Winter Sports

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2020 Could End with a Welcome Snow Sports Boom

9 Oct, 2020

By: Michael Popke

More than 30 ski resorts across the United States have announced their opening dates — Colorado’s Keystone will be the first, on Nov. 6, weather permitting — but the 2020-21 ski season will be unlike any other.

Resorts will mandate face coverings, encourage social distancing, eliminate walk-up windows, run lifts at less than full capacity, tightly regulate ticket sales  and increase cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas. In an effort to help facility operators navigate new challenges, the National Ski Areas Association is promoting the “Ski Well, Be Well” campaign, which includes operational best practice based on scientific guidelines. The protocol can be adapted to each ski area’s unique operation, according to the organization, and can be scaled according to the appropriate local COVID-19 response.

As Oregon Public Broadcasting recently noted, ski resorts in that state ­— including Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Hood Meadows , Mt. Ashland and Timberline Lodge — are hoping guests and staff comply with all of the additional safety precautions in place.

“Nobody one wants to be the reason why we have to end the season,” Dave Tragethon, vice president of Mt. Hood Meadows, told OPB.

“We will have enhanced cleaning protocols in our hotel rooms and condos … as well as all of our public places,” Sara Huey, communications manager for Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon, told the Deseret News. “All rental equipment will be completely sanitized after each use, and we’ll be arranging different points of sale, adding the ability to order food and services ahead of time, and adding restroom facilities to keep lines from forming.”

Indeed, resort operators don’t want to find themselves under-prepared or under-delivering.

“We do not want to be caught off guard or find ourselves needing to make reactive changes,” wrote Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, which operates 34 North American resorts, in a letter to guests in August. “I realize not everyone will agree with our approach — some feeling we are being too conservative or aggressive. And I recognize the changes we are implementing will be an inconvenience. But I ask for your understanding and patience.”

Anticipation is running high for this year’s snow season. A recent survey of 1,000 winter sports enthusiasts conducted by Snowsports Industries America reveals mixed concerns about returning to the slopes in the wake of COVID-19, according to SGBOnline.com — although those willing to return are confident about their ability to do so.

“Enthusiasts feel like their snow season was cut short last year due to COVID, and they are excited to get back out,” SIA chief executive officer Maria McNulty said. “If at all possible, most will return to their local and regional resorts as they usually do, and some think of snowsports as a relatively low-risk activity,[ as they’re outdoors and [it] can mostly take place when distanced from others. However, there are some concerns about whether resorts will be able to remain open at full capacity for the entirety of the season. Regardless, many hope to engage in off-resort activities, as well.”

Snowfalls this winter could be well above average at several resorts, thanks to La Niña conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. La Niña is a complex weather patten that typically occurs every few years, resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific and bringing colder-than-normal weather with it. The last La Niña season was 2017-18.

“NOAA recently confirmed the current presence of La Niña conditions, as well as a 75 percent chance of those conditions remaining in effect through the spring of 2021,” reports Ski.com’s To The Mountains blog. “If you love skiing in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Northern Colorado, Montana, Wyoming [and] Idaho, you know La Niña is great news in terms of deep snow.”

But it’s not just downhill skiing that has winter sports enthusiasts and industry professionals feeling warm inside.

Sales of backcountry skis, boots and equipment are up, too. Doug Stenclik, owner of four Cripple Creek Backcountry stores in Colorado, opened his brick-and-mortar shops earlier than ever this year and reports record sales at his online store.

“There are more people getting out and enjoying human-powered sports on their public lands and recognizing all the things we love about the backcountry,” he told The Colorado Sun.

“People are going to be looking for other winter sports,” Nathan Schultz, founder of outdoor retailer Boulder Nordic Sport, told FasterSkier.com in September. “Even if the alpine world were normal, I think the Nordic world would still be blowing up, because people are looking for a way to get outside and away from people. Backcountry skiing and Nordic skiing are great opportunities to do that.”

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