Paltry early season snowfall followed by staffing challenges posed by the COVID-19 omicron surge have limited the amount of terrain that some ski areas have been able to open, resort officials acknowledge.
Many resorts have been catching up on snowfall rapidly since the onset of a series of storms that began Christmas week, which has helped, but increasing COVID-19 numbers continue to cause staffing problems even as fresh snow piles up and more storms take aim on the state.
Vail Mountain had only 62% of its skiable terrain open on Monday. That has since increased to 69%, and mountain crews are working to open Blue Sky Basin. Beth Howard, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, brought skiers and snowboarders up to date with a recent letter to “the Vail Mountain Community,” outlining the challenges that her crews have encountered.
“Although we had low natural snow and a warm start to the season, we’ve recently enjoyed numerous powder days and the mountain is filling in nicely,” Howard wrote. “We have faced some very difficult challenges. The biggest dynamic we are contending with right now is COVID-19. It’s why Pride Express (a lift to Eagles Nest on the west side of the mountain) isn’t running, why some of our retail stores are closed, and why some of our food and beverage operations have been slimmed down.”
Howard noted that Vail employees are required to be vaccinated, adding that they are asked to stay home if they are sick.
“In my 37 years in the industry, this has been the most challenging holiday season I’ve ever experienced,” Howard said. “This has no doubt been a challenging few weeks for every person working at Vail Mountain, and I am grateful for all of their hard work to perform under the stress of the holidays and the resurgence of COVID-19.”
But many skiers and riders grumble on social media that the problem goes deeper and affects Vail Resorts properties nationwide, saying the company should have done more to solve its labor shortage. Buzz Schleper, who moved to Vail from Minnesota in 1972 and owns a ski and snowboard shop just a few steps from Gondola One in Vail Village, complains that Vail could have and should have made more snow in November to accommodate Thanksgiving weekend crowds. Only one lift was in operation then.
“The top end, they make a lot of money in bonuses and stock options,” Schleper said. “They need to pay a higher wage to get people to work for them. COVID may have come into play, but I think it’s just a lack of employees and I think Vail Resorts needs to pay their employees more. It seems to me that Vail Resorts is all about the money. They oversold passes; they’re not so worried about the skier’s, the consumer’s experience anymore.”
Keystone has 38% of its terrain in operation and Breckenridge stands at 60%. Both are owned by Vail Resorts.
“Thanks to the recent December snowfall, our teams have been able to open additional areas of terrain around the resorts that require natural snow, and they will continue conducting snow control work throughout the resorts to expand terrain as quickly and safely as possible,” said spokeswoman Loryn Roberson. “As it relates to impacts due to COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges we are experiencing at the moment is daily staffing impacts due to cold symptoms and COVID-19 exclusions.”
Like Vail, employees at Breckenridge and Keystone are required to be vaccinated and are asked to stay home when they feel ill.
“The good news is, our employees are doing the right thing and staying home,” Roberson said. “But on the flip side, it means we are seeing and experiencing operational impacts on the mountain at a higher rate than expected due to the omicron variant. This is part of the reason you may see certain lifts or areas of terrain not open yet, retail stores closed or slimmed down options in (food and beverage) outlets.”
Complicating matters in Breckenridge, longtime resident C.J. Mueller said a non-COVID virus has been going around there. Mueller had felt its effects for two weeks.
“I was negative for COVID, but it was viral and it was the same symptoms,” said Mueller, who moved to Breckenridge one year out of high school in 1970 to be a ski bum. “They get symptoms of something that’s not COVID, but it’s still a viral cold, and they can spread it in the same way. I never felt anything close to having to see a doctor, but you don’t want to give it to somebody else.”
At Steamboat, spokeswoman Loryn Duke acknowledged that COVID in that community is “surging,” but said it hasn’t caused too many staffing problems.
“We do have staff staying home when they are symptomatic, positive and/or exposed,” Duke said. “This has not affected our available terrain. We are about 90 percent open, with 147 of 169 trails, and the remaining terrain is mostly expert and terrain parks which are dependent on a lot of love from Mother Nature.”
Winter Park had about 10% of its terrain open prior to the storms that were such a timely boon for resorts over the holidays. Now that figure is up to 77%.
“Late fall and early winter weather and snowfall impacted the amount of terrain Winter Park currently has in operation,” spokeswoman Jen Miller said. “While the latest storm gave us a lot of new snow, our ski patrol and other slope operations teams still have work to do to safely open more terrain. This next round of snow will allow us to open even more.”
Arapahoe Basin spokeswoman Katherine Fuller said some food and beverage operations had to be limited over the holidays there but staffing issues have not affected the amount of terrain they can offer.
“We’ve been opening new terrain at a rapid pace, thanks to all of the recent snowfall,” Fuller said.
At Copper Mountain, which is 67% open, spokeswoman Taylor Prather said terrain openings have not been affected by COVID staffing challenges. It also hasn’t been a problem at Cooper, a small area near Leadville.
“We are doing great,” Cooper spokeswoman Dana Johnson said, “and are 100% open.”
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