As a 20-year resident of Steamboat Springs, I’ve grown accustomed to hitting the resort in the late afternoon, when dwindling lift lines typically let me hammer enough vert to make leaving work worthwhile. Until recently.
I’ve never experienced lines the likes of which I found myself in last Friday after a much-advertised storm triggered a tsunami of visitors and created a 45-minute wait at Morningside, the only lift out of Steamboat’s backside terrain.
The following morning, when Steamboat reported double-digit overnight snowfall, a massive crowd of powder-chasers filled the base area. Lines for the eight-passenger gondola and six-person chairlift flooded out of the plaza and snaked around neighboring buildings. By 11 am, throngs converged behind every lift, including the dinkiest two-person chairs.
“Steamboat is the only ski area that isn’t requiring reservations,” said one skier waiting in line to board the Morningside lift. He’d driven up from the Denver suburb of Lakewood. “Everyplace else is all booked up, so when there’s a storm and you want to ski powder, this is the only place to go.”
February 6 wasn’t the first or only day to trigger lines of this magnitude, nor is Steamboat the only resort suffering from massive crowds and long lift lines. Photos posted across social media showed significant lift lines at Vail, Jackson Hole, Okemo, and others after storms. Each of those resorts requires reservations.
At Steamboat, however, the crowds seem to be a new fixture. Over the December holidays, I actually gave up and returned home rather than join the masses of people who waited for up to two hours to board the gondola. Many wear masks, but a significant number do not, and few observe six-foot spacing.
Photos of Steamboat’s arena-sized congregations incited plenty of local argument, in-person and on social media, where passholders, business owners, and visitors volley opinions. Many locals are angry about apparent inconsistencies: The resort can pack ’em in, they say, but area restaurants have to reduce their capacity by 75 percent and collect patrons’ personal information for contact-tracing, a Covid-19-mitigating measure that the resort isn’t required to employ.
That said, according CBS Denver, data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment suggests that transmission is not taking place in lift lines, but rather among employees in dorm-style housing.
Others see an unfair contradiction between the ski area’s mega-crowds and the cancellation of cherished events that would’ve taken place during our town’s 108-year-old tradition of Winter Carnival (scheduled over the February 6 weekend) because the county’s Level Orange status limits outdoor gatherings to 75 people.
“It’s hard to see crowds like that during the pandemic because obviously, social distancing was not happening there,” says Steamboat Springs resident Melanie Turek. “Yet we, as a town, are really struggling with our outbreak numbers. We have kids who aren’t in school, and some have been quarantined up to three times this year. And small businesses say, ‘What the heck! [The resort] can make all the money they need but I have to close down.’ It’s just bad optics.”
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Some locals approve of Steamboat’s decision to forgo reservations. School teachers and other professionals who can only ski on weekends reason that reservations would likely block them from skiing at all—and crowded experiences are better than nothing.
“The majority of our locals are on the Ikon Pass and we want them to have access to the mountain,” says Steamboat ski area spokesperson Loryn Duke. “We understand how important fresh air and outdoor recreation are for physical and mental well-being during this time. A reservation system would impact the ease of accessibility for skiers and riders who live in Steamboat.” Plus, Duke adds, reservations dictate a specific day, not a specific time—so they don’t prevent long lift lines.
“People are drawn here because there are no reservation requirements, and I think that’s a positive thing,” says Jamie McQuade, a 25-year Steamboat Springs resident who owns Winona’s restaurant, a local icon. “We’re in survival mode after a year of not making money. We have barely hung on,” she explains.
“Yes, it’s harder for locals who can only ski on the weekends,” McQuade admits. “But the whole town relies on tourism, and short of closing altogether, I don’t think there’s much more than the mountain can do [to enforce distancing] without having a full police state,” she concludes.
Turek notes that other recreation industries use priority passes (such as those sold by Disney World) to give visitors a way to dodge long lines. “Some say that fast passes and reservation systems are elitist,” she acknowledges. But to preserve a positive customer experience, says Turek, Steamboat must find ways to balance its revenue needs with its surging popularity.
“Covid didn’t bring the crowds,” says Turek. Although the resort won’t disclose skier numbers, Turek estimates that traffic at Steamboat has doubled in recent years, so that Saturdays now are as busy as Christmas week five years ago.
“Whether you drive here from Denver or fly from California,” Turek says, “you expect to be able to ski for a reasonable amount of time, not just stand in lines all day.”
Steamboat’s Duke says the resort continues to monitor the situation. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t still explore implementing a reservation system for the remainder of the season. We continually adapt our plans as needed based on local/state regulations and business demand.”