• Banff Sunshine ski resort

Skiing And Snowboarding Will Look Very Different For The 20/21 Ski Season

Here’s everything to know about health and safety procedures at ski resorts amid the novel coronavirus pandemic to plan a safe and fun snowboarding trip.

Winter is coming. It may not feel like it around much of the country, but fresh snow dusted high elevations in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Big Sky in Montana, and Jackson Hole, as early as August, and the snow guns are going strong most nights. You know what that means, it’s time to make some mountain plans to look forward to.

But, the ski season is going to look a lot different for 2020/2021. Here’s what you can expect, what’s changing, and what you need to know before booking your ski trip for the 2020/2021 season:

Season passes get priority lift access.

Season passes and multi-resort passes (like Ikon and Epic) are more important this season than ever. Arapahoe Basin reopening in April with a reservation-turned-lottery system was the first test of the new normal of resort skiing and snowboarding. Season pass holders had first dibs on coveted spots on the mountain, and a small portion were left for single day lift ticket purchase. So many people tried to grab spots, it crashed the system.

Other resorts are following suit with their own lift ticket reservation requirements and dedicated systems or apps designed to handle the demand.

Vail Resorts announced pass holders will get the best access. There will be a mountain access reservation system and reservations will be required for all days on the mountain, to ensure guests can practice social distancing around the resort.

Pass holders will receive exclusive early season access starting Nov. 6 (Keystone’s opening day, weather permitting) as lift tickets will not go on sale to the general public until Dec. 8. Epic pass holders will be able to book up to seven days (Priority Reservation Days) anytime during the season starting Nov. 6. Once any of these days are used, pass holders can book another set for additional dates. That means you can snag your go-to weekend or week for your trip, but only one week at a time.

Then, throughout the season, Epic pass holders get access to reservations for the core season (Dec. 8 to closing day) up to seven days before lift tickets go on sale. If space remains, then advance day tickets may be purchased. Booking a reservation will automatically turn on pass access for that day, so pass holders just need to bring their pass to scan onto the mountain as usual.   

 “You can count on us to try and do everything we can to help keep you safe and make skiing and riding a reality this entire winter.”

Robert Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts

As of mid-September, most Ikon resorts are not requiring reservations. So far, Arapahoe Basin, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, Taos, Windham Mountain, and Loon Mountain are the only destinations with an official reservation requirement. (But, check in with your intended destination on the website and via the app for up to date access info.) Instead, these ski resorts will regulate or eliminate the number of day ticket products in order to avoid overcrowding. 

For example, Aspen is adjusting the pass and ticketing strategy to naturally regulate access and reduce crowds during peak dates on all four mountains (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass). Among the pass options for the 20/21 season are a local weekday pass, 7-day pass, and higher-priced premier all access pass to encourage skiers and riders to take advantage of quieter days on the slopes. “Everyone must understand that we each have a role to play in staying open and safe,” Mike Kaplan, Aspen CEO shared in a statement. “From pre-arrival, to transportation and parking, to rental, retail, dining and ski school, we have designed new operating plans to speed up the process, keep guests on the hill, maximize distancing and spread things out.”

If needed, Aspen is prepared to implement a reservation system and cap the number of people on the slopes each day.

TLDR: Pretty much all ski resorts will require skiers and snowboarders to book their days in advance, so plan ahead. Sorry, spontaneous snowboarding powder days are not in the forecast for the 20/21 ski season.

When are resorts opening?

Kicking off the U.S. season is Keystone, which is set to open Nov. 6 followed by Breckenridge Nov. 13. Vail and Park City are aiming for Nov. 20, followed by Beaver Creek and Crested Butte on Nov. 25. Mammoth and Killington are aiming for Nov. 14, followed by Winter Park on Nov. 18, Solitude on Nov. 20, and Steamboat on Nov. 21, All currently have expected closing dates of April or May. (Set your countdown clocks and cross those fingers!)

It could turn out to be a seriously sweet season with shorter lift lines, quieter villages, and less traffic on the mountain roads. (I’m looking at you Canada.) Or mountain towns could be totally inundated with crowds as some National Parks were in the summer.

What’s changing on the mountains?

