Thursday, April 23, 2020

Utah’s ski community roars on in a now quiet world

Alta Ski Area had to shut down mountain operations over a month sooner than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Alta Ski Area

When ski area employees across North America went to bed one night in mid-March, they still had a job. By the morning, thousands were out of one.

COVID-19 hit the world economy hard, but it hit the ski industry especially hard. The ski community in Utah was not exempt. Some seasonal Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon workers were given severance pay when they got laid-off or furloughed, while others weren’t. But almost all were told to go home, or at least, elsewhere, as ski areas were shutting down and no longer had means or a reason to house them. But Alta Ski Area, doing what it had to do by closing down a month earlier than anticipated, made their employees their primary concern.  

Alta marketing director Brandon Ott said over the phone that shutting Alta down on Saturday, March 14 was “absolutely the right thing to do,” and coronavirus concerns had been on the skier-only mountain’s radar since March 1. He said that it may have seemed dramatic at the time to close down so suddenly, but then clarified that it wasn’t. 

“You’d think ski areas are safe, with skiers wearing face masks and goggles but that’s not the case,” Ott said. “Really, you’re sharing chair and gondola rides, waiting in lines, and touching things.” 

Alta Ski Area typically operates for 151 days during the winter season but, due to an invisible foe, lost 25 percent of their season. But while many ski area employees around the world were kicked to the curb when their employers starting shutting things down, Alta approached the situation a little differently.

The ski area offered seasonal workers a few extra weeks of pay even though they were not working. And — to Alta’s luck — they didn’t have to lay-off or furlough any single one of their full-time staff, according to Ott. Instead, they kept them onboard by adapting their work routines to new precautions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

According to Ott, they’re “taking care of the Alta family” by limiting the number of people working in offices, spreading out schedules, and vigorously disinfecting surfaces. Because of the way the ski area is managed and operated, Alta was in a good position to handle this sudden pandemic. 

“It pays to be a little smaller — to be a ski area and not a resort,” Ott said.

Because Alta doesn’t have a large-scale summer operations program, and because it doesn’t actually own any of the lodges around the mountain, they were in a manageable position to shut down a month early. Many other ski areas rely on the profits driven from their summer operations, which at this time are uncertain as to whether they will still happen. In the meantime, while snow continues to fall from the sky, Alta is allowing the public to earn their turns at their ski area. 

Uphill travel is allowed at Alta at this time, and snow-cats are grooming a select few trails every morning. According to Ott, this is a major key to prevent bottlenecks at popular backcountry trailheads in Little Cottonwood Canyon — by letting the public rip the wide-open ski area. Employees are also cleaning ski area bathrooms daily and Utah Department of Transportation crews are still plowing the roads when they need plowing. 

It should also be noted that Alta has seen a solid amount of snowfall this season, despite closing early, with 540 inches of snowfall at the time of this writing. To put that into perspective, Alta’s 40-year season average is 548 inches. 

Yet, no one really knows what all is going to come of this pandemic, and what next season is going to look like in the Little Cottonwood Canyon. What will pass sales be like for the 2020/21 ski season? When asked about the uncertain future, Ott said:

“Really, we’re taking care of our employees first. We’re in no rush to talk about pass pricing just yet.”

A time-lapse photo of the town of Alta tucked away at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Photo by Alta Ski Area. 

With that in mind, Alta is doing what it can for the many skiers that call this mountain home. Across the Wasatch traveling north, Powder Mountain, too, is doing what they can for their family of full-time and seasonal employees. 

Powder Mountain had an original closing date of April 12, 2020, but like Alta, the virus shut them down a month early. The ski resort responded initially by adapting operational measures while keeping their mountain open. They closed down lodges, spaced out lift-lines, and discontinued ski school. But, by remaining open with strictly enforced social-distancing measures, they ran into a new problem that they’ve never faced before: More people than ever were coming to ski Pow Mow because it was the only ski resort open for hundreds of miles in every direction. 

“We had a really good plan,” Powder Mountain’s marketing manager JP Goulet said. “But the issue with all the other ski resorts closing was that people were now coming from all over the U.S. and Canada to come ski Powder Mountain because we were one of the last bigger ski resorts open. Which is the last thing you want, you know, people traveling to other places in a time like this.” 

The final nail in the coffin for Powder Mountain’s season abruptly came when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert proceeded to issue the stay safe, stay home directive on March 27. That’s when Powder Mountain made the swift decision to cut their losses and shut resort operations down. 

Conveniently enough, most of the resort’s J-1 employees had already left the week prior and Powder Mountain was actually looking to hire new employees before ultimately deciding to shut down, according to Goulet. So, although some of Powder Mountain’s employees were laid-off, the resort didn’t have to let go near as many employees had they been forced to shut down a week or two sooner. Like Alta, too, Powder Mountain doesn’t have an extensive summer operations program. They have cross-country bike trails, which are open to the public, and should remain open this summer, according to Goulet. 

