Utah ski resorts: Out-of-state visitors came for the holidays. We stayed home.

‘We are in one of the driest statewide starts to a season that we’ve ever had’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People take to the slopes at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2020. Skiers were down during the holidays overall due to the low snow levels and the pandemic. Most out of staters kept their reservations, but some locals stayed away, waiting for better conditions.

One thing had to happen, it was believed, to keep this pandemic-disrupted holiday ski season from being a complete drain on Utah’s resorts. It had to snow.

Well, it didn’t.

“We are in one of the driest statewide starts to a season that we’ve ever had,” said Evan Thayer, a Utah forecaster for OpenSnow, noting reliable data stretches back about 40 years. “We’re right at the bottom of that.”

At most, Utah’s mountains received about 60% of their typical snowfall for the month and some saw as little as 30%, Thayer said. That should have spoiled the holiday season for local resorts, which this season are particularly desperate to open as much terrain as possible so they can meet the heightened demand for both lift access and social distancing.

Rather than get all Grinchy about it, the resorts by and large have taken their cues from the Whos down in Whoville and nonetheless found reason to celebrate.

“Luckily for us, we didn’t get snow,” Brighton spokesperson Jared Winkler said, “but, unfortunately, we didn’t get snow.”

In some ways, the lack of snow helped ease the crush of one of the three busiest times of the year on the slopes. While out-of-state skiers and snowboarders tended to keep their reservations, those who live closer to the resorts more often opted to wait for better conditions.

Winkler said he noticed that at Brighton. Snowbasin, near Ogden, also saw evidence of that according to CEO Davy Ratchford.

“They’re savvy,” Ratchford said of local skiers. “They know the conditions and they can get to pick and choose when they want to come up. But we still see a certain amount of people that make their annual ski vacation.”

Brighton, which Thayer said got 38 inches of natural snow in December compared to 100 inches in 2019, has opened about 80% of its terrain. Snowbasin has gotten less than half of last year’s 58-inch total and is closer to 35% open. Both ski areas reported fewer overall guests than they would typically see over the winter break. Both also had to turn away patrons on a few days to avoid overcrowding, a result achieved by either filling up the parking lot or limiting single-day ticket sales. But Ratchford said that skier suppression was expected this year, given COVID-19 fears and restrictions.

What wasn’t expected was the overall sense of joy those that came brought with them.

“That’s new,” Ratchford said. “I would say I’ve seen a huge uptick in just positive mindset, and that’s really fun.”

Further south at Brian Head Resort, spokesperson Mark Wilder said something similar is happening. For the first time in as long as he can remember following the holiday season, the emails and comment cards contained more positive feedback than negative.

Those weren’t the product of light crowds or knee-deep powder, either. The resort received 25 inches of snowfall last month compared to 62 in December 2019. Meanwhile, visitor numbers were on par with the holiday period for 2019-20, when Brian Head was on track to break its season record until the coronavirus outbreak shut it down in March, along with nearly every other resort in the country. Plus, employees who were already busy were being asked to tack cleaning and mask-patrols onto their duties, something Wilder said they did with aplumb.

“Business levels were surprisingly good,” Wilder said of this year’s traffic, much of which comes from Southern California and Arizona. “Much more would have been a bit of a challenge, mostly because of limited terrain.”

Perhaps the biggest win for all of Utah’s resorts is that the lifts are still spinning. Their biggest fear is that they will have to shut down again, either because of government regulations or because of an outbreak.

COVID-19 cases are rising across the state, and — similar to this spring — the counties with ski resorts have some of the highest numbers. According to the Utah Department of Health, the seven-day positivity rate is at an all-time high in Salt Lake, Weber and Iron counties, home to half of the state’s 15 resorts, including Brighton, Snowbasin, Brian Head. Rates are climbing in Summit County, the site of three more ski areas, but are nowhere near those found there in April, when it was one of the most highly infected areas in the United States.

Ratchford said the holiday season was the big test for ski areas. If they could make it through, especially while coasting mainly on man-made snow, the rest of the season should be manageable.

“I’m, at this stage, incredibly optimistic. It feels great,” he said. “Getting through, you know, these first 40 or so days and it being the holiday period, I feel really comfortable with our processes, our procedures, our safety measures. Without a doubt, staying open is easy at this point.

“You know, I always knock on wood, [because] you never know right around the corner. But if we stay true to our plan and our guest understands what’s expected of them, I think it can be a great season.”

That optimism comes even without the help of Mother Nature. But with this being a La Niña year, Thayer said he doesn’t expect her to bring them down either.

“In previous years that have been similar to this, ... we’ve seen later in the season, you know, that snow has slowly moved farther south,” he said. “So the hope is that as we get into the second half of the season, we get into a snowy pattern.”

In other words, he added: “There’s a reason for some optimism.”