Resorts, avalanche forecasters brace for pandemic ski season

LOGAN, Utah (AP) — Whether you’re new to the world of winter sports or you’re a backcountry veteran praying for snow, it’s important to know the safety recommendations for the coming season, for the times they are a-changin’.

Travis Seeholzer, the operations manager at Beaver Mountain, said this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, patrons can expect changes to mountain functions and accessibility, the Herald Journal in Logan reported. According to Seeholzer, there will be a near 60% reduction of those allowed in the day lodge, and mountain patrons are encouraged to use their vehicles for changing, booting up and eating.

“This season, you treat your car like the lodge,” Seeholzer said. “The overriding goal is to just do everything we can to save our ski season.”

Seeholzer said food trucks, a rental tent and additional seating will be provided to help manage the changes. “Ghost lanes” will be incorporated to ensure social distancing measures while skiers and snowboards wait in line for the lift, and face coverings will be required.

Seeholzer said, however, tailgaters will be allowed to continue with their business as usual.

“It’s going to be different,” Seeholzer said. “We hope the shredding part is good and pretty normal.”

Beaver Mountain Ski Patrol Director Ken Mathys said only members of the all-volunteer patrol team and injured guests will be allowed in the ski patrol building. Mathys said if the injured guest is a child, one responsible party will be allowed with them.

“We’re taking it pretty serious as far as keeping the patrol healthy,” Mathys said. “It’ll be completely different.”

Mathys said the estimated 100-member Ski Patrol — one of the largest volunteer patrols in the West — has protocols in place to keep a potentially higher number of guests safe this season. Mathys encouraged people to be patient with the changes.

“Use common sense, be considerate and be patient,” Mathys said. “Enjoy the season — let’s keep everybody healthy so we can enjoy the mountain.”

Though sparse sales invoked a bit of “panic mode” when mountain passes became available, Seeholzer said sales have since grown substantially. Seeholzer believes the uptick can be attributed in part to a season pass guarantee that gives a per-day percentage discount next year if Beaver mountain is forced to close again this season.

“That’s just kind of an indicator that people are planning and excited to ski,” Seeholzer said. “We are anticipating being quite busy.”

It may also be an indicator of new folks interested in not only ski resorts, but other outdoor winter activities like backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.

“I guess it’s just kind of a continuation of what we saw this summer — people discovering the great outdoors all of a sudden — which is mildly frightening,” Seeholzer said.

For Toby Weed, an avalanche specialist with the Utah Avalanche Center, those unfamiliar with proper mountain safety procedures are some of “the biggest concerns” for experts this season.

“We are already seeing an increase in backcountry users, and we did in the spring as well,” Weed said. “We expect quite a few people that are inexperienced — at least with avalanche safety and backcountry safety.”

Weed said the Utah Avalanche Center offers a basic “Know Before You Go” avalanche awareness course online and frequent, if not daily, updates on the website. With overstretched hospitals and potentially dangerous avalanche conditions, Weed said it may be prudent for everyone — regardless of experience level — to exercise restraint in the mountains this year.

“We don’t want people doing extreme stuff,” Weed said. “It’s great for people to get out and hike around in the backcountry, and we encourage people to do that; at the same time, we want people to avoid taking risks at all really. So, the recommendation is to stay off steep slopes.”

Currently, Weed said the snowpack is thin, making it all too easy for backcountry recreationalists to hit rocks and stumps. He also said the conditions of the snowpack are setting up for a “tricky” avalanche season. Weed said these factors and increased use may make human-caused avalanches more likely, while heightening the risk of injury and fatality.

“Hopefully there won’t be more larger, catastrophic avalanche events,” Weed said, “but those are really possible this year especially with the increased number of people out there.”

Cache County Search & Rescue Team Captain Greg Schenk encouraged people to be aware of avalanche conditions, pack extra gear and practice good communication with friends and family when going out into the backcountry.

Schenk also recommended trail maps or the Avenza Maps app for those exploring new areas.

Schenk said local search and rescue teams have done pre-season gear preparations and engaged in regular and preparedness training. Schenk said Search and Rescue is staffed with as many volunteers as they’ve ever had — around 35 active members — and are making efforts to be ready to go “at the drop of a hat.”

“We’re trying to set an emphasis on being prepared and being ready,” Schenk said. “We’re kind of the jack of all trades.”

For more information on avalanche safety and forecasts, visit utahavalanchecenter.org