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Utah’s ski season is ‘gonna be different’ under coronavirus cloud. Here’s what to expect.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Ski lifts are full at Brighton on a previous opening day. Brighton and some other resorts will open later this month, with the remainder opening in early December. Things are going to be a little different in 2020, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

This summer, Nathan Rafferty could barely get a quick “Hi” in before someone would bombard the president and CEO of Ski Utah with the question: Is there going to be a ski season this winter?

To his joy and that of skiers and snowboarders across the state and beyond, the answer is yes. The lifts for all 15 Utah resorts will be running by early December. But Rafferty has had to brace himself for the inevitable follow-up. It’s a query with a much less clear-cut answer.

What will the season look like under the cloud of COVID-19?

“People need to understand — and, I mean, I think they do — there’s nothing you do today that’s the same as what it was pre-March 14th,” Rafferty said while taking a socially distanced interview in a camping chair on a patch of grass outside Ski Utah’s Salt Lake City headquarters. “So it’s gonna be different. It’s also gonna be awesome. But it’s just gonna be different.”

The way Utah resorts have shaped their approach to the 2020-21 season amidst a pandemic is as varied as the snowflakes that they’re hoping fall in abundance this winter. Some now require reservations to ski, others to park and still others to eat. Some will allow only private lessons. Others are giving traditional ski school a green light.

Even those that share a parent company, like Alterra Mountain Compay-owned Solitude and Deer Valley, have slight variations.

The tie binding them all together is that none know exactly what’s going to work. They just know they want to avoid the outbreaks and ensuing early shutdowns they suffered in March. So their managers have done their best to lay out a strong foundation with the realization they may have to adjust their approaches as they get deeper into the season.

With that in mind, here is a glimpse of what skiers and snowboarders can expect heading into this season, from the start of their day to the end of it. (Hint: fewer choices, longer lines and less time and space for lounging). It might also be considered a checklist of tools to have in hand before heading for the hills. A sack lunch, a full tank of gas and an extra helping of patience are good places to start.

“In a lot of ways, it might be a little bit more soulful ski experience,” Rafferty said. “Back to the reason we all started skiing to begin with, which is for the skiing. And a lot of this ancillary stuff maybe takes a backseat for this year.”

Rise and shine!

The wild men and women plunging down the steep chutes of Snowbird’s Cirque Traverse may have, in previous years, been known as some of the most steely-nerved skiers in Utah. This year, that title goes to anyone bold enough to embark for the mountains on a weekend or powder day without a ski pass or e-ticket in hand.

Eleven of Utah’s 15 resorts will impose a cap on how many skiers and snowboarders they allow on their slopes this season. Most plan to maintain those caps by limiting daily ticket sales. So, on a snowy holiday weekend, it’s foreseeable the mountain could sell out even before the sun comes up. Plus, the walk-up window at many resorts has gone the way of the snurfer. In other words, even if tickets are available, they may not be sold at the ski area.

Park City Mountain Resort takes it a step further by requiring everyone, even its Epic Pass holders, to make an online reservation before allowing them on the mountain. Daily reservations can be made up to a week in advance and pass holders get seven rolling reservations good for any time during the season.

“We recognize that most days of the season it will not be necessary to manage the number of people on our mountains, and that our pass holders may view the reservation system as a hassle,” Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, which owns PCMR, said in an open letter in August that unveiled the controversial plan. “However, with this program, we are planning for as many contingencies as possible to strive to give you peace of mind knowing you will have the space you need to physically distance and enjoy your time on the slopes.”

Don’t expect those tickets and passes to come cheap, either. Prices have gone up pretty much across the board and some resorts have said they won’t sell through discount sites like Liftopia this season.

Jared Winkler, a spokesperson for Brighton, said that resort won’t be offering most of the mid-week discounts it’s known for.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone gets the best value,” he said. But, he added, “It’s a premium to be up there, and if people want to be there, they have to pay for it.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Solitue will continue its paid parking system this season in a bid to ease traffic in Big Cottonwood Canyon and limit skiers on the mountain amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Park and ride

Getting to and from the mountain can be the worst part of a ski trip in a typical winter (hello, tail-light tunnel vision). At a time in which people are asked to avoid sharing enclosed spaces with strangers, it’s not going to get any better.

