Utah’s ski season opener eerie, epic under COVID-19 protocols

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zachory Houston wears a face mask as he skis at Park City on opening day on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

Park City • The opening day of the 2020-21 ski season at Park City Mountain Resort got off to an eerie start for Graham Garland and his friends.

The trio of snowboarders arrived at the resort 20 minutes before the lifts were scheduled to start turning and pulled right into a front-row spot just three cars down from the crosswalk to the main village. Equally as surreal, they walked right up to the lift — no waiting required.

When they envisioned how riding would be different during the COVID-19 pandemic, they expected big gaps between lift lines and long waits at the dining lodge. Fewer crowds and easier access to the slopes wasn’t part of it.

“I think with the weirdness,” reasoned Garland, 31, of Salt Lake City, “people were hesitant to put their money down.”

The opening of ski season in Utah has been met with considerable curiosity this year. Brighton Resort officially kicked things off Thursday. On Friday, the lifts started turning at PCMR and Brian Head Resort for winter operations for the first time since March, when coronavirus outbreaks in ski towns forced the sudden closure of resorts across the country.

In the eight months since, all of Utah’s 15 ski areas have developed plans that would allow them to open while curtailing the spread of the virus. Most of their protocols follow guidelines developed by the National Ski Areas Association, which include requiring masks indoors and in lift lines, spreading out seating in lodges, and limiting each lift chair to people within the same ski group.

Until the skis met the slopes, though, no one really knew what it would look like.

For the most part, Friday resembled any other opening day on the ski hill except with less fanfare.

“It’s business as usual,” said Paul Williams, 30, who had flown from Georgia to join Garland for opening day at PCMR for the second straight year. “It does not feel weird at all.”

By the time the three buddies stopped for a burrito at their car around 10, the crowds were starting to gather. Helmeted and gaitered skiers and boarders waited about 20 minutes in lift lines that crawled up the slope from Payday, one of two lifts the resort opened near its main village. PCMR also opened lifts at The Canyons in an effort to space out skiers and riders eager to get back on the snow for the first time since the coronavirus shuttered the resort in March.

That pressure may have been exacerbated some when two Wasatch Mountain resorts, Solitude and Woodward Park City, postponed their opening days because of lack of natural snow. Daytime temperatures in the 40s — as they were Friday — have also hindered snow making. Still, PCMR was able to fire up nine lifts leading to seven runs, a minuscule fraction of what the nation’s largest ski area plans to open later in the season.

“It’s early season,” resort spokesperson Jessica Miller said. “So that’s why the availability is lower than it would be in like mid-January when we’re offering 43 lifts and 7,400 acres.”

Garland said people respected skier groups and didn’t try to push ahead in line even during busy times. Nevertheless, having more terrain open will help alleviate the lift-line clog, which is bound to get worse once the resort opens to everyone. PCMR is only allowing passholders on its runs until Dec. 8.

Another tact Vail Resorts has taken to control crowds at all its properties, which includes PCMR, is requiring would-be skiers and riders to make reservations up to a week in advance. Opening-day reservations became available Wednesday afternoon, and Garland’s group had no trouble getting spots Friday and through the weekend.

“I went on and I was like 12,000-something in the queue,” Garland’s other buddy from Georgia, James Alexander, said, “and I was in in like 15 minutes, really.”

Not everyone found navigating the system so seamless, however.

Brooks Budelis had a few days off this week and decided to fly from St. Paul, Minn., to Utah specifically to ski on opening day. He called the resort to see if he could make reservations but was told he had to wait until Wednesday. Unable to find an exact time on the website, he logged in Wednesday morning, only to find the reservation system wasn’t up yet. So that evening, after getting settled in from his flight, he tried again. At 5 p.m., three hours after the window opened, all tickets for opening day and the weekend had been snatched up.

“Now I’m just stuck here,” he said. “You know, a $350 flight, a $700 pass, a hotel, and I have nothing to show for it.”

Epic Pass holders do get up to seven “priority” days that they can reserve anytime throughout the season — with the exception of the opening couple of weeks. Miller suggested anyone in Budelis’ situation continue to check the website. She said reservations become available as others cancel them.

Masks hid the facial expressions of those who were able to ski or ride Friday at PCMR, but those lounging on steps or couches near the village were mostly smiling and the energy was high. The most noticeable difference was the resort’s indoor dining areas. Normally bustling at lunchtime, they were largely empty, and the lines were short..

The fear of catching COVID-19, meanwhile, appeared to be low.

“The grocery store is more dangerous than [this],” Garland said. “I mean, ideally, you’re staying away from everyone so people aren’t tapping your board. You’re supposed to stay distanced. You’re only trying to ride the lift with your homies, anyway, right? ... And it’s outside, which helps.”

He added, however, that little would have scared him away from breaking out his board on opening day after losing several months of riding last year.

“We,” he said, “have been waiting for this since they closed.”