The downhill skiing and snowboarding season is here. Colorado’s Keystone Resort garnered the coveted “first to open” award for Front Range resorts, followed closely by Arapahoe Basin and Loveland. These three resorts typically vie for the earliest opening award each year.

Colorado resident Mark Mannheimer was at the lifts early on Keystone’s second Saturday of operation. It was his first day of skiing for the season, and it was amid the changes at the resort due to COVID-19.

“It is a new world of skiing,” Mannheimer said. “The snow was great, with edge to edge coverage and 2,400 vertical feet open already. Conditions were great, but it is a different world of skiing with COVID.”

Other ski resorts across the region are preparing to open as conditions allow, but one thing is certain: this season looks and feels different due to COVID-19. It will be unlike any other.

First, getting a lift ticket requires planning ahead. Those who prefer walking up to the ticket window to purchase a ticket just before hitting the slopes will be out of luck. Ticket windows may be open, but only for picking up pre-purchased lift tickets. The same is true of ski lessons where purchase in advance is required.

This season, tickets are bought strictly online. That is the case for the Snowy Range Ski and Recreation Area, at least to start the season. Snowy Range kicks off its season Dec. 4.

Mannheimer said he made a reservation a few days prior to skiing via the Epic pass website. Reservations open on Wednesday for the following week from Saturday through Friday.

Alterra Mountain Company, which operates both Steamboat Ski Resort and Winter Park Resort, announced its operation plans for the upcoming season in a press release Sept. 14. CEO Rusty Gregory said access to the resorts will be prioritized for season pass holders, and the number of daily lift tickets will be tightly regulated and available only through advance purchase. Walk-up window sales are eliminated, as well as the sale of undated lift ticket products.

“The health and well-being of Alterra Mountain Co. guests, employees and local communities has and will always be our company’s highest priority,” Gregory said. “Since last winter’s resort closures, our teams have been working to develop operating plans and protocols designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

According to the Winter Park website, during peak times such as holidays and weekends, daily lift ticket sales will be limited to minimize crowding. Similar crowd limits are planned across the Rocky Mountain region.

On the Steamboat website, it says stand-alone, single-day lift tickets will be unavailable from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2. They can still be purchased, but only as part of a lift and lodging package. Those who have special season passes, including the Snowy Range pass holders who have the Steamboat add-on, are not required to make reservations at this time.

Most, if not all, resorts and ski areas require a face mask in common spaces and lift lines, as well as on lifts. Another requirement in the lift lines is maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet. This might be easy with people in line, one behind and in front of the other, due to the length of the skis. Keeping the distance side by side is trickier. Riding the lift only with members in your group is recommended, but when riding with strangers, there should be at least one space in between.

When skiing at Keystone, Mannheimer said they had to wear masks when walking to the chairlift, while on the lift and also while skiing. For the six-person chairlift, only two people got on at a time, with one on each side of the lift.

Winter Park Resort has adjusted lift mazes to accommodate the necessary distancing. The resort also plans to modify lift loading procedures to encourage social distancing while riding the lift. As details are finalized, they will be posted on the Winter Park website.

Because people are outdoors, the biggest risk during a day of skiing is not while skiing or even getting on or riding the lift. The biggest challenge is indoors, where skiers warm up, grab a bite to eat and use the facilities. Most, if not all, resorts require masks at all times in lodges and restaurants, with the exception of sitting at a table while eating or drinking.

At the Snowy Range Ski and Recreation Area, it’s recommended that you make your car your mini lodge. Plan to put on gear in your vehicle, and even go there for a lunch break.

The bottom line is that there will be a 2020-21 ski season, but notable adjustments are in place. Check ski area websites regularly to note any updates and changes through the season. Because this is year is unlike any other, expect refinement of the rules and guidelines as the season progresses.

Amber Travsky is a wildlife biologist who earned master’s degrees in wildlife zoology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, Real West Consulting, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.

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