“Pay attention to social media, look at the website, pay attention to the webcams and, honestly, wake up early,” Brighton’s Winkler advised. “You can’t get to the canyon mouth at 9 and think there won’t be traffic.”

Utah Transit Authority buses will continue to run with reduced capacity and a face-covering requirement. Yet, since no alternative transportation plan for the Cottonwood canyons has been adopted, they will also continue to be stuck behind cars. And this year, with fewer people willing to ride share out of fear of catching the coronavirus, more cars may clog the roads than ever.

Last year, Solitude became the first Utah resort to tackle that issue by instituting a paid parking program that encourages carpooling. It isn’t giving up on that this year, despite the pandemic. It will charge $20 for cars with two or fewer people, $10 for those with three people and $5 for those with four or more.

Adding to the headache, many ski areas also plan to limit their parking. They see it as another tool for keeping guests to a manageable number. Among the resorts expecting to park cars more loosely in their lots are Alta, Brighton, Nordic Valley and Sundance.

Snowbird is actually instituting a reservation system and guests not taking the bus or staying at its lodges will have to claim a parking spot online or via a new app. General manager Dave Fields said that same app will alert people when the lot is nearly full, so they can avoid a fruitless trip up the canyon.

A few other resorts have similar apps in development. Others are also working with the UTA to install signs at the base of the Cottonwood canyons that will have updates on resorts' parking situations.

“If you empower people with information,” Fields said, “they can make choices instead of coming up here and finding out we’re full. That’s something we want to avoid.”

Learning process

The first order of business for those lucky enough to make it up the mountain and into a lot may be to stuff the kids in a ski school and hit the slopes.

Or not.

First, (this is going to be a common theme) most resorts require reservations for their ski and ride schools. Second, shredders age 6 or younger probably will have to take a private lesson. This is due to the difficulties the little ones have getting on and off the lifts on their own.

Third, lessons can no longer be considered an all-day or even half-day solution for skiing parents. The private and semi-private lessons being offered tend to run shorter. Plus, most ski schools are meeting outdoors, and the kiddos no doubt will be ready for a hot cup of cocoa after a couple of hours. That means mom or dad will need to be on hand to unlock the car and turn on the heater (more on that later). And when they’re done with their snack, there will be no place to take the kids but home.

Another stop before the lifts is often the rental shop. Just five resorts — Alta, Beaver Mountain, Cherry Peak, PCMR and Woodward Park City — are allowing rentals without reservations. The others will have guests fill out their paperwork online and secure a pick-up time to reduce contact between staff and skiers.

Once they arrive, customers will no doubt notice Plexiglass barriers separating staff and customers, both of which will be required to wear masks (they are mandatory throughout every resort except when on the slopes). Snowbird has gone as far as to change the way guests try on boots. They will stand instead of sit to reduce touch points.

Additionally, electrostatic sprayers will be used to sanitize gear at most resorts once it is returned.

{Leah Hogsten, The Salt Lake Tribune) | Expect longer lines on lifts like Snowbasin's John Paul Express Quad as resorts limit the number of people on chairs and trams due to COVID-19.

Lift me up

Finally, the time will come for skiers and riders to step on the snow, strap their planks to their feet and get on the lift that will take them away from all their COVID-19 concerns.

Rather, it will be time to line up, and wait.

This is where people will want to dig into that extra helping of patience they hopefully stuffed inside their jackets, because lift lines are going to be longer this year. Period. Even Dustin Hansen, the owner and general manager of Cherry Peak, a small resort near Logan that rarely sees lift lines, predicts some lag.

“With the amount of traffic resorts are going to see this winter and with COVID protocols, there will be some lines that people will have to deal with,” he said. “Plus [there’s] the spacing, so it’s going to look longer.”

Utah’s resorts are by and large all following the same blueprint when it comes to lifts. Each lift line will have empty “ghost lines” on either side of it to maintain side-to-side social distancing. Visitors' skis and boards will provide front-to-back spacing. At every resort, skiers and riders will be required to wear masks or doubled-up gaiters in lift lines.

Those riding together can go up the lift with their group, provided they’re in the chute together. Singles lines will mostly be a casualty. Yet anyone wanting to ride up alone can do so on a double or triple chair lift and will be placed at the opposite end of the chair from another single on a quad or a six-pack lift.

“There’s no way of trying to maximize the capacity of our lifts,” said Brandon Sessler, general manager of Nordic Valley, which installed a new high-speed six-pack lift this season that will open an extra 50 acres of intermediate and advanced terrain.

