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Skiing Outlook 2020: Ski Idaho 2020-21 season promising despite pandemic

Wire reports

From wire reports

The Idaho Ski Areas Association, aka Ski Idaho, elected Bogus Basin general manager Brad Wilson president of the 18-resort collective at its annual membership meeting last month.

Wilson, who has worked in the resort industry for 42 years and at ski areas for all but nine of them, has helmed Bogus Basin since November 2015.

On Wilson’s watch, Bogus Basin has established robust summer operations, offering a variety of family-friendly activities from late June through early October, adding the year-round Glade Runner mountain coaster, and building a second mountain bike park. He’s also overseen improvements to winter operations, with the recreation area adding and then doubling snow-making capabilities and replacing the Morning Star Chairlift with a high-speed detachable quad.

During his four-year term as Ski Idaho president, Wilson hopes to help the state’s smaller ski areas successfully navigate challenges like managing operations with limited human and financial resources and overcoming disruptive events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I love small ski areas,” Wilson said. “I’ve always enjoyed them and understand their significance in the whole scheme of things. That’s why the ISAA is so important. It’s difficult for a small ski area to attend the big national ski area association conferences. Ski Idaho gives smaller ski areas a chance to glean information from the larger ones and stay in touch with the industry so they can continue to grow and prosper.”

Wilson had praise for his predecessor, Brundage Mountain president and managing director Bob Looper.

“Under Bob’s enthusiastic leadership, many ski resorts around Idaho have successfully transitioned to year-round operations,” Wilson said. “The introduction of mountain biking and other summer activities at mountain recreation areas throughout the state is generating essential new operating revenue and putting Idaho on the map as a top outdoor destination in all seasons. We appreciate Bob’s many contributions toward this end.”

Adapting to COVID-19

During the organization’s annual meeting, Ski Idaho also laid out plans on how its members can address safety concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic this winter. Wilson said National Ski Areas Association president and CEO Kelly Pawlak presented its “Ski Well, Be Well” program during the Zoom meeting, and he’s confident all 18 Ski Idaho resorts will adopt it.

“We assume the current health mitigation strategies related to COVID-19 will continue to be in place through the winter,” Wilson said. “This includes the requirement of facial coverings in public spaces – including the base area and lift lines and any time you’re allowed indoors – and maintaining physical distance in all public spaces by both guests and employees. The rule of thumb on the chairlifts and gondolas is to ride with who you came with, and many resorts are recommending that guests use their own vehicles as personal lodges.”

He said the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you choose outdoor activities and places where it’s easy to stay 6 feet apart if you decide to go out, and skiing and snowboarding have a low risk of transmission.

“It would be tough to find a safer outdoor space than on a chairlift,” Wilson said. “Skis are about 6 feet long, so it’s easy to social distance in the lift line. There’s good directional airflow when you’re riding the lift and the chairs are spaced 50 feet apart. Skiers and boarders are already used to wearing gear like masks and gloves and goggles and helmets. And if there’s any place to social distance, it’s here in Idaho.”

Wilson said many Ski Idaho resorts are limiting or not allowing indoor seating and dining. At least one Idaho ski area, Bogus Basin, is using software that allows visitors to order food via their smartphones and establish a specific time to pick it up right outside the lodge. Kelly Canyon will also allow guests to order food via their personal devices with satellite food distribution options outside the lodge. Several mountains have purchased large tents to expand outdoor seating and dining, and at least two – Grand Targhee and Tamarack – will begin operating food trucks.

As many transactions as possible ranging from lift ticket sales to liability waivers are going online. Some long-standing annual events will be canceled. Some resorts may not offer après-ski events.

Tamarack is repurposing a dome to become the primary rental and retail space to allow for safe social distancing. The resort will also offer touchless ticket- and pass-pickup boxes as well as noncontact, pay-as-you-go, direct-lift access.

No Ski Idaho resort plans to place limits on season passholder visitation, according to Wilson.

