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Will We Have a 2020-’21 Ski Season? Copper Mountain’s Summer Park Offers Insight

The scene in July at Copper Mountain's Woodward terrain park sheds some light on ski industry's plans for the upcoming season.

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It’s not unusual for Copper Mountain to see action in its terrain park during the middle of summer. Woodward, Copper’s action sports training facility, normally hosts weeklong, on-snow camps for young skiers and riders on a trajectory to becoming competitive athletes. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those camps were eliminated this summer. Instead, Copper is running daylong ski, snowboard, and snow skate lessons that are open to anyone in its Woodward terrain park through August 15.

For skiers and boarders alike, the lessons have offered an emotional remuneration of sorts for a season cut short by COVID-19. But for the industry as a whole, Copper’s on-snow summer lessons also offer some insight into what the mountain experience will look like if—and it’s a big if—the 2020-’21 ski season actually happens.

“I feel like this is a glimpse of how resorts will work with health departments to make it a safe season,” Woodward snowboard instructor Sean Marshall said during a lesson at Woodward this July. Marshall, like winter resort employees across Colorado, found himself suddenly out of work on March 15 when resort operations came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic.

“A lot of people are asking what this winter’s going to look like,” Marshall says. “Is there going to be a winter? I don’t know. Nobody knows right now. I had a day last week with five adults. A couple of them were instructors at other resorts. They were all super excited for a chance to be back on snow.”

The summer Woodward park measures roughly 900 feet long and 300 feet wide and is comprised of numerous lines of multi-level jumps, rails, boxes, and hip features. Summer lessons—which are by reservation only and start at $179 a day for group classes and $299 for private ones—are limited to 50 skiers or riders in the terrain park at once, about a quarter of the typical summer crowd. (The snow, much of it manmade and harvested from the winter super pipe, varies from about five to 10 feet.)

Per public health protocol, face coverings and a distance of six feet between unknown parties are required at all times and chairlift rides are limited to those in the same household or group. Throughout the day, employees take to the loudspeakers around to issue friendly reminders to follow protocol. Before accessing the snow, all summer lesson participants must pass a temperature check and a health questionnaire. The resort’s cafeteria remains closed, West Village base area facilities are limited to restroom use, where enhanced sanitation measures have been implemented. The Copper Sports shop is open for bike rentals, but the resort has a new policy where units cannot be rented for 24 hours between guests to allow for thorough cleaning.

“It’s too early to predict what the guest experience will be like at Copper, or any POWDR resorts this winter, but our top priority remains the health and safety of our employees, guests, and communities,” says Tim Brennwald, COO of POWDR, which owns nine mountain resorts, including Copper. “Right now, it’s so nice to welcome guests for summer activities such as Woodward lessons. In doing so, we’re committed to providing a safe and memorable experience by implementing extra protocols that both guests and employees must follow. We take COVID-19 seriously, and as we conceive of what a responsible visit to Copper or our other resorts might look like come ski season, we will continue to work closely with local and state health departments.”

Fellow industry executives express similar sentiments. In Colorado, numerous resorts, including Arapahoe Basin and Aspen Snowmass, have conducted surveys, asking prospective winter guests about the number of days they anticipate visiting the slopes and whether they are willing to follow COVID-19-related protocols.

“The guest surveys we’ve conducted show that most of you are accepting of the necessary operational changes. But to the handful who say we should operate as normal and ignore our public health professionals, I want to be clear: We will only go back to business as usual at the ski areas and in our restaurants and hotels when the science and health experts give us the unanimous ‘all clear,’” Aspen Snowmass CEO Mike Kaplan wrote in a recent email blast. “Until then, we’ll be serious and vigilant about keeping one another safe.”

He added that “necessary operational changes” will include similar protocols seen at Copper this summer or at A-Basin during its short-lived June re-opening: social distancing, mandatory face coverings, and lift and gondola rides limited to riders from the same family or group. Kaplan also noted that lodges and other congested areas will likely look much different, writing that he expects the coming ski season to be more of “an old school experience.” Resorts haven’t yet confirmed whether they will limit the number of visitors on the mountain this winter or institute a ski-by-reservation model, like the one A-Basin implemented in June.

But until skiers and riders see what the crystal ball delivers this winter, at least there are a few more days to shred the park at Copper.

“It’s not that hard to follow these types of precautions when you’re skiing or riding,” Marshall says. “I mean, I’ve always worn this buff on my face. I prefer it to sunscreen. Obviously, we all want a winter, so it doesn’t seem difficult to take this stuff seriously and keep everyone safe.”

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