Aspen Mountain snowboarder

A snowboarder carves down the front side of Aspen Mountain in January.

 

All four mountains under the Aspen Skiing Co. umbrella will open in some capacity next week in an effort to keep guests spread out for the 2020-21 season kickoff amid tightening public health restrictions and the warning that a reservation system may be on its way.

SkiCo announced its opening day plans Friday afternoon, including that Aspen and Snowmass mountains will open to the public one day early, on Wednesday. In typical seasons, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk would not open until December — but this year, they will both boast limited terrain on the Thanksgiving holiday. Buttermilk’s Panda Peak bunny hill will be open through Saturday, and first-time skiers are encouraged to get their legs under them using that availability.

Highlands’ Thunderbowl lift will be spinning for the public on Thursday, as well, with access to 50 acres of skiable terrain but will then revert to exclusive use by the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club until Dec. 12.

Jeff Hanle, SkiCo’s vice president of communications, said the move is an effort to keep skiers socially distanced as eager visitors rush to the mountains.

“It’s a different year. It’s a challenging year, and we thought we’d do everything we could to give people the ability to spread out,” he said.

In the announcement, SkiCo stressed that public health protocols will need to be followed, including mandatory masks at all times when not actively skiing or riding.

“Please understand this is not a typical opening day, and if we want to be skiing in December and beyond, it is crucial that we all recognize this and do our part. We are all excited to get on the slopes and make some turns, but let’s try to each do our part to keep the season alive,” the company statement reads.

SkiCo is not requiring reservations at this point but instead opting for opening early and with additional terrain, as well as a call to employees to keep their distance during busy times at the base.

The company will open the mountains for employees Tuesday in an effort to let them get their skiing in without feeling the need to crowd the ­mountains during the opening-day rush.

“We will then ask this group to use ­discretion for the rest of the weekend and provide more space and access for our guests and passholders,” the announcement reads.

Hanle said opening-day ticket sales have not yet sold out but that the resort occupancy itself is outpacing last year, so indications are that town and the mountains will be busy.

“It’s that continued trend of people wanting to be outside and people wanting to be out of the cities and in the mountains,” Hanle said.

He said if terrain remains limited during the Christmas and New Year holidays, reservations will come into play.

“The way the [COVID-19 case] numbers are looking, it’s likely at some point this season, as we get toward the holiday, we may need to implement a reservation system,” he said.

The reservation system may require locals with an unlimited pass to “book” the day before they get up on the hill so that SkiCo would have a better sense of what crowd numbers would look like, he explained.

A maximum number of ticket sales is hard to pin down because of the ever-changing availability of space on the mountain.

“There are so many moving parts. Suppose we get a ton of snow, and we get to open every inch of terrain we have. We all of a sudden have more room to spread out,” Hanle said. “But if we don’t have a ton of terrain at the holidays and we have a ton of business, it’s going to be really tough to manage, and a reservation system would probably need to be implemented.”

Beginning today, pass holders will receive a prorated reimbursement of the amount spent, should the resort have to shut down due to COVID-19.

SkiCo was criticized on social media this week for not announcing the implementation of a reservation system prior to the final refund date. Hanle said the company has been resistant to declaring a reservation system from the start and will only go that route if health ­protocols require it.

“We are a company in a community that in itself is a community. We have 4,000 employees and dependents and family, and we are intertwined in every capacity of the community,” he said. “What would be our reason for not telling? They can say what they want, but we are doing everything we can. We are not hiding anything; there is no secret agenda. We are trying to stay open for the entire season.”

If reservations are enacted, pass holders would digitally reserve days that they are interested in skiing, and SkiCo would then adjust available ­remaining tickets accordingly.

“We’d go, ‘OK, we have this many people, we have this much terrain open. We can’t sell any more lift tickets,’” Hanle said.

But again, that equation will be a direct result of Mother Nature’s temperatures and precipitation.

“One of the big unknowns is how much terrain we will have open — because we haven’t had snowmaking weather, and we haven’t had natural snow,” he continued.

Aspen Mountain will have top-to-bottom skiing available next week, and Nell and Bell chairs will be running to ease pressure off the Silver Queen Gondola. Snowmass will have 86 open acres across the mountain.

The Sundeck will be open at 25% capacity, as will Elk Camp and Ullrhof restaurants. Bumps at Buttermilk will be closed, but restroom facilities will be available for those using the bunny hill. No uphilling will be permitted during operating hours to limit traffic during the busy opening days.

Hanle said the little tweaks from traditional opening week are a sign of what this year will look like as offerings are modified to prevent COVID-19 infections from closing the resort altogether, as happened when the disease hit the area last March.

“The goal is to try and spread out the mad rush for opening day,” Hanle said. “Everybody is going to have to do their part to keep us skiing all season long.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.