The same general rules apply to gondolas and small trams. Snowbird’s famous tram, which usually carries about 100 people per car, will be reduced to 25. All passengers on the tram will have to wear masks — neck gaiters will not suffice.

“We think most people will opt to not wait for it and they’ll go see the chairs,” Fields said. “You can get everywhere on high-speed chairs that the tram takes you.”

Fast food

A few runs on what should be less-crowded slopes may wash away the stress of the morning’s hassles. At some point, though, skiers will have to come back down to the base to answer the growl of their stomachs or one of Mother Nature’s more urgent calls.

“I think that’s where people will see the most change in a ski area,” Rafferty said. “If your plan is to go up and ski for a few hours and you only pop in to go to the restroom, you know, you’ll wear a mask at the bottom, but other than that I think the skiing is going to be remarkably similar [to previous years].”

But, he added, where dining is concerned, “every resort is going to have different individual protocols and it’s going to vary by county, too.”

Generally, skiers and riders can expect more grab-and-go food options, like pre-packed sandwiches or chili in bread bowls. More outdoor seating will be available with patio heaters and fire pits to huddle around. At Powder Mountain, Brighton, Cherry Peak, Beaver Mountain and Woodward PC, guests will be able to place their orders online or on their phones via QR codes (many resorts won’t take cash for payment). Meanwhile, food trucks will be a common site at Sundance, Beaver Mountain and Alta.

And, in a boon to the cash-strapped skier, most resorts plan to turn a blind eye to those who want to bring food from home.

But the midday break is as much about loosening the boots and getting warm as it is about filling the belly, especially on the most blustery days. And that’s going to be an issue.

Less room will be available for skiers in lodges and restaurants with tables spread farther apart and capacities being regulated in an effort to comply with state, county and local coronavirus restrictions. Some will open conference spaces for additional seating. On the other end of the spectrum, Eagle Point near Beaver won’t create any extra seating space but will provide increasingly more ubiquitous grab-and-go options.

Others, such as Snowbasin, Brian Head Resort and Powder Mountain plan to enforce strict time limits on guests. Deer Valley will require reservations in most restaurants. In its Argenta Pub and Moonbeam Lodge, Solitude replaced tables and chairs with standing-only cocktail tables to encourage people to move along more quickly.

What it boils down to, though, is that resorts are counting on many guests taking their breaks in the confines of their cars.

As Alta put it in a message on its website addressing COVID-19 protocols: “We encourage you to consider using your vehicle as your locker room, shelter, and dining establishment.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) | Inside dining will be limited and may require reservations at Utah ski resorts this season due to COVID-19. Some resorts will host food trucks and all are encouraging skiers to eat in their cars as alternatives.

Closing time

Exhausted skiers and riders will want to save more than a few crumbs of that extra patience for the end of the day.

The apres ski scene has mostly gone underground, with strict limits on entry or reservations (once again) required in most bars. PCMR, for one, won’t open its full-service bars at all this season, though beer and wine will be available. Solitude also plans to repurpose its Library and St. Bernards bars for the time being.

Without that option, or an alternative place to hang out, most guests will be heading home at the same time. The commute will be long and slow. And if they’ve spent a lot of time in their running car throughout the day, it might be done on a near-empty tank of gas. That could lead to more than a few blown gaskets.

To avoid the worst of the hassles, resorts are encouraging people to ski and ride during the week or at off-peak times. If that’s not an option, and the frustrations start stacking up, Rafferty suggests trying to put it all in perspective. Resorts are taking these measures to avoid the outbreaks that caused them to shut down early last March.

“I just only hope people understand that we’re lucky to have skiing at all right now,” he said. “If you don’t get to ski on a powder day or on a Saturday on Martin Luther King weekend, like I said, we’ve got all season to ski. Let’s spread it out. Let’s be smart about the way we do things.”

Tribune staff writer Brian Maffly contributed to this report.

UTAH SKI RESORT INFO


ALTA

Opening date: Nov. 21

Acres/vertical drop: 2,614/ 2,538 feet

Lifts: 6 (2 D, 1 HST, 3 HSQ)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $125

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: Yes

Ski lessons: Private only

Child care: With reservations

COVID-19 precautions: Caps on skier numbers determined by available parking spaces; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; more grab & go food options, food truck at Wildcat parking lot and added space at Alf’s.