At least one mountain, Schweitzer, will limit single-day lift ticket inventories based on historical data to ensure season passholders can maintain social distancing expectations, and another, Bogus Basin, will limit them on peak winter weekends and holidays. The latter will open up night skiing earlier – at 3 p.m. instead of 4 – and even offers a discounted night-skiing season pass.

Some resorts will offer prorated credit to this year’s season passholders based on how many, if any, days they are closed due to COVID-19. Grand Targhee calls it their 100-Day Guarantee. Silver Mountain calls theirs the Passholder Peace of Mind Policy. Tamarack announced a COVID-19 refund policy that provides 2020-2021 passholders with rollover credits in the event of a government-mandated closure prior to the season’s end.

Several ski areas will place restrictions on the Idaho Peak Season Passport, an $18 multiresort pass that lets fifth-graders ski or board up to three times for free at each of Ski Idaho’s 18 member resorts and lets sixth-graders go up to two times for free at 17 of them. This season some mountains may not allow kids to use the passport on Saturdays, while some plan to exclude weekends and holidays.

The three Ski Idaho resorts boasting backcountry snowcat operations – Brundage Mountain, Grand Targhee, and Soldier Mountain – are limiting access this winter to private bookings rather than letting guests purchase single seats. Selkirk Powder, which uses Schweitzer Mountain as a launchpad for its backcountry snowcat excursions, is making no such restrictions, although it has installed larger windows in the cabins to create more airflow and adopted robust COVID-19 safety protocols.

Wilson recommends skiers and snowboarders check online for the most up-to-date information about Ski Idaho resorts they plan to visit this season. He said skiidaho.us has links to all the resorts’ websites.

New for 20-21 season

In addition to all the new safety protocols, visitors to Idaho ski resorts will encounter an array of other enhancements this winter.

Near Boise, Bogus Basin doubled the number of top-to-bottom runs with snowmaking coverage and made updates throughout its main lodge, the Simplot Lodge.

It expanded its outdoor seating and dining options by adding large tents and four new satellite food and beverage offerings, plus visitors can order food for pickup via their smartphones.

Brundage Mountain has added a new two-acre parking lot that can accommodate up to 150 additional vehicles. Guests have access to a free shuttle that runs to and from nearby McCall, and Brundage has replaced its 12-passenger van with a new 33-passenger bus.

The resort has installed a new bathroom facility with four flush toilets that provides easy outdoor access on the edge of the main parking lot.

Two new outdoor grill areas will keep lines short in food-and-beverage facilities and expanded outdoor seating areas boast new tables and benches.

Kelly Canyon in eastern Idaho near Idaho Falls will begin operating on Sundays this season and has other improvements planned.

The Little Ski Hill in McCall has installed a new T-bar to replace the old one, plus it is upgrading the existing night-skiing lights. The goal is to light the remaining two runs next summer.

In addition, the Little Ski Hill will likely start opening at noon during weekdays this winter rather than 3 p.m. to help accommodate its altered after-school program.

This summer Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area took advantage of its new frontside main lift, a fixed-grip quad, by offering lift-served downhill mountain biking and scenic chairlift rides. It is something to try out in summer 2021.

In eastern Idaho near Pocatello, Pebble Creek Ski Area has expanded its snow-making capabilities and night-skiing lights in the First Timer area, significantly improving terrain for beginners during early and late-season lessons and evenings.

The South Idaho ski resort Pomerelle prides itself on keeping the mountain well-groomed every day and visitors there have come to expect that, so the resort purchased a new, high-tech PistenBully snowcat.

Plus, its summer crew spent many days clearing brush to enhance glade access and accomplished enough to feature the newly manicured area on its trail map.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort up north near Sandpoint continues to improve terrain on the backside of the mountain with logging and brush cutting occurring over 200 acres between Stella and Phineas’ Forest. More work is still planned for this fall with an additional 30-40 acres expected to be thinned before the season starts in November. The resort completed several other projects for this winter, too, including creating a “ski ready room” for KinderKamp, carpeting the Lakeview Lodge, stocking all-new Rossignol rental boots, and purchasing a new snow cat for grooming operations. Meanwhile, construction of the new 30-room ski-in/ski-out boutique hotel is proceeding well and the resort hopes to have all the concrete foundations finished heading into winter. Slated for a fall 2021 opening, the new hotel will offer impressive views of Lake Pend Oreille and feature a 50-seat restaurant and bar, an outdoor patio with a fire pit, a co-working area, a communal living room area, an outdoor spa, and additional underground parking.