For starters, masks are mandatory everywhere. At all Vail Resorts, face coverings will be required to access mountains and throughout all operations. The same is true across Alterra resorts, and independent ski hills are also following suit. So, masks are required in lift lines and while loading, unloading, and riding in all lifts and gondolas. Not all masks are created equal, and some resorts have a list of approved masks. Deer Valley notes that single-layer face coverings that can be seen through (ie buffs) and face coverings with two-way valves are not approved.

Lift and gondola loading will look a bit different as well.

Vail Resorts will only be seating related parties (guests skiing or riding together) on a lift or two singles on opposite sides of a four-person lift, two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift, or two singles on opposite sides of the larger gondola cabins. (If you made it through that sentence in one go, good for you.) That means two seats minimum separate strangers on lifts, and that’s still pretty darn close. Plus, making it through the lift lines with all those rules will be a whole other challenge considering how well people follow the basic rules for grouping up and filling chairs in seasons’ past. (Read: A cluster— is very possible.)

Ski resorts on the Ikon Pass have their own local guidelines and plans for distancing and safety. For example, Copper Mountain lift attendants will not require guests to ride a chairlift with strangers. However, high capacity chairlifts and closed cabin carriers may be loaded in a way that allows for physical distancing among non-related parties. Resorts like Squaw Valley or Jackson Hole, which have popular, high-capacity trams will have unique challenges. So far, Jackson Hole says tram cabins will be disinfected multiple times per day with an electrostatic fogging device that kills viruses, and touchpoints will be sanitized daily. The gondola cabins get a daily jet fogging disinfection that kill viruses. How many people will be able to ride one is still tbd, but gone are the days of sardine-packed tin-can trams.

“We believe starting the season with a conservative and responsible plan will ensure the wellbeing of our community, staff and guests, and enable us to provide a great ski and ride experience for the full season.”

Dustin Lyman, President and General Manager of Copper Mountain Resort 

If you violate these policies, don’t expect to stick around on the snow. For example, Jackson Hole says it will ask people to leave who do not comply with the new safety requirements. JHMR also installed thermal imaging cameras in certain areas to detect guests with a fever. If it flags a fever, those guests may be asked to leave the Resort and will get a refund.

The best strategy is to download your preferred resort’s app to stay up to date with all the changing policies and plans.

Will ski and ride school be open for lessons?

Yes, beginners or riders of all abilities looking to level up their skills will be able to. Ski and ride schools open, but with some changes to keep guests and employees safe and healthy. Starting with health screenings for everyone. Across resorts all employees will undergo health screenings before they arrive at work. And, guests who want lessons at most resorts will need to fill out an online health screening before arriving on the mountain.

Keep in mind, physical distancing may not always be possible during a lesson. The group rides lifts and gondolas together and likely eats lunch together, so there is some added risk involved for participants. All group and private lessons will have a max of six guests.

That’s why Copper Mountain ski school is limited to private lessons with related groups of up to six people. Other Ikon resorts are implementing some similar precautions.

Can I rent ski and snowboard gear?

Yep, rentals are set to be up and running around Vail Resorts. Like everywhere else on mountain, guests and employees will be required to wear face coverings. Employees will wear eye protection and gloves when working closely with guests to fit gear. Equipment will be fully sanitized between each guest use and rental delivery service is expanding at Vail Resorts so there’s no need to visit the stores to collect equipment.  

Elsewhere, ski resorts plan to follow county regulatory guidelines, including capacity limits and modified entry and exit layout. Copper Mountain is planning pop-up retail locations and a new rental experience so that guests may continue to obtain rental equipment.

What will restaurants and food service look like?

Gone are extensive buffets and packed tables of strangers and groups clustered around fireplaces. (Not forever, just for now.) But, on-mountain dining is set to resume around Vail Resorts. Sit-down venues will have spaced-out seating and diminished indoor capacity. Quick-service restaurants, such as Two Elk in Vail, Miner’s Camp in Park City, and Pioneer Crossing in Breckenridge, will be streamlined to have a cafeteria-style approach, where guests come in, go through a single line, and pass all the food options before reaching the cashier. Naturally, the food options will be limited to grab-and-go prepared meals and snacks to keep that line moving along.

As a result, BYO is a good strategy for food, snacks, and water. As is hitting any restaurants in off-peak times if you need to purchase meals. Payment will be cashless.

