After an abrupt end to the 2019-20 ski season, resorts made tangible moves this week to prepare for the winter ski season.
According to senior director of mountain operations at Northstar California Resort, Ellen Galbraith said snowmaking began this week in North Lake Tahoe.
Galbraith is overseeing the snowmaking process at Northstar, and said she is eager to get the ball rolling and snow blowing for customers to have a great season.
“It’s always exciting to fire up the snowmaking season,” Galbraith said. “It’s the kick off to winter.”
Galbraith said without a storm, snowmaking usually begins around Nov. 1. She said the cold snap this year — with nights hovering at 26 degrees — in particular felt “better” given the abrupt end to the ski season this past spring.
“I’m grateful to be leading the team in such a meaningful way,” Galbraith said. “Outdoor recreation is one bright spot where we’re able to provide enjoyable experiences outside and I look forward to that.”
According to a press release, Northstar’s opening day will be Nov. 20. Guests are required to wear masks in lift lines, on lifts and gondolas. To maintain distance, related parties will be seated together and two singles might ride on opposite sides of a four-person lift.
Although Vail has not limited ticket sales or its Epic season pass sales, the press release indicated Vail will use the mountain access reservation system for day passes and will limit lift tickets to prioritize pass holders.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows public relations director said this season will require a more thorough social contract between guests and their host resorts.
Liesl Hepburn said the resort has taken serious safety measures — including requiring masks and social distancing in lift lines — but the real difference will be online ticket sales.
“We are relying on guests’ ability to get the information they need before they leave the house,” Hepburn said. “That’s so critical for us.”
Hepburn said the IKON app has a page specifically dedicated to questions regarding COVID-19 that patrons can check before arriving.
She added that the resort was able to open its lodging, restaurants and retail shops safely over the summer with set guidelines in place.
Hepburn said the resort was able to host Tahoe via Ferrata — an assisted climbing activity — with regulations in place.
“This winter requires the same kind of responsibility code,” Hepburn said.
Even with rider limits on gondolas, Hepburn said customers should anticipate regulation changes over the course of the season.
“The cold weather has been amazing, and we’ve had the ability to make a decent amount of snow,” Hepburn said. “In order to keep our policies up to date with state and local guidelines, everyone is going to need to be flexible.”
According to its website, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is slated to open Nov. 25.
Hepburn said like Vail, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows will offer online resources for day pass purchasers, but the season will prioritize IKON pass holders.
Hepburn said the social distancing regulations will inherently slow mountain operations, especially if the region gets a big dump.
“We have 6,000 acres, that’s what people come to us for,” Hepburn said. “It takes time to open a resort, we have to do avalanche patrol.”
Hepburn said a huge component of mountain preparation will be affected by the limited number of ski patrols that can ride the troop carrier at one time. Hepburn said the troop carrier disperses patrols around the mountain to secure or bomb out the area before lifts turn on.
Jon Slaughter, the executive director of marketing at Sugar Bowl, said his resort suspended season pass sales on Sept. 8 to manage visitation better.
“Our goal has been to avoid the pass hold reservation system altogether,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter said Sugar Bowl has no additional plans to reopen season pass sales, but that the resort wants to “keep that door open.”
“A lot of it depends on where the trends take us and the kind of visitation we see,” Slaughter said.
Sugar Bowl is slated to open Nov. 27, Slaughter said.
Rebecca O’Neil is a reporter for The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.