Arapahoe Basin - Spring Skiing - Ian Zinner
By R. Scott Rappold
As the chairlift neared the top, where it would spill me out at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, a panicked thought occurred:
"Do I even remember how to ski?"
After all, it had been six weeks since I last put skis on snow, and 81 days since Colorado's ski areas were ordered closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. As I prepared to get deposited at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, with 1,300 vertical feet between me and the parking lot, my legs felt weak and unexercised. Would they be up to the job of making turns in the June chowder?
Then I remembered something a ski instructor told me once: "They'll remember on the first turn."
I pushed off and it all came flowing back: The rush of wind in my ears; the adrenaline pumping through my veins; the balancing act of soaking in the mountain views while still watching where I'm going.
Skiing was back, baby. I was back.
But just getting here was a long, long road.
The bottom dropped out
I consider myself a professional ski bum, averaging 100 days a winter on the slopes and writing about skiing for various newspapers, magazines and websites. I save my pennies all summer to be able to ski as much as possible. You could say it's why I live in Colorado.
So when the bottom dropped out of the ski season in mid-March, I went through the stages of grief:
Denial: The ski industry can’t be shut down! They can't shut down an entire industry, one of the largest in Colorado!
Anger: Lashing out on social median our governor on Facebook.
Bargaining: I slapped on snowshoes and hiked up for a run - an hour of sweaty work for 4 minutes of bliss. I vowed never to do it again.
Depression: I didn't leave the house for exercise for days.
Acceptance: I bought an old set of alpine touring skis and skinned up the mountain a few times to get some runs inski down.
How bad was my mental state? I even considered getting a job, something no respectable ski bum should do when there's snow on a hill somewhere.
And speaking of jobs, tens of thousands of ski area employees, many of my friends among them, were suddenly without jobs. It was a gut punch the likes of which I hope to never suffer again.
As the weeks dragged on and it became clear ski areas wouldn't be allowed to reopen any time soon, the vast majority announced their seasons were over. A few tried to reopen as the governor's closure order expired in early May, but were denied.
At A-Basin, they felt the pain as much as anyone. But they do things a little differently here. Thanks to a high-elevation base and ample snowfall, they have the longest ski season in North America, often from October through June. They've even been known to host July 4 skiing on big snow years.
"We've basically been ready to reopen ever since (March 15.) We stayed ready by continuing to maintain the mountain," says A-Basin Communications Manager Katherine Fuller.
The healing process
It was clear, if they were to reopen, skiing would have to look verybe different during the pandemic.
Conversations with local and state health officials began almost immediately after the closure. How could an industry that by design brings people together - in the lift line, on the chair, in the restaurants, bars and patios - also encourage and enforce social distancing?
"It's unprecedented. There's no template for this," says Fuller. "There are lots of good ideas out there, but not all of them work."
But it never occurred to ski area managers to give up.
"We think that reopening was meaningful and part of the healing process. We needed to get A-Basin back on its feet, provide work opportunities for our staff, deliver skiing and riding to our guests. A lot of people were saying to us they really needed that," Fuller says. "We also wanted to be part of the community again and help the county start to get on its feet as safely as we could."
Finally, on May 25, the ski area announced they had an opening plan that had the blessing of local and state officials.
In a news release, Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said, "We believe the Basin has a solid plan in place, and we ask for everyone's cooperation with all the directions, guidelines and restrictions that are necessary to make this a success. We're depending on everyone to take personal responsibility to protect their own health and the health of Summit County's residents and visitors. And for those who get out on the slopes, we hope you have a blast!"
A different look
Scott Rappold - Line at Arapahoe Basin
You notice the difference immediately on pulling into the parking lot. Ski areas parking lots are often bustling places usually pack cars in as tight as possible to optimize limited space in mountain valleys and busy ski towns. But when they parked me on June 3, I could have flung my doors open and danced a jig without coming near my neighbors.
And speaking of the parking lot, there was no tailgating allowed. A-Basin in spring is the greatest party in ski country, with costumes, kegs of beer and raucous parties on "The Beach," where the snow meets the parking lot. But employees patrolled to make sure none of these shenanigans occurred.
I booted up and put on my face mask, those being mandatory in the lift line. The ticket scanner checked passes from behind a clear barrier to prevent the spread of germs.
And speaking of passes, they weren't as easy to get as before the pandemic. The approved plan limited the number of skiers to 600 per day, by advance reservation only. An online reservation system was launched at 7 p.m. on May 25.
It promptly crashed when 4,000 people clicked on it at once.
"We were anticipating a high level of interest and we thought we were ready for that," says Fuller. "We knew in about 5 to 10 minutes we were going to have to start over and figure something else out."
Clearly, people were champing at the bit to ski.
Says Fuller, "It's a good indicator of demand when you break the internet."
The ski area devised a lottery system since every day far more than 600 people were interested in making some turns. Skiers were told to print out their reservations in advance to avoid any ticket window lines.
Things were a bit different in the base area. There were no rentals, lessons or lockers and limited food and beverage service. With the snow melting quickly, the ski area is scheduled to close for good on Sunday, June 7.
Arapahoe Basin - Pandemic Signage - Scott Rappold
Back to June 3, as I entered the lift maze, there were markers every few six feet to maintain social distancing. where people in line were supposed to wait. Of course with only 600 people on the mountain lines were short anyway.
On the chair, I rode alone, since because skiers guests were only allowed to ride with people in their immediate party or family.
It was all very different and new, and there's no way of knowing if this is what skiing will look like when the snow returns this fall.
"We hope to return to normalcy but we need to take these steps now to know what to improve upon," says Fuller. "We're going to learn a lot from this. We already have."
It all faded into the background when I took my first ski run in a long while. Pandemic? What pandemic? It was just me, the mountain and gravity for 4 blissful minutes.
Was the snow great? No. The weather had been hot lately and it was slushy and disappearing fast.
Did it matter? No.
I skied lap after lap, laughing out loud even though I was skiing alone. It wasn't about the powder, the quest for which usually guides my every thought and deed from October through May.
It was about a return to normalcy, a return to one of the things I love most in the world, something I missed from my ripped apart life with no warning enduring the heart of the season. It was about escaping for a little while from a world rocked by pandemic and social unrest.
While we don’t know exactly what skiing will entail next year, don’t forget It was about ending my ski season on MY TERMS, not somebody else's.
Remember, there are only five months until the next ski season sports fans.
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado's beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott's stories here.