In an era dominated by COVID-19, Roseanne and Davey Pitcher are trying to be proactive about reopening Wolf Creek Ski Area for the upcoming ski season.
Purgatory Resort, unlike Wolf Creek, has been open during the summer and is looking to carry over some of the procedures it has put in place into the winter season – the complicating factor will be the greater number of winter visitors.
Wolf Creek is conducting an online survey to seek feedback from regular visitors and to inform people about procedures and changes already put in place. The ski area plans to share the survey results with Gov. Jared Polis in an effort to avoid being lumped in with the state’s larger ski areas that serve the more populated Front Range and are more likely to draw travelers from around the world.
“We’re hoping that there will be no surprises like last year. We were told a nine o’clock at night on March 14 that we had to be closed the next day,” Roseanne Pitcher said.
The 16-page web survey on Wolf Creek’s website was emailed to 40,000 past-season pass holders and other regular skiers at Wolf Creek, Pitcher said. The survey will end Aug. 7.
Sharing survey results with Polis, Pitcher said, is viewed as a tool Wolf Creek can use to convince the governor and state regulators that Wolf Creek, as a much smaller ski area in sparsely populated Southwest Colorado, can operate safely even if bigger ski areas in central and northern Colorado are forced to close.
“I can’t imagine they will close the ski areas again,” Pitcher said. “Already a lot of them are open for summer activities. I think we can operate safely following procedures for COVID-19, but if ski areas are asked to close again, we’d like to take our plea to the governor and to the state not to be grouped with the bigger ski areas.”
Dave Rathbun, general manager of Purgatory Resort, said about 3,000 people a day visit in summer, but in winter the number can be far higher, especially on weekends and holidays.
Like other COVID-19 operational policies on the mountain, the ski rental process will follow similar procedures set up in summer for mountain bike rentals.
“The question will be, you know, there’s a much bigger number of people that take advantage of things like ski rentals versus mountain bike rentals. And obviously, a lot more people are here on a typical winter day than there are in the summer. That’s the part that we have to figure out,” he said.
Four Purgatory food and beverage operations are open for summer, including one sit-down restaurant operating under restrictions familiar to many restaurants – with 50% capacity in the dining room and tables 6 feet apart.
Rathbun said the set up has worked for summer, but again with winter’s bigger crowds, procedures may have to change.
Wolf Creek has been working with San Juan Basin Public Health and county officials, including county commissions in Mineral and Archuleta counties, in developing plans for reopening, Pitcher said.
Flight For Life helicopter ambulance service has been contacted to ensure all parties are aware of special needs and procedures necessary for dealing with the novel coronavirus.
Rathbun said he is waiting for guidance from state officials and SJBPH concerning procedures and best practices to put in place for ski season.
Once further guidance is obtained from health officials, summer processes will be reviewed again to see if modifications will be needed. He added the sooner Purgatory hears from state and local health officials the better.
“If you recall, we didn’t get an answer on whether we could open for the summer or not until I believe it was the Wednesday or Thursday prior to opening on Saturday,” he said. “So for the ski season, we’re certainly going to need to know, before then, I mean, we’d like to open the Saturday before Thanksgiving, if possible.”
The ski industry, Rathbun said, is emphasizing the need for early and constant communications from the governor’s office and state regulators in order to avoid some of the chaos that came with the closing of last season’s ski season and the delay in opening for summer.
“We want to try to figure out if we can get a little bit more nimble than how we reopened in summer. Because we’re going to need some direction before we can get too specific on how we’ll handle reopening in winter,” he said.
While Wolf Creek’s procedures for opening are a work in progress and will be informed by the survey, Pitcher said some adaptations already have been made. Changes skiers can expect this season include:
Reservations will be taken for daily visits to the mountain so the ski area can cap numbers at 3,000 skiers daily.Single riders will be able to use chairlifts, or chairs can be grouped by parties – families and close friends.Sneeze guards will be installed in the ski rental area.Precautions that have become normal in all businesses will be in place, including social distancing, frequent sanitizing and employees wearing face masks and face shields.
Procedures at restaurants on the mountain will likely be adaptable to the epidemiological situation, ranging from a total closure of restaurants to take-out and curbside service.
“If we have to close the ski school, we’ll do that. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to run at some level. Wolf Creek has always been about low-density skiing. It’s what we’re known for. We’re not like larger resorts with more complex lift systems,” Pitcher said.
Wolf Creek has dropped its membership with Colorado Ski Country USA, and one reason for the departure, Pitcher said, is Wolf Creek felt its membership with the trade association “lumped” in the small operator with Colorado’s big resorts, many with a strong number of international travelers.
“We have some international visitors, but they are a tiny fraction of our skiers,” she said.
Pitcher emphasized the importance of ski season to Wolf Creek, which unlike almost all other Colorado resorts receives no revenue from real estate sales, is closed in the summer and doesn’t own on-mountain lodging.
“Our income comes from lift tickets,” she said.
Wolf Creek’s model – low density skiing and a reliance solely on lift tickets makes it particularly exposed to financial harm should another statewide ski area closure be ordered.
A little more than 200,000 skiers visit Wolf Creek during an average season. In 2019-20, the March 15 closure of ski areas cut short about more than a month of Wolf Creek’s season. For 2019-20, Wolf Creek had about 164,000 skier visits, Pitcher said.
“Oct. 7 is the earliest we’ve opened, and if we get early snow, we want things to be in place and there are no surprises for anyone, the agencies we deal with, the skiers and the people in our communities in the San Luis Valley and Pagosa Springs,” Pitcher said.