hoping that we don’t have a lot of people that want to ride alone on a six-pack — that obviously makes the line a lot longer,” Cross said. She recently tested the strategy with one other rider on a six-person chairlift.
“There’s a lot of space … if you sit on the outside edges,” Cross said.
HUNGRY YET? PLAN AHEAD FOR LIMITED DINING OPTIONS
Indoor dining space will be limited across the mountain this season; warming up at a table in one of Snowmass’ on-mountain restaurants after a few chilly runs won’t always be an option as it has in years past. And ski patrol headquarters, which in previous years have served as warming huts, will be closed to the public this year.
For opening weekend, Elk Camp Restaurant and Ullrhof will be the only on-mountain dining options available, offering offer grab-and-go food to eat outside; Sam’s will be available for brief warm-ups and use of the facilities, but food service is currently on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Other establishments, such as the Lynn Britt Cabin and High Alpine, are slated to open in December, but openings and closures are subject to change throughout the season.
Skico will place more picnic tables at locations throughout the mountain, and several locations will include expanded outdoor eating space on decks and patios. To help mitigate crowding, guests can also pre-order food at some locations using the updated Aspen Snowmass mobile app.
Consider packing a lunch from home, or getting a bite at other local restaurants like The Crepe Shack in Base Village, Taster’s Pizza in Snowmass Center or Fuel Cafe in the Snowmass Mall, all of which will be open on Wednesday.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING HOME: PARKING AND TRANSPORTATION
As in previous years, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) will provide daily, free bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village; the Snowmass Village Shuttle will also provide service to most hubs within the town. But the jam-packed buses of yore won’t be the norm during peak travel times this year.
In an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, both services will limit ridership to roughly half the seated capacity; there won’t be any “just one more” squeezes this season, so be prepared to wait for a second, emptier bus on busy days.
“Even though we might want to provide more backup, we don’t have an infinite number of buses available — or bus operators,” said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.
Another word of advice from Blankenship on taking the bus to the slopes: Dress warm. Most buses are keeping windows down and roof hatches open during the drive, even in chilly temps.
With limited capacities on public transportation and more guests likely to drive to the resort, Snowmass Village officials anticipate that parking lots will fill up quickly this year.
For the quickest transition from the car to the mountain, the town of Snowmass Village will introduce a new “Kiss and Ride” program this year, creating new skier drop-off zones for easy access to the slopes. Drop-off locations will be available at Two Creeks, the Divide Lot, the welcome center at One Snowmass, Daly Lane, Lot 6 and Lot C.
The numbered lots near Snowmass will be open to residents who purchase a permit and visitors who book a stay at select hotel accommodations; the permit system goes into effect on Thanksgiving.
Paid parking will be available at Base Village and the Two Creeks lot, with free parking for any car with four or more passengers at Two Creeks. The permit system previously used at Two Creeks is no longer in effect; spots there will be on a first-come, first served basis. Limited early-season snow coverage also means that guests will need to take the Village Shuttle between Two Creeks and the lifts on opening weekend; that lift isn’t yet open.
Free parking will still be available at the Town Park and Intercept Lots, with the Village Shuttle providing access to the lifts — but, again, limited vehicle capacity may mean longer wait times between parking and getting to the lifts.
As with nearly every other experience this ski season, transportation to and from the mountain will require a bit of patience and flexibility.
“Be patient with us,” Blankenship said. “We do have some limitations that have been caused by COVID-19.”
Kaya Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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