Skiing during a pandemic: Is this the worst year of skiing — or the best?

Long lines formed at Breckenridge’s Beaver Run base area at mid-morning on Monday, Dec. 28. The holiday season is typically the busiest time of the year for ski resorts but Breckenridge is operating at “significantly reduced” capacity due to pandemic restrictions, according to a Vail Resorts official. Lift lines tend to be worst at base areas, with less crowding at lifts higher on the mountains. (Provided by Paul Chodowski)

Paul Chodowski is having a season on the slopes most skiers would envy. The retired Breckenridge resident figures he’s gotten in more than 20 days at Summit County’s four resorts. He’s had no trouble getting reservations to ski when he wants, and he hasn’t had problems with lift lines.

He skis like a local, though, one who can come and go from the resorts as he pleases because he lives nearby and has Epic, Ikon and Arapahoe Basin season passes. He’ll go for a few runs early in the morning before lift lines get long, then leave to avoid crowding during peak hours, but he’ll often go back for a few runs in the afternoon when there are fewer folks on the mountain.

When he finished his morning session at Breckenridge this past Monday at 10:15 a.m., in what is always one of the busiest weeks of the season for resorts, there was a massive lift line at the Beaver Run base area that he was more than happy to avoid. He went back in the afternoon and had a great time.

All things considered in a year when the pandemic forced resorts to rewrite operational plans and reservation system complications infuriated many skiers and riders, Chodowski is grateful.

“I think almost all skiers and riders have really enjoyed the ability to get back out into nature to ski and to ride,” Chodowski said. “Everyone’s in a decent mood. And even with the restrictions — like you have to eat outside, you can only go into a warming hut at Vista Haus on Peak 8 for like 15 minutes — I think we’re all willing to put up with any inconveniences that might exist in order to continue our love of skiing.”

Perhaps this season will be remembered as a winter of discontent when skiing became harder than ever. Or maybe we will look back and see the reduced numbers resulting from pandemic restrictions actually made the experience more pleasant by alleviating congestion on trails. It’s too soon to say.

But people are having fun, and they’re grateful for it.

“I think people are just excited to be back, have a little sense of normalcy, and be out enjoying sports, getting together with their families,” said Steamboat Springs resident Cathy Wiedemer, who has a season pass and skis two or three hours at a time during off-peak hours. “The employees are all super friendly, and you hear a lot more thank you’s from guests when they’re in the lift mazes and loading on chairs. Everyone is spread out now, too. The mountain has done a great job of getting things open, and people seem to be having a good time. It seems totally fine to me.”

There have been glitches. After the Epic Pass call center was overwhelmed by pass holders having trouble with the reservations system and other issues, Vail Resorts chief executive Rob Katz issued an apology.

“Despite doubling our staffing and introducing new online chat functionality and other features, our infrastructure was ultimately not designed to handle the volume,” he wrote. “It is a huge miss on our part, especially for a company that tries to be an out-front leader within our industry. This is certainly not the fault of our call center agents, who have tried their best to provide great service under difficult circumstances. It is my fault for not ensuring we were better prepared.”

Face shields and hand sanitizer greet skiers and riders at Keystone Resort on Nov. 6, 2020. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Winter Park managers initially planned to go without a reservations system but shifted course in mid-December.

“After operating for two weeks without reservations and making multiple adjustments to optimize operations, we evaluated our anticipated future visitation and looked at our available terrain,” Winter Park spokeswoman Jen Miller said via email. “We felt it was in the best interest of our staff and guests to implement the reservation system. We are still learning and optimizing, but what we’re seeing and hearing from guests is that the reservation system is working as it should. We’ve received positive feedback from guests that their experience is better and more enjoyable.”

Steamboat Resort, which like Winter Park is owned by Denver-based Alterra Mountain Co., tested a system for gondola access which allowed guests to get in line virtually and receive alerts telling them when to show up for their ride on the main lift out of the base area. Steamboat spokeswoman Loryn Duke declined to discuss how the experiment went.

“We’re still in trial mode and not ready to really chat about this in the media,” Duke said. “We want to work out the kinks and have more answers before we go fully public.”

Long lift lines are always an issue in the holiday season, the busiest two weeks of the winter. Miller said lines at Winter Park have been “typical” for early season conditions (meaning limited terrain) in the holiday period.

“We’ve set up our lift corrals with ghost lines in between lanes and have either painted markers on the snow or set bamboo stakes to show six feet of distance,” Miller said. “Lift lines are constantly moving, so it’s harder to maintain exactly six feet at all times, but all lift lines are outside and we require everyone to wear masks unless they are actively skiing or riding. And skis are approximately six feet long, making them inherently good markers for social distancing.”

A skier adjusts their helmet while riding the River Run Gondola at Keystone Resort on Nov. 6, 2020. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Bill Rock, chief operating officer for Vail Resorts holdings in the Rocky Mountain region, said all of its Colorado resorts are operating at “significantly reduced capacities” due to the pandemic.

“Because of our safe lift-loading policies — where we leave at least one open seat between unrelated parties —  there are times when lines are longer, especially during peak loading times,” Rock said. “It’s also important to note that sometimes lines look longer than they are because of physical distancing. We are continuing to make micro-adjustments to help alleviate wait times, and we’re also using social media to remind people of other lift options in base areas and to avoid peak loading times. Our reservation system has definitely helped, providing us with exactly how many guests to expect on each of our mountains on any given day.”

Vail resident Brenda Buglione said she feels safe, adding that there are Vail Resorts staffers in every lift line, reminding people about their masks.

“And if two people don’t want to match up with another two people, sometimes they say no, so we’re not riding the lifts at full capacity,” Buglione said. “So that’s made the lines a little longer. But oh my God, it’s so worth being out there. It makes you so happy. You’re skiing. We have to be grateful for just being out there and just be patient with the situation.”

Copper Mountain is requiring parking reservations as a means of limiting the number of skiers. Chodowski skied there last Sunday, arriving when the Super Bee chair in the East Village was about to open for the day.

“There was a small crowd, maybe 30 people,” Chodowski said. “We got like fifth chair. It was fantastic because they reported one inch (of fresh snow), but there was actually four inches. We skied there until about 11:30, and then we were off the mountain. Didn’t encounter any problems with lines.”

A reminder to stay socially distant in the lift lines on the Montezuma lift at Keystone Resort on Nov. 6, 2020. The mountain is open to reservations only due to the pandemic. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Chodowski, Buglione and Breckenridge resident Doug Briggs said they’ve had no trouble getting reservations when they wanted to ski, even day-of reservations because people have been good about canceling reservations they decided not to use. Briggs said he has logged “well over 20 days” at Breck, avoiding weekends.

“I deliberately go early so I don’t have to deal with people on the mountain, but it’s more from a ‘Don’t want to wait in line’ scenario than ‘I don’t trust them to be COVID-free,’ ” Briggs said. “If I’m riding single, I’ll go up with somebody on a six-pack (chair) or four-pack, if there is only one other person. But in general, I will try and not ride with other people if I don’t have to. I’m 63. I consider that I’m a higher risk, so I’m going to reduce my risk as much as possible.”

Briggs said Breckenridge personnel seem more pleasant than usual.

“I think they realize their jobs are much more tenuous than they would be in a normal year, and they’ve got to stay on the plus side, not let it get negative,” Briggs said. “Usually around Christmas, the employees who have been there for a month are getting a bit more grouchy, or less smiley, but the staff have been really upbeat, which is good. It really helps with people in line to see employees being upbeat.”

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