Colorado Ski Season

Vail Ski Patrol watches the skiers and boarders get of Mountain Top Express on opening day Friday, Nov. 12, 2021 in Vail, Colo. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP)

Last week, Bob Nicolls messaged his fellow owners of Monarch Ski Area, a small, well-to-do group overseeing the mountain in southern Colorado.

In summary, by his account: "All hands on deck."

Nicolls was spotted shoveling snow, while other owners were seen flipping burgers and making pizzas.

"Just because we had such a big (coronavirus) outbreak," Nicolls said. And because Monarch's team was short-handed to begin with, like other resorts around the state and work places nationwide.

Approaching winter, Monarch's general manager "was like, here's plan A, B, C and D," Nicolls said. "We had to go to plan D."

So goes life in ski country, which faces a triple threat amid an unending labor shortage, an unrelenting pandemic and an unsolved housing crunch.

Representatives around the state say workforces are smaller and shrinking with the omicron variant running rampant in the destination counties, forcing everyone and anyone from cooks, ticket vendors, boot fitters, chairlift operators, snowcat drivers, snowmakers and patrollers to isolate.

"This is part of the reason you may see certain lifts or areas of terrain not open yet, retail stores closed, or slimmed down options in (food and beverage) outlets," read a statement from John Plack, speaking for Vail Resorts, which controls its flagship resort in Colorado, along with Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte.

The season has put the industry leader at the center of controversy.

Heading into the winter, after cutting the cost of season passes by 20%, Vail Resorts announced 2.1 million passes and advanced tickets sold, a record, and a reported 76% increase from the 2019-20 season. This was a point repeated by critical commenters of a recent Facebook post signed by Vail Mountain's chief operating officer, Beth Howard.

She called the holiday season "the most challenging" she had ever experienced in her 37 years in the industry. Some readers sympathized, thanking staff despite long lift lines and closed terrain that appeared covered with snow, including the coveted Blue Sky Basin. Others echoed one critic: "You sold too many passes."

Too many passes, and too little pay for employees, others blasted. Last year, Vail Resorts announced raising minimum wage to $15 an hour at its largest destinations — an "offensive" level, according to an online petition to "hold Vail Resorts accountable."

It has been signed by some 31,000-plus disgruntled customers of the Vail-owned Stevens Pass Resort in Washington. The petition alleges avalanche mitigation as "an excuse for a lack of terrain opening," going on to claim it "illegal for a business to accept payments for products or services they do not intend to supply."

Heading into the weekend, with a 51-inch base depth, Vail Mountain reported 69% of its terrain open, with 22 of 33 lifts running. Some longtime industry observers saw that depth as indicative of Blue Sky Basin typically being ready for skiing.

In his statement to The Gazette, Vail spokesman Plack cited Colorado's relatively fast snow dump approaching the holidays, "and it's on top of a previously shallow snowpack," he said. "While terrain may look ready to the eyes of a guest, there is still an incredible amount of work that goes into safely opening new lifts and terrain, and that is something we will never rush."

Winter Park, also now measuring powder in feet, has been among other Colorado resorts to field questions about closed terrain that looked good to open. The staffing connection "is a bit of a fallacy," spokeswoman Jen Miller said.

Said Jeff Hanle at Aspen Snowmass, also behind in expanding usual terrain over the holidays: "It wasn't a matter of staffing as much as it was a matter of the way the snow fell."

But staff has been "shuffling," as Miller put it. At Snowmass, Hanle said workers might start mornings at rental shops, then fill gaps at the cafeteria in the afternoon, then end their days back at rentals.

At Purgatory Resort near Durango, family attractions such as the tubing hill and alpine coaster have been closed. That's for the sake of priorities — "running the maximum number of lifts we can each day based on the number of staff who arrive for their shifts," said spokeswoman Amanda Anderson.

Purgatory hires close to 900 workers in a normal season, Anderson said. Thanks partly to loosening restrictions for international workers with J-1 visas, "we were on track hiring 800," Anderson said. "But keeping those employees healthy and working remains a challenge."

And then there's the challenge that has kept ski industry positions unfilled for years.

The pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis in ski country, as outlined in a 2021 report jointly commissioned by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. Across those towns, the study showed rents spiked 20% to 40% in one year, with inventory at a "critical" low. Newcomers able to work remote with strong, steady incomes were beating out seasonal, hourly workers like never before, according to the report.

"The system is broken," said Davey Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area near Pagosa Springs. "We're up against the wall and don't really have anywhere to go."

He counted his mountain about 100 workers short this winter. Thanks to record business in the 2020-21 season, Pitcher said he's been bumping hourly pay; starting at $17, the average among staff is now around $22, he said.

Still, with a shortage of backup, "a lot of our staff are working way too much," Pitcher said. "And it's kind of showing."

Earlier this week, it showed at the upper lodge. Pitcher saw exhaustion and panic. "Supervisors were saying they didn't know how they were gonna make things work," he said.

"So I said we should just shut down for a few days and give everybody a chance to relax. And yeah, you could basically see the relief in their eyes."

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