With the mountain closed, resort employees have a lot of time to think. Everything is still up in the air about how the ski industry is going to be affected long-term by the coronavirus, and a lot of uncertainty lingers. But Goulet is confident about next season. 

“We’re in a really good position to open [next season] because we never put that many people together anyway,” Goulet said. “We average three acres per skier.” 

Three acres of skiable terrain is more than enough for one skier, providing adequate space for social-distancing. The best Powder Mountain can do at this time is remain hopeful and play on their strengths, like their limited pass sales and very-spacious ski resort that boasts the most skiable acreage in the United States. But ski areas aren’t the only ones playing their part to help the ski community at large in the midst of a global pandemic. Several Salt Lake City non-profit organizations have taken matters into their own hands. 

A snow-cat at Powder Mountain. Photo by Powder Mountain.

Becca Fenander has been with the Alta ski patrol for 26 ski seasons and is the current president of Amazing Ski and Snow People, a non-profit organization that’s mission is to “support the physical, social, and mental health, education, and infrastructure needs of the ski patrol community.” Her organization helps the Little Cottonwood Canyon ski community with an emphasis on Alta ski patrollers.

When the going got tough with the pandemic and canyon employees were suddenly out of a job, Fenander and her organization stepped up to the plate. They started what’s called the “Little Cottonwood Canyon Coronavirus Relief Fund,” which is a fundraiser designated towards enhancing the wellbeing of the community by swiftly responding to the emergent needs of canyon employees who have lost wages and housing because of the mandatory shut-downs.

Fenander said that the easiest way to help the LCC community is simply by donating to the fund. “Anything helps,” she said. The relief fund has a proposed goal of $20,000, and, so far, Fenander is only $3,450 away from hitting that goal. To donate, click HERE.

“It’s about more than just money,” Fenander said. “It’s about an upwards spiral of wellbeing.” 

Fenander said that any surplus donations will be split 50-50 with Alta Community Enrichment (ACE) and Get Us PPE which are other non-profits. 

Amazing Ski and Snow People is adapting their organization as best they can, like everyone else during these strange times. ACE is too, and they’ve seen much recent success with the way they’ve been handling the situation. 

“We intend to create a community even when we can’t be near each other,” Sara Gibbs said, the executive director of ACE. 

Alta Community Enrichment is a non-profit organization that has the vision of creating a strong community by bringing people who live, work, and play in Little Cottonwood Canyon together to share the arts, culture, and education. According to Gibbs, ACE has four clear goals that help the community take interest and become involved. They are:
  1.          Supporting local arts and artists.
  2.          Bringing opportunities in the arts, culture, and education to the community.
  3.          Increasing awareness of the variety of activities that take place in our community. 
  4.      Having a strong, high-functioning Board of Trustees. 
Gibbs said that ACE was actually the very first entity in Alta to shut down because of the coronavirus before the rest of the town followed suit. As she put it over the phone, the early shutdown of canyon ski areas was “absolutely crushing,” not only to her but to everyone affected. That includes ski area employees, lodge workers, cooks, bartenders, maintenance crews — the list goes on.

“The average worker in Alta makes about $150 a week. That’s barely enough to live,” Gibbs said.

That’s why ACE gives back as much as they can to the community because without that community, the non-profit wouldn’t survive, according to Gibbs. Like Fenander with Amazing Ski and Snow People, Gibbs also had to step up to the plate and make drastic changes to the way ACE does things when the entire world changed overnight. 

ACE had 34 events planned before Alta Ski Area hurriedly closed. They were all painfully canceled. Yet, instead of giving in to change, ACE embraced it. They’ve moved many of their scheduled events to virtual outings online via social media platforms like Instagram.

For example, the Alta Gala is a staple for end-of-the-ski-season events and is basically one big party of rowdy skiers dressed in costumes, dancing and drinking, with the event's proceeds going towards philanthropic purposes in the Alta community. ACE reoriented it as a virtual event this year. Instead of meeting up at the event, party-goers logged into their Zoom accounts and partied on from home. And that’s not the only instance where ACE has shown resilience in the face of adversity. 

Gibbs said that ACE has already created 16 virtual events since the pandemic began, and plans to create more. Of these virtual activities are a downloadable coloring book, free for all, and ACE-sponsored yoga sessions taking place via Instagram Live every day with Alta yoga instructor, Marie “Sunshine” Heywood. 

“ACE doesn’t pause for the community,” Gibbs said. 

So, even when the global economy pauses, when the ski industry comes to a standstill, and when the world seemingly stops spinning for a moment, there remain those who continue to push back against the creeping tides of change. And luckily for us, those people are skiers. 

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