Aspen Skiing Co. decides to load gondolas to full capacity to keep skiers and cyclists flowing smoothly

A long line forms around noon at the Silver Queen Gondola on Sunday January 30, 2022, a sunny bluebird day on Aspen Mountain.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. will no longer respond to requests for private gondola cabins for skiers and snowboarders concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19.

The new policy went into effect over the weekend for the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain and the Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass.

“It was because we weren’t loading (the gondolas) to capacity,” said Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications.

The company wants the pod to charge to full capacity to keep waiting times to a minimum. Masks are still mandatory in the gondola cabins and in the queues for the gondola.

Skico began alerting customers to the policy change on Saturday in its Daily Snow Report via email, and signs are being prepared to be posted outside lower gondola terminals, Hanle said.

The snow report message reads: “We are loading the gondolas to full capacity so if you are not comfortable with (this) please head to one of our chairlifts to access the mountain. “

The Little Nell chairlift at Aspen Mountain operated to bring guests onto lift 1A and up the mountain. At Snowmass, the Village Express chair offers a lift off the base.

Hanle said Skico has largely avoided the well-documented issues that have plagued the ski industry this winter. Several ski areas have limited the amount of open terrain or delayed the opening of terrain due to a lack of staff. In some cases, chairlifts and mountain facilities have not opened. Vail Resorts felt the the weight of criticism for conditions at some of its stations.

Despite hiring difficulties, Aspen Skiing Co. has managed to open nearly all of its courses. Skico owns 1,040 acres of 1,053 open at Aspen Highlands, the 675 acres at Aspen Mountain, 3,341 of 3,342 acres at Snowmass and the 470 acres at Buttermilk.

Hanle said the only mountain facility that hasn’t been open full time this season is the Alpin Room at the High Alpine restaurant. The sit-down restaurant is closed on some weekdays due to a lack of demand, not due to a lack of staff, he said.

Skico faced its biggest staffing challenges at an inopportune time this season. COVID-19 swept through the ranks just as business was gearing up for the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

“At a peak, we had 300 or more employees,” Hanle said.

Skico officials consider it something of a blessing that business was strong but not record high over the holidays, when snow conditions hampered travel and kept some visitors off the slopes.

As the Aspen-Snowmass ski season nears the halfway point on Feb. 8, Skico is experiencing “non-record but steady numbers” for business, according to Hanle.

“All metrics are up from last year,” he said.

The 2020-21 season has been hampered by some people’s reluctance to travel, indoor dining limits and long queues due to spacing requirements in the mazes.

Skiers prepared to load up the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain on Monday. Aspen Skiing Co. changed its policy over the weekend and will no longer be responding to private cabin requests due to COVID-19 concerns.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times

Skico set a record for skier and rider visits in 2018-19 and tied record numbers from the 2019-20 season when ski resorts in Colorado were forced to close in mid-March. Skico’s numbers haven’t returned to record days.

“We’re down about 14% to (Sunday) in total skier visits” from two seasons ago, Hanle said. “Most of this can be explained by destination visits. The use of paid passes has been almost stable for two seasons.

Vail Resorts reported in mid-January that its skier visits to its North American resorts were down 1.7% from the previous season and down 18.3% from the same period in 2019 -20.

In Aspen, business suffered in January from a lack of international travellers, but the ski season will resume for the next two months.

“February and March are looking really strong,” Hanle said.

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