At Wolf Creek Ski Area in southern Colorado, with plenty of snow still clinging to the mountain, they were hoping to roll out what skiing looks like in the pandemic age.
Limited tickets, social distancing in the parking lots and on the lifts, in the restrooms and on the mountain — they were all part of a plan endorsed by local public health officials in this remote part of Colorado.
“This was going to be like a trial performance, just having a very limited number of skiers, just to see how responsible everybody individually was, as well as the ski area itself,” said Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales at the small, locally-owned ski area.
Instead, Colorado’s ski industry will have to wait to learn how to operate in the era of COVID-19 after Gov. Jared Polis extended a ban on downhill skiing put in place in March. With warm weather and melting snow, the three-week extension — until May 23 — effectively ended the hopes of several ski areas to reopen this spring. Now, only one is holding out hope to reopen before the fall.
“Mountain communities, where many of Colorado’s premier ski areas are located, have been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 outbreak in the State,” Polis wrote in Thursday’s order. “Medical centers in these areas have limited ability to meet the needs of individuals with COVID-19. Further strain on their resources creates a risk that medical personnel in the area will be unable to provide needed care to residents and visitors to our mountain communities.”
“We’re disappointed,” said Haidorfer-Pitcher. “I think we have a good understanding of all the COVID guidelines and what we need to put in place so all our employees and guests feel safe.”
The ski area hoped to reopen this weekend with limited ticket sales — 120 a day, purchased in advance on its website. Season pass holders would have been limited to 500 skiers per day, also reserved in advance. That would be about one-tenth of the mountain’s daily lift capacity, on 1,600 acres, with only one person or one family per chair. Cars would be parked away from each other. No shuttle buses would run. There would be no food or beverage service. Face masks would be mandatory, as would social distancing at the lifts and everywhere else at the ski area.
The Silver Thread Health Department and Mineral County Commissioners approved the plan to let Wolf Creek operate May 1 to May 10.
However, to reopen, the ski area needed the state to waive the order that people not travel more than 10 miles for recreation. The ski area has no base area lodging and the nearest towns, Pagosa Springs to the west and South Fork to the east, are both more than 10 miles away.
Haidorfer-Pitcher said Wolf Creek would have lost money by reopening, but wanted to reopen not only to practice for next season but to provide a shot of hope for local residents who have seen their tourism-based economy crumble.
“At least it could have provided some health benefits to the local community, and I think that’s really important right now because a lot of people are depressed about the situation. There’s never anything very hopeful in these news these days, so getting out on the mountain, we were excited to be doing that for a limited amount of skiers.”
Wolf Creek was not the only ski area to see reopening plans quashed. Aspen Highlands was also forced to abandon the idea.
“With the extension of the ski area closures by Governor Polis and the recent warm weather, we will move on from our plans to potentially reopen Aspen Highlands and concentrate on summer operations and construction projects,” wrote Jeff Hanle, spokesman for Aspen Skiing Co., in an email Friday.
“We are disappointed that as America’s greatest ski state we were not able to figure out a way to get skiing reopened with this latest phase of new openings, and are saddened that Aspen Skiing Company will not be able to provide our community with lift-served recreational opportunities this month.”
The other ski area hoping to reopen this spring is Arapahoe Basin in Summit County. Like Wolf Creek and Aspen Highlands, it is located above 10,000 feet, and the ski area often has skiing into June and even July.
Despite the three-week extension of the skiing ban, ski area communications manager Katherine Fuller said there is still hope for some spring turns.
“The governor’s most recent order extending the ski area closure to May 23 does not change anything for Arapahoe Basin. We will continue our efforts to open as soon as it makes sense for our community. Because our season is scheduled to last until June 7, at least, we believe we still have time,” she wrote in an email Friday.
Polis himself seemed to fan such hopes at a virtual press conference Friday, not ruling out Memorial Day weekend skiing. Any ski area would have to implement safety protocols and have the blessing of local health authorities.
“It’s not so much the exposure on the slopes. That’s a real thing, but if you keep related parties to a chairlift, that can be minimized. It’s really about whether our communities that are hosts to the ski area are really ready to receive visitor and tourism,” Polis said.
But for Wolf Creek, Memorial Day would be far too late. Snowpack is 52 percent of average in the Upper Rio Grande Basin and melting fast.
“It won’t be good skiing by then. It if was going to happen it would have to happen in the next 10 days,” said Haidorfer-Pitcher. “We’re ready now and we were going to do it for 10 days if the snow held out.”
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