When the snow melts, ski area staff gets to work on summertime maintenance
Every winter, Summit County attracts skiers and snowboarders from across the U.S. and beyond to some of the best ski resorts in the world. Vail Resorts — which has locations at Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone — owns some of the most popular ski resorts in the state and receives more than 5 million visits per season. But what happens to these resorts when the weather begins to warm, the snow starts melting and skis get stored away until the next season?
While the mountains may be devoid of snow, the slopes still get a lot of attention in the summer. Arapahoe Basin Ski Area Slopes Maintenance Manager Louis Skowyra explained that once the warm months begin, resorts start racing to repair and update their slopes and equipment.
“We have the biggest impact on our skiing in the summer,” Skowyra said. “In three to four months, we can make a ton of progress on the quality of our winter product.”
A-Basin replaced two chairlifts last summer, Molly Hogan and Pallavicini, to increase access to the slopes. This summer, the ski area plans to build a warming hut and barbecue restaurant, and the replacement of the Lenawee chairlift is slotted for summer of 2022.
In Eagle County, Vail Ski Area has 32 lifts, including two gondolas, three high-speed six-passenger lifts, 14 high-speed quads, three fixed-grip chairlifts, three surface lifts and seven conveyors. In one hour, Vail’s lift system can carry 62,244 skiers and snowboarders up its slopes. This amount of lift power requires months of maintenance as well as annual expansions or updates to increase the mountain’s visitor capacity.
“In order to meet increasing demand each season, we spend a lot of time working on our lift systems to reduce long lines and waiting times for our visitors,” Vail Resorts spokesperson Sara Lococo said.
But the summer season has shortened in recent years as Summit County ski areas compete to extend the ski and snowboard season. In 2019, spring snowfall allowed Breckenridge Ski Resort to remain open through Memorial Day weekend while A-Basin closed on the Fourth of July.
“We hope we can continue to stay open for longer in future years, as well,” Lococo said.
The summer is also the only time resorts can complete maintenance on their snowmaking systems, which remain buried under the snow eight months of the year.
“It takes several months to clean, repair, test and prepare that system,” Skowyra said.
Maintenance at ski resorts involves more than updating chairlifts and snowmaking technology. After a season of visitors, the slopes are often littered with trash: lost gloves, glasses, wrappers and ski poles. Resort employees do not clear the mountain alone — teams of local volunteers help remove waste.
“Traditionally, we host annual mountain cleanup events each summer at both Keystone and Breck where employees and community volunteers help collect trash and recycling to clean up the mountain and protect the environment where we recreate,” Lococo said.
Once the slopes have been combed for waste, resorts maintain water bars, or diagonal channels that direct running water, to ensure that snow melts the right way down the mountain. If the snowmelt is too heavy in one area, the soil can be eroded and the slope can be damaged for the next winter season. Resorts also build and repair snow fences, which are barriers that force windblown snow to build up in a controlled area. Snow fences are tactically placed to mitigate avalanche danger during the winter season.
Although ski areas complete a lot of maintenance annually to improve quality and prepare for the winter season, resorts can’t do whatever they want to the land on which they reside.
Most Colorado ski areas receive permits from the U.S. Forest Service to operate. Covering more than 2.3 million acres, the White River National Forest receives more than 12 million visitors each year and is one of the most popular recreation forests in the nation with 11 ski areas.
It’s not an uncommon land arrangement for ski areas. Across the United States, 122 of the 473 downhill ski areas operate on national forest land with special permits. Out of America’s 154 national forests, 58 grant permits for ski resorts to operate. U.S. ski resorts with permits to operate on national forest land occupy about 0.09% of the 193 million protected acres.
Because this land is protected by the federal government, resorts are limited in changes they can make without Forest Service permission.
“Because we operate on (U.S. Forest Service) land, literally everything we do we run by our partners at the (Forest Service), whether it’s summer or winter,” Skowyra explained. “If a two-by-six on a permanent fence needs replacing, we can go ahead and do that. But if we’re building a new permanent fence, we run that by the (Forest Service), and they come check it out.”
More than maintenance
It is not all maintenance on the mountain during summer. While the majority of resort visitors come for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, most resorts offer activities that cater to thousands of summer visitors.
A-Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort all offer trails to a growing mountain biking community in the county.
In addition to mountain biking, Keystone Stables offers horseback riding lessons, wagon rides and dinner rides, and Keystone Lake allows for a break from the heat with paddle boats and canoes available for rent.
A-Basin offers scenic chairlift rides, an aerial adventure park with a high ropes course, a via ferrata course, a 20-hole disc golf course and numerous hiking trails.
Two of the biggest winter-to-summer transformations occur on the slopes of Copper and Breckenridge. Breckenridge’s summer activity park, Epic Discovery, offers Alpine slides, a children’s zip line and ropes course, the Alpineer Challenge Course and its own Alpine coaster: the GoldRunner. Other less adrenaline-inducing opportunities include gold panning and miniature golf. The park is accessible by Breckenridge’s gondola that operates year-round at no charge.
Copper likewise runs an Alpine coaster, zip line and during the summer is home to the tallest outdoor climbing wall in Colorado.
While summer operations opened in limited capacities last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, activities are back in full swing this summer.
This story previously published in the Summer 2020 edition of Explore Breckenridge & Summit County magazine.
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