Like most of you I’ve been aching to get back on my board ever since last years spring season was cut far too short. I remember the last day of riding back in March questioning whether I should take just one more run and thinking it didn’t really matter because I’d be back out the following weekend. I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Flash forward 8 months later and after a long summer of wondering when, how and if I’d ever be able to ride again, I finally got my chance. My first turns of the year were at Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone this past weekend. I was both excited and a little nervous to see what the experience would look like on the mountain this year but was pleasantly surprised. While all resorts will differ to some degree, here is what the new normal looked like at Vail Resorts.
Reservations – To start, most resorts are requiring reservations this year. It’s really the best way to address capacity issues and ensure a safe experience for all of their guests. That being said, I’ll admit it was a bit stressful. Currently Vail Resorts are only allowing season passholders to make reservations for early season riding (before December 8th). To book Saturday and Sunday at Vail and Breckenridge I had to log on 3 days before, sit in an online waiting room for about an hour and a half, and then was granted my 20 minutes to book what I needed to. I was fortunate enough to get all the days I wanted, but with lower capacity limits due to only a handful of runs being open it was definitely a little nerve racking. I think once there’s more terrain open it should be easier to get the days you want, but my advice here would be to plan early and make sure you’re on it as soon as your days open up.
Shuttles – I’m not an early riser which means I generally end up in overflow parking lots and therefore need to take a shuttle. At first this made me a bit nervous but honestly the experience wasn’t bad. Keystone and Breck were both closely monitoring the amount of people getting on the shuttle and therefore seating was fairly spaced out. Because of this, here were times we had to wait for a second shuttle, so keep in mind it may take you a bit longer to get to the hill than normal.
Mask Usage – Masks are 100% mandatory everywhere at Vail resorts whether you’re inside or outside unless you are eating or drinking which is done in designated areas. While this wasn’t at all a surprise, I will say I was impressed that the Keystone employees were actually enforcing this in the lift line if they saw anyone with their mouth or nose exposed.
Lifts, Gondolas and Lines – I think we’ve all had a lot of questions about what this would look like and there’s a lot being done here to keep things safe. Outside of the normal expectation of 6 feet of distance between guests, there are empty “ghost lines” in between the lines to keep side by side distance as well. This visually made the lines look incredibly long, but they moved fairly fast due to staff directing traffic. On average, most chairs were taking about 15 minutes. Longer waits earlier in the day but towards the end, sometimes we didn’t have to wait at all.
The biggest difference here is that in most cases you’re only riding up with the party you came with. Vail’s rule currently is to only allow 2 unrelated parties on a chair together and only if you can sit with at least one seat between you. This meant my party of two always got a private gondola and the majority of the time we rode chairs alone. On the 6 seaters we were asked if we were comfortable taking a third and did occasionally since distance could be maintained. On quads we were not asked and were always given our own chair.
Food and Drink – If you’re the type that really enjoys taking a midday break inside for lunch then this season will likely look a little different for you. On our first day, indoor dining was still allowed. Vail had signage with QR codes so you could make reservations for a table as well as some “grab and go food options” that could be taken to tables outside. On Saturday, Summit County went into “Level Red” though, which doesn’t allow for indoor dining. So while we were at Breckenridge on Saturday indoor seating was not an option. Personally, I didn’t expect to be able to eat inside but one thing that completely threw me off was access to water. Gone are the days of filling up cups of water at the drink station (at least for now) and instead it’s recommended that guests bring their own water or bottles to fill. It’s also recommended that guests bring their own snacks, however eating in lift lines or on chairs was prohibited as it requires mask removal.
Riding – While the terrain was limited (in normal early season fashion) it was absolutely amazing to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Skiing and snowboarding are naturally distanced sports and getting outside is one of the best things we can do to stay healthy, both in mind and body. With limited capacity and reservations needed, the runs weren’t as crowded as they could have been and by the end of the day thinned out quite a bit. To be honest though, there could have been only one run open and I still would have been thrilled.
Overall, I have to say I was pretty impressed with the all the work the resorts have clearly done to make the experience the best it can be, given the circumstances. At no point did I feel uncomfortable or unsafe and even as the rules changed day by day, the resorts were prepared to adapt. When you do decide to take your first runs of the year I think these few things are important to remember:
- Allow for time – If you’re looking to only go out for 2 hours, don’t go 2 hours before close because everything takes a bit longer. Shuttles, lifts, and gondolas are all running at 50% capacity which means waiting a bit longer in lines.
- Be flexible – You may not be able to book the exact days you want or take your usual inside breaks or hit the bar after. If you’re booking a weekend at your favorite resort, what you can and can’t do may look entirely different by the time you actually arrive and may even change while you’re there.
- Come prepared – Bring food and water if possible because they simply may not be as accessible as you’re used to. A hydration pack or refillable water bottle may be key to keeping yourself and the family hydrated.
And lastly just be appreciative. As of right now we are very fortunate to be able to participate in our sport while many others do not have that luxury. A lot of people have put in a ton of work to allow us to do so, so it’s on us as skiers and snowboarders to appreciate that and follow the rules to keep our resorts safe and functioning. So if you do go out, do it responsibly and “don’t be the reason we lose our season”.