Operation details: alta.com/winter-2020-21


BEAVER MOUNTAIN

Opening date: TBD

Acres/vertical drop: 828/1,700 feet

Lifts: 6 (1 D, 3 T, 2 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $50

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: Yes

Ski lessons: Limited size; private only for ages 5-under

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Tents for extra dining space and filling out rental paperwork; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; limited menu in dining, but more food trucks and grab & go options; additional portable restrooms.

New: Added a longer conveyor lift to its beginner hill

Operation details: skithebeav.com/c/mountain/lessons/covid19-lesson-restrictions


BRIAN HEAD RESORT

Opening date: Nov. 20

Acres/vertical drop: 650/1,320 feet

Lifts: 12 (1 D, 6 T, 2 HSQ, 3 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $62

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: Yes, reservations recommended

Ski lessons: Yes

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Caps on skier numbers, first-come, first-served; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; all food will be grab & go, seating will be limited in space and by time (30 minutes). Guests are encouraged to eat in their cars.

Notable: Second year under the ownership of Mountain Capital Partners.

Operation details: brianhead.com/covid-safety/


BRIGHTON

Opening date: TBD

Acres/vertical drop: 1,050/1,875 feet

Lifts: 7 (1 T, 5 HSQ, 1 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $99

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: Semi-private, with reservations

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: No official guest limit, but the resort will use the parking lot capacity to limit crowds; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; food can be ordered through an app or online, bar plan is TBD; ticket discounts will be limited, but season passes will be available all season and include a bus pass.

Notable: Brighton is rolling out two new season pass products, a day pass with holiday blackouts and a twilight pass good from 2 p.m. to close.

Operation details: brightonresort.com/covid-19


CHERRY PEAK

Opening date: TBD

Acres/vertical drop: 200/ 1,265 feet

Lifts: 4 (3 T, 1 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $39

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: Yes

Ski lessons: Yes

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Purchase of lift tickets and food and ski map downloads are available online; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; upper floor of the Grand Lodge will be open for overflow seating and has wifi; possible parking shuttle on busy days.

Operation details: skicherrypeak.com


DEER VALLEY

Opening date: Dec. 5

Acres/vertical drop: 2,026/3,000 feet

Lifts: 21 (2 D, 5 T, 13 HSQ, 1 G)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $189-$229

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: With reservations, ages 6-under private only

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Groups on lifts will be strictly limited; reservations are required inside Snow Park, Silver Lake and Empire Canyon lodges and Royal Street Cafe, where full table service is available; heated tents will be set up outside Snow Park and Silver Lake lodges for grab & go eating; skier caps, as always, will be in effect.

Operation details: deervalley.com/about-us/covid-operations


EAGLE POINT

Opening date: Dec. 18

Acres/vertical drop: 650/1,500 feet

Lifts: 5 (2 D, 1 T, 1 Q, 1 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $48

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: With reservations

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Capping visitors to 1,000/day; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; all purchases are cash-less; starting in January, when it goes to weekend/holiday-only operations, entire resort can be rented out for a base price of $10,000.

Notable: Eagle Point will have new in-village lodging for the first time since 1999.

Operation details: eaglepointresort.com/blog/archive/202010/winter-2020-2021-covid-19-operations-policies


NORDIC VALLEY

Opening date: TBD

Acres/vertical drop: 170/1,000 feet

Lifts: 5 (2 D, 1 T, 1 HS6, 1 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $50

Walk-up tickets available: Yes

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: TBD

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Moving ticketing and food/drink sales online; encouraging guests to eat at fire pits or in their cars; no indoor meeting areas; visitors can self-group in lift lines.

Notable: New 6-person, high-speed lift will open up 50 new acres of advanced and intermediate terrain.

Operation details: nordicvalley.ski


PARK CITY MOUNTAIN RESORT

Opening date: Nov. 20 (passholders), Dec. 8 (all others)

Acres/vertical drop: 7,300/3,200 feet

Lifts: 37 (4 D, 7 T, 4 Q, 10 HSQ, 6 HS6, 4 G, 6 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: TBA ($189 in 2019-20)

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: Yes

Rentals: Yes

Ski lessons: With reservations, which count as on-mountain reservation

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Skier cap in place, controlled by reservation system; groups on lifts will be strictly limited; no full-service bars; limited menus and capacity in restaurants/lodges and cafeteria-style approach in Miner’s Camp and Summit House; guests can bring food from home; cashless transactions only.

