If you’re craving spring skiing, good news might be on the way: Wolf Creek Ski Area is making moves in the hopes of reopening for a few weeks before the snow is all gone.
“I think it’s time to let people ski,” said owner Davey Pitcher. “People need to get out and get some fresh air.”
Ski areas across Colorado have been bereft of skiers and snowboarders since Gov. Jared Polis’ order March 14 closed resorts statewide, which at the time were among the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
This week, however, Polis eased restrictions with his “safer-at-home” order, and Pitcher thought it was time to get back on the slopes.
The only snag in Wolf Creek Ski Area’s reopening, however, is an enforceable mandate within the safer-at-home order that says people are not allowed to travel more than 10 miles to recreate. To bypass the regulation, Wolf Creek Ski Area needs to receive approval of a variance from both Mineral County’s health department and the state health department.
If approved, people would be allowed to travel to the resort, located atop Wolf Creek Pass and nearly 25 miles from the nearest town.
Pitcher said he has support from Mineral County commissioners, where Wolf Creek Ski Area is located, and from the health department that oversees the region, Silver Thread Public Health.
Silver Thread Public Health did not return calls seeking comment. Mineral County Commissioner Jesse Albright, however, confirmed that both the health department and commissioners have recommended the ski area be able to reopen.
“Our belief is it’s a great opportunity to get back out and recreate, especially for mental well-being,” Albright said. “That’s what drove us.”
Pitcher said he also checked with local hospitals and emergency response agencies, all of which indicated they would be OK with an opening and have the capacity to either transport or treat anyone injured at the ski area.
“We are prepared for a surge here, but at this time, we’re not experiencing a surge … and have the capacity to care for someone should they get injured,” said Rhonda Webb, chief medical officer for Pagosa Springs Medical Center.
As of Thursday, Mineral County had two confirmed cases of coronavirus and Archuleta County, just to the south, had eight confirmed cases.
Now, the only step remaining is to receive the go-ahead from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Ian Dickson, a spokesman for CDPHE, said the department had not received a variance request as of Thursday.
Pitcher, however, said the state has his variance request, and he was told it would take three days for state health officials to decide. Dickson did not respond to follow-up questions seeking clarification.
To date, only two variance requests have been granted: Eagle County to reopen some nonessential businesses and recreational facilities, and Mesa County to reopen restaurants, churches and gyms.
Pitcher said Wolf Creek Ski Area has been planning for a possible reopening for a few weeks and would like to reopen as early as this weekend.
“We thought it was a simple request,” he said. “So we’re feeling a little frustrated.”
Pitcher said the ski area, with a base elevation of 10,300 feet and 1,600 skiable acres, could reopen for a few more weeks of the season, and do it safely.
“We can’t run our society without taking a little risk,” he said. “But we really feel this is totally in the spirit of the ‘safer-at-home’ order.”
As part of the reopening plan, Wolf Creek Ski Area would require cars to park 12 feet apart, people to use social distancing on lift lines and limit one person per lift chair (excluding family members or people from the same household).
Restrooms would be limited to 10 people at a time and cleaned hourly. Face masks would be mandatory for staff and guests. No food or beverages would be offered from the lodge.
And the number of people allowed on the mountain would be restricted. Only 500 people with season passes would be allowed to ski (Wolf Creek has 1,700 pass holders), and only 120 tickets would be sold to the general public per day.
Anyone who wants to ski would have to make a reservation beforehand.
“That’s about one-tenth of our capacity,” Pitcher said. “So our plan is really restrictive.”
Pitcher said reopening is not profit-motivated. Instead, he said getting skiers back on the mountain for a few weeks will help the ski area plan for next season, especially in case the coronavirus spikes back up.
“I hope that doesn’t happen, but it is something we need to plan for,” he said.
Pitcher said opening for a few weeks would give people something to be excited about during these difficult times.
“I usually don’t enjoy late spring skiing,” he said. “But it’s pretty darn fun right now.”
Dave Rathbun, general manager at Purgatory Resort, said he remains in close communication with San Juan Basin Public Health to understand when the resort may reopen, either for skiing or the summer season.
“We look forward to their continued updates as we get closer to a reopening date,” he said.
SJBPH did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jenn Brill, owner of Silverton Mountain, also did not respond to a request for comment. San Juan County remains effectively shutoff to outside visitors seeking to recreate because of its remote location, which would require visitors to travel more than 10 miles, which is banned under the safer-at-home order until at least May 27.