WINTER PARK — Nick Hulse figures he’s gotten in three dozen ski days this winter, and Saturday topped them all with nine inches of fresh powder at Winter Park to kick off a fluffy Presidents Day weekend.
“The best day I’ve had, for sure,” the Denver resident said while tailgating with five friends — and no COVID-19 concerns — at Winter Park’s Mary Jane base area as bratwurst sizzled on the grill. “It skis really deep. It’s super nice out there.”
The three-day weekend got off to a great start as nine Colorado ski resorts received a foot or more of snow over the past three days. Wolf Creek topped the count with 35 inches, with Purgatory checking in at 17 while Winter Park and Telluride picked up 14. Steamboat, Aspen Snowmass, Crested Butte, and Granby Ranch received 13 and Loveland 12.
Despite worrisome avalanche forecasts issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the parking lot atop Berthoud Pass and lots lower on the north side of the pass on Saturday were packed with cars. On Sunday, a snowmobiler was killed in a backcountry avalanche four miles northeast of Winter Park, and a snowboarder was killed on Mount Trelease near Loveland Pass, bringing Colorado’s avalanche death toll for the season to 10.
But at Winter Park, skiers and riders reveled in powder. And judging from several random interviews, they felt safe from concerns over COVID-19 even though the resort reported five days earlier that it was experiencing an outbreak among employees that exceeded 100 cases.
Kris Penn of Chicago, skiing with her husband, their two children and another family, said she had “no reservations at all” with the way Winter Park has been managing COVID protocols. Her family has a second home in Winter Park and skied there for two and a half weeks over the Christmas holidays. Now they’re back for another extended trip.
“First of all, they are very clear about mask wearing,” Penn said. “The lifties are all trained well to stop (masks that are lowered). They’re on it, every time. There’s no inside food service, so you have to queue up outside, and any social area requires mask wearing. We’re super conservative as a family. If anybody is going to be scrutinizing it, it’s our family, and we’re totally comfortable.”
Hulse, 26, said he skied Alta and Snowbird in Utah the previous weekend and found things more sketchy there.
“The mask police, people who were policing it, were really not on it,” said Hulse, an Ikon Pass-holder. “I definitely felt a little less comfortable there. They were trying, but they were not as attentive. I’ve skied a bunch this year, I ski at Copper all the time, Winter Park, and they were way better than the Utah guys. This is like my 35th day, and never once did I feel nervous with COVID.
“I have witnessed, a couple of times, people talking back about the mask thing. It really doesn’t matter how you feel about it. If it’s going to keep them open, might as well just follow all of the rules so we can ski.”
Winter Park resident Allison Beauvais and a friend visiting from Houston, Diane LeMaire, took time out from skiing to make lunch for their daughters, heating up homemade chili on a grill.
“We have to keep them happy, so we try to make a good lunch for them,” said Beauvais, 44. “All the restaurants are closed on the mountain.”
As a local, Beauvais skis Winter Park regularly, and she expressed full confidence in its COVID protocols.
“I think it’s great,” Beauvais said. “Everybody keeps their mask on while they are in the lift lines, and they’re pretty good about making sure you do that, so we feel totally safe. I know there was an outbreak recently, but that didn’t stop us in any way.”
In fact, LeMaire felt the rules being enforced at Winter Park went “almost overboard,” because she’s used to rules being looser back home in Texas.
“In Houston, if you’re outside, you don’t wear a mask,” LeMaire said. “When you come down the slopes, it says this is a mask zone, and they’re regulating it. They’re making sure, ‘Above your nose.’ They’re being really friendly about it, but I almost think it’s a little too much. I think they’re being super safe. There’s sanitation stations, and restaurants are closed, so you’re not indoors with anybody.”
At entrances to Winter Park buildings, resort staff members were posted, counting every person who went in and out to maintain COVID capacity limits. They had devices connected electronically to message boards posted outside the buildings, keeping real-time counts for visitors. For example, at 8:58 a.m., a sign at West Portal Station said 52 spots were available inside. It cycled with another display reporting the current capacity at six other locations spread out across the resort.
Asked if clicking the entrance and exit of people at West Portal while monitoring mask compliance was a boring assignment, the monitor there said no.
“Lots of people don’t like to wear masks,” he said. “It makes it very exciting.”
While moderate-sized lift lines queued up in the Winter Park base to ride the gondola, resort staff paced the area looking for folks who didn’t have their masks pulled up over their noses. Occasionally they would find someone and ask them politely to pull their masks up.
“This is not an anomaly, what you’re seeing today,” said Penn, the mom from Chicago. “This has been our experience now for the better part of 20 days this season.”
Alex Weber wasn’t having a very good time, though. She’d flown out for the week from Philadelphia with two friends and sprained a knee ligament the first day. While her friends played in the powder Saturday, she hung out in the base area on crutches with a walking brace on her knee.
“Life hands you lemons sometimes,” she said.
She felt comfortable cruising the shops in the base area to kill time, though.
“I think people have been doing pretty well,” said Weber, 26. “The facilities are run pretty well. They’re adhering to the building occupancies and people are taking personal accountability pretty seriously. I’m pleasantly surprised with how people have been handling it.”
Meanwhile it was hard to find a parking place in the lot atop Berthoud Pass, even though the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had issued a “special avalanche advisory” on Friday, running through Monday.
“Avalanche conditions are unusual and may become very dangerous as storms impact the mountains,” the CAIC said. “Backcountry travelers can trigger avalanches that may break very widely and run the full length of the avalanche path. Your normal routes and safety habits may not keep you out of a dangerous avalanche. Backcountry travelers need to take extra precautions this weekend. Check current conditions for the area you are planning to travel. Adjust your plan for the day to fit the current avalanche conditions.”
On the pass, a forest service law enforcement officer said she wasn’t surprised so many people flocked to the backcountry despite the conditions.
“Being public land,” she said, “it’s kind of ‘Use at your own risk.’”
Three more storms are forecast this week, according to the OpenSnow reporting and forecasting service. The first, expected Monday night through Wednesday morning, could deliver 6-12 inches to the northern mountains, Aspen, Monarch, Telluride and Silverton. The second storm is expected to bring light snow on Friday, but the third one is expected to drop another 5-10 inches on the northern and central mountains.
“Since the (third) storm is still nearly one week away, a lot of the details could change, but most models have been on board with a forecast for a Sunday powder day for the northern half of the state,” wrote OpenSnow meteorologist Joel Gratz, “so we’ll go with it.”