Aspen Highlands in spring

Aspen Highlands will not be reopening this season, following a state order keeping ski areas closed until May 23.

Aspen Skiing Co. is “disappointed” that Gov. Jared Polis ordered ski areas to remain closed through May 23, squashing the chance of reopening Aspen Highlands as the company said it would like to do this month if public health concerns and snow conditions allowed.

Polis’ executive order, which came down at around 9:30 p.m. Thursday night, extended the ski area closure that began on March 15.

“Mountain communities, where many of Colorado’s premier ski areas are located, have been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state,” says the text of the two-page order. “Medical centers in these areas have limited ability to meet the needs of individuals with COVID-19. Further strain on their resources creates a risk that medical personnel in the area will be unable to provide needed care to residents and visitors to our mountain communities.”

That order, along with warming temperatures, “pretty much pulls the plug” on the idea of reopening Aspen Highlands at some point this May, said SkiCo Vice President of Communications Jeff Hanle. Company officials said last month they were hoping to reopen Highlands under a modified operations plan intended to mitigate the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, but only if public health officials were on board.

“We are disappointed that as America’s greatest ski state we were not able to figure out a way to get skiing reopened with this latest phase of new openings, and are saddened that Aspen Skiing Company will not be able to provide our community with lift served recreational opportunities this month,” says a company statement issued Friday.

Some recreational facilities, such as golf courses, are opening around the state; Pitkin County’s public health order is likely to allow golf courses to open beginning on May 9, with certain precautions. Hanle said that SkiCo’s hoped-for reopening was intended to be “more of a community thing.”

“We weren’t looking to drive destination business,” he said, while acknowledging that it would be difficult to prevent residents of other parts of the state from coming here.

While the act of downhill skiing can be practiced in a socially distanced manner, other ancillary activities associated with the sport such as purchasing tickets, loading lifts and limiting group sizes to less than 10 might be a little more challenging. However, Hanle said that allowing some ski areas to open this spring, especially in isolated communities where COVID-19 has been less prevalent, would be a useful exercise to help the ski industry more broadly figure out how to safely operate next winter, when concerns about coronavirus outbreaks are likely to linger.

Wolf Creek ski area, in southern Colorado, had planned to open as soon as this weekend, with the blessing of local officials, before the governor’s Thursday order.

Hanle said SkiCo will “continue to add our voice” to advocate for other ski areas to open. 

“We continue to believe that spring openings are critical to enable the industry to test and learn before the winter season so that we come up with acceptable protocols that allow ski areas to operate and thrive in whatever becomes the new normal,” says the company statement. “It is imperative for the future of this industry and the communities we support that we all come together to figure out the right balance of safety and operational functionality.”

Now that the lift-served ski season in Aspen is over, SkiCo will turn its attention to how it might operate this summer, along with getting started with on-mountain improvement projects, which include a new chairlift on the Big Burn in Snowmass and a new roof for the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain.

The Aspen-Snowmass ski areas remain open to uphilling, but users are cautioned to treat terrain as one would the backcountry, where there is no ski patrol or avalanche control. 

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.