Silver Mountain Resort, also in North Idaho, installed a new carpet lift to service the beginner run and tubing hill. The doublewide lift is covered, so guests are shielded from the elements. In addition, the resort opened a newly renovated hotel this summer. A less-expensive option than its Morning Star Lodge, the new Silver Inn is only two minutes away from the Gondola Village by car.

Utah-based Ascent Ventures, which counts former North American Snowboard Association president Paul Alden among its investors, purchased Soldier Mountain in southern Idaho. The new owners built a mountain bike park this summer, and two days before it was slated to open the Phillips Creek Fire broke out 2 miles away from the resort.

The wildfire completely destroyed the magic carpet lift, all the outbuildings except for the outdoor restrooms, and most of the signage on the mountain. Heat from the fire damaged Lift One, compromising the haul rope and ravaging the comm lines. (A second southern Idaho ski resort, Magic Mountain Ski Area, was recently threatened by another forest fire called the Badger Fire but survived unscathed.)

Fortunately, Soldier Mountain’s lodge and snowcats were untouched and the new owners are confident the resort will reopen this winter.

They are replacing the magic carpet and Lift One’s haul rope, comm line and chair slats, plus they are busy cleaning flame retardant off the lift shacks and bull wheels and have repainted the towers.

The new owners also plan to create Soldier Mountain’s first terrain park this winter.

With the Bald Mountain Expansion complete, Sun Valley – America’s first destination resort and birthplace of the chairlift – is opening an additional 380 acres of skiable terrain after replacing its oldest lift, Cold Springs No. 4, with a high-speed detachable quad.

The original vision for Tamarack Resort near Donnelly is finally being realized. The Village at Tamarack is open, and visitors can expect food from five new restaurants, including fresh pizza, Summit Bowls, Tilted Taco, The Alpine Diner and The Reserve, an upscale Italian-inspired establishment.

The resort will also begin operating a food truck, Mountain Bites, on the snow front this winter. Tamarack added new groomers, including a terrain-park-specific snowcat, plus touchless ticket- and pass-pickup boxes and pay-as-you-go direct lift access.Noteworthy milestones

Up in North Idaho, the state’s oldest ski resort, Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area, turns 85 this season, and Snowhaven Ski Area & Tubing Hill, which is owned by the City of Grangeville in North Central Idaho, turns 75.

Multi-resort passes

  • Sun Valley is partnering with the Epic Pass again, plus it offers a Sun & Snow Pass with Snowbasin in Huntsville, Utah, that allows passholders to ski up to three days at each resort.
  • Tamarack is joining Brundage Mountain, Lost Trail, and Silver Mountain in the Indy Pass this year. (Brundage season passholders also get two to three days of free skiing at a dozen different partner resorts.)
  • Grand Targhee has joined the Mountain Collective.
  • Bogus Basin remains a partner in the Powder Alliance (plus the resort has reciprocal relationships with nine other mountains), and Silver Mountain joins its ranks this season.
  • Schweitzer has dropped out of the Powder Alliance, but the mountain has created reciprocal relationships with resorts many of its passholders enjoy visiting.

Return of La Niña

Idaho and the Northwest should expect a cold, wet winter with heavy mountain snow because of a La Niña weather pattern that’s developing in the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles away.

According to Ron Abramovich, a retired Idaho water supply specialist and skier and rafter who’s watched the weather for more than three decades, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center sees an 85% likelihood of La Niña conditions continuing throughout the northern hemisphere until January. He said the agency also predicts there’s a 60% chance the weather pattern – which is a cooling of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures off equatorial South America – will continue February-April.

For the Northwest, that likely means colder average temperatures and above-average precipitation, Abramovich told Ski Idaho.

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