Notable: All Epic passholders can reserve seven priority days for any time during the season as of Friday (Nov. 6); starting Nov. 18, passholders can make daily reservations for up to a week. Sales of single-day tickets start Dec. 8, their opening day.

Operation details: parkcitymountain.com/explore-the-resort/about-the-resort/winter-experience.aspx


POWDER MOUNTAIN

Opening date: TBD

Acres/vertical drop: 3,200/2,519 feet

Lifts: 9 (1 T, 4 Q, 1 HSQ, 3 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $95

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations, no helmets

Ski lessons: Private/semi-private only

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Skier numbers capped as always at 1,500; three tiers of restrictions (green/yellow/red), starting in yellow; only restrooms will be open in red tier; otherwise metered flow into buildings, food orders via app; no terrain park; no standing room on shuttles; rooftop deck and trailer added to snowcats.

Operation details: powdermountain.com/winter2021


SNOWBASIN

Opening date: Nov. 25

Acres/vertical drop: 3,000/3,000 feet

Lifts: 11 (3 T, 2 HSQ, 1 HS6, 2 G, 1 tram, 2 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $139

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: With reservations, ages 6-under private only

Child care: Yes, off-site

COVID-19 precautions: Skier cap in place, controlled through single-day tickets; groups on lifts and gondolas will be strictly limited, no more than six riders per tram car; new ski-up, outdoor restaurants; 45-minute limit inside restaurants; no-service yurts and warming huts added to the base of Middle Bowl; Wildcat parking lot open daily.

Notable: The Overlook, a new, full-service bar with panoramic views inside Needles Lodge will be open but requires reservations.

Operation details: snowbasin.com/2020-21-winter-season


SNOWBIRD

Opening date: Nov. 30

Acres/vertical drop: 2,500/3,240 feet

Lifts: 13 (4 D, 6 HSQ, 1 tram, 2 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $145

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: No, but parking reservations are required

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: Private only to start

Child care: Yes

COVID-19 precautions: Skier cap in place controlled through parking reservations; tram will take 25 people max, masks (no gaiters) required; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; digital or single-use menus, more grab & go dining plus Creekside and Snowbird Center conference areas open for dining, max 10 people/group.

Operation details: snowbird.com/health-safety/


SOLITUDE

Opening date: Nov. 20

Acres/vertical drop: 1,200/2,494 feet

Lifts: 9 (1 D, 1 T, 2 Q, 4 HSQ, 1 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $125

Walk-up tickets available: TBD

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: With reservations, ages 6-under private only

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Skier cap in place controlled through single-day ticket sales; lift loading TBD; more grab & go and outdoor seating options, standing cocktail tables in Argenta Pub and Moonbeam Lodge; no service at the Library and St. Bernhard’s bars; temporary restrooms at Moonbeam base area.

Notable: Solitude will continue its parking fees of $20 for 1-2 people per car, $10 for 3 people and $5 for four or more. It encourages guests to ride Utah Transit Authority buses.

Operation details: solitudemountain.com/footer/about-us/community-well-being


SUNDANCE

Opening date: Dec. 4

Acres/vertical drop: 450/2,150 feet

Lifts: 5 (2 HST, 2 Q, 1 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $90

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: No

Rentals: With reservations

Ski lessons: With reservations, ages 8-under private only

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Skier cap in place controlled through parking spots; no separate lift line for single riders, visitors can self-group; food truck, increased outdoor seating, Rehearsal Hall open for indoor seating, 30-minute time limits possible; very limited access to Owl Bar.

Operation details: sundanceresort.com/sundance-health-statement-on-covid-19/


WOODWARD PARK CITY

Opening date: Nov. 20

Acres/vertical drop: 60/349 feet

Lifts: 4 (1 Q, 3 surface)

Day-of weekend ticket price: $49

Walk-up tickets available: No

Ski reservations required: Yes

Rentals: Yes

Ski lessons: With reservations

Child care: No

COVID-19 precautions: Visitors can self-group on lifts; all-day pass or 3- to 4-hour sessions; online ordering at The Hive, order via QR code or online at The Grind.

Operation details: woodwardparkcity.com/tickets-passes/modified-operations




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