There will be no full-service bars operating on or around the Vail Resort mountains. The restaurants will serve beer and wine, but clustering around a bar over cocktails and mingling with strangers is a no-go.

As always, check in with your local resort before visiting, as each mountain will have additional specific guidelines. More ski resort destinations have added dedicated pages on their websites for up-to-date information on COVID-19 changes and policies.   

Are the public restrooms safe to use?

They aren’t no risk, but you don’t have to head for the trees when nature calls. Tbh, this is the area I am most concerned about. Everyone on the mountain uses the public bathrooms throughout the day, so bathrooms have a number of high-touch surfaces where the novel coronavirus and other bacteria can live. There is also evidence of toilet flushing launching plumes of virus and other germs into the air. (Not to get too gross, but colleges used sewage analysis to track asymptomatic students on campus and strategically test dorms before covid-19 cases became more widespread.)

But, you can mitigate your risk by wearing a mask, keeping glasses or goggles on, washing hands thoroughly after, and making speedy pitstops according to infectious disease experts at Harvard. Nobody wants to linger in the bathroom, after all.

Plus, ski resorts have already added more sanitation stations and increased facility cleaning frequency. You can also expect hand dryers to be out of commission as they spread airborne particles, so you’ll need to look elsewhere for a boot- and glove-warmer.

Moral of the story: Keep your mask on and don’t linger in bathrooms any longer than you have to.

But, will ski areas stay open this winter?

This is the billion-dollar question. Based on Vail Resort’s announcement, Alterra’s plans, and summer operations, it’s safe to say resorts will open for the season. However, how long they’re able to stay open depends on the visitors coming in, mask-wearing compliance in local communities, and progress with vaccines and treatments.

Ski resorts are predominantly outside, but they are gatherings of larger groups of people, which allows the novel coronavirus the opportunity to spread. The New York Times compiled contract tracing data throughout 2020 and analyzed the effect of gatherings. What they found: wherever people gather in larger groups, covid-19 cases follow. That is a fact.

I hate to say it, but it’s very possible some resorts in certain regions may close if case numbers begin to spike. (I know, I hate typing those words as much as you hate hearing them, but it is a very real possibility.) Based on policies amid the pandemic, Colorado resorts could be the first to shut down or impose heightened restrictions on quarantines and who can visit. Similarly, California has faced surges in cases and multiple shutdowns in attempts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On the other hand, states like Utah and Idaho have been more lenient and lifted restrictions quicker. So, a spike in cases in these regions may not have the same ski shutdown reaction compared to neighboring states like Colorado.

“There is no doubt this season will be different…” 

Is it safer to drive or fly for a ski and snowboard trip?

Both driving and flying come with their own risks amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Air travel, while at first seemed extremely risky, has proven to be the source of only a few cases. Airlines now require masks for all passengers and staff, and the air filtration systems turn over and clear the air every 2 to 3 minutes. “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19,” per the Centers for Disease Control. The riskiest part of air travel is boarding, deplaning, and close contact with other people in the airports where masks aren’t always required or enforced.

Driving also comes with risk. High-touch pitstops for gas, food, or bathroom breaks can put you and your traveling companions in close contact with other people and potentially contaminated frequently-touched surfaces, per the CDC.

On-mountain and around town shuttles are another consideration, but they don’t come without risks either. To limit risk of transmission, avoid gathering in groups, and stay away from crowded spaces when possible, especially at stations and stops. Also avoid touching surfaces, wear masks, and stay at least six feet away from other people.

No matter what, there are risks involved with any travel or activity involving other people. It may be the season to slow down and snowshoe, cross country ski, or do some winter hiking and that is all a-okay.

Still, winter is indeed coming and there is something, many things, to look forward to for a 20/21 ski season.

Snowboarding feels more vital than ever.

Jennifer Nied
Jennifer Nied

Jennifer Nied has more than 10 years of writing and editing experience specializing in adventure and wellness travel, fitness, and spa. A Colorado native, Jennifer has been snowboarding for more than 23 years. She is a contributing writer for Women’s Health and her work has appeared in Budget Travel, American Spa, Good Housekeeping, Apartment Therapy, and more.

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