Managers at Hilltop Ski Area plan to channel their inner Mikaela Shiffrin to negotiate the twists and turns of doing business this winter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re ready to be nimble and to pivot as necessary to keep this area available,” general manager Trevor Bird said Wednesday in advance of next week’s season opening.
The ski area in South Anchorage will open Tuesday to season ticket holders and Thursday to the general public.
Masks will be required everywhere but the slopes -- lift lines, the chair lift, the lodge -- plus use of the day lodge will be limited and a new online ticketing system will be in place.
“The biggest takeaway is things are going to look different this year,” Bird said.
Alyeska Resort in Girdwood is scheduled to open Dec. 18, and similar protocols will be in place, including a “no mask, no service” policy, marketing director Ben Napolitano said. The resort “is committed to following mandates 100%,” he said.
A gaiter will suffice as a mask at Hilltop, but Alyeska will require skiers and snowboarders to bring the kind of mask they would wear indoors.
“A buff is not enough, frankly,” Napolitano said. “It really needs to be a face covering like you would wear in a public building.”
At this point, neither ski area plans to limit the number of people allowed to ski or ride each day and neither is requiring skiers to make reservations, something that’s happening at Lower 48 resorts.
Alyeska will limit chairlift and tram capacity, and both places will require social distancing in lift lines.
Both mountains enjoyed busy summers with bikers and hikers, so the expectation is people will continue to come to the slopes this winter.
“Hiking was really busy this summer,” Bird said. “Folks want to get outside. They want to recreate.”
Mountain bikers came to Alyeska at a record pace, Napolitano said. In the summer of 2019, the resort saw a little more than 4,000 bikers in 46 days of operation (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays). This summer, it had nearly 3,500 in 22 days (Saturdays and Sundays).
Alyeska limited the number of bikers on the tram, and it will limit the number of people on chairlifts and the tram this winter. Capacity on the tram will drop to 20 from its usual 60, and there will be a limit of two per chairlift unless people are from the same family or household.
Bikers dealt with the COVID-19 protocols well, Napolitano said.
“If you look at the demographic of bikers, it’s mostly all young males, and they absolutely did awesome,” he said. “They respected our signage and were wearing masks on the chairs, tram and lift lines.”
Lodges at both ski areas will be accessible for bathroom use but otherwise limited.
At Alyeska, the day lodge “will be pretty much closed for day use,” Napolitano said. “We’re not having lockers in there, we’re not having ski school in there.”
Equipment rentals must be reserved a day in advance. There will be access to grab-and-go food, which Napolitano said doesn’t appear to conflict with new COVID-19 mandates announced Wednesday for Anchorage.
Napolitano urges skiers and snowboarders to visit Alyeska’s website to learn about other new protocols or mandate changes.
Hilltop’s day lodge will have no seating available, Bird said, but a ticket office will be open.
Food service will move to a pickup window and an outdoor eating area will be set up with picnic tables and space heaters. Otherwise, cars will have to double as chalets if people want to warm up somewhere.
As for capacity on Hilltop’s single chairlift, “if you show up with your social bubble, we’re gonna let you on the lift together,” Bird said. “If you come by yourself, we’ll let you load the lift by yourself, or if you feel comfortable riding with somebody, you can.”
The big push at Hilltop is online ticket sales. There are two choices:
• Buy a ticket online, receive a voucher via email, scan the voucher at a pickup box outside the lodge, get your lift ticket.
• Get a reloadable Mountain Card and go straight to the chairlift when you arrive. The cards require an online user profile and a one-time fee of $5, and they must be picked up at the ticket office.
“We’re hoping people will use those (cards),” Bird said. “It’s a new feature. It’s going to be a big learning curve for our guests and a big learning curve for us as well.”
Alyeska’s Choice Pass is similar to Hilltop’s Mountain Card and is recommended for people who aren’t season pass-holders.
The resort also recommends midweek skiing.
“Those days are slower anyway, so we’re really encouraging people to take advantage of the mountain when there’s less capacity,” Napolitano said.