Front Range ski season begins and everything feels different
Keystone beats rivals Arapahoe Basin and Loveland for the first time in 23 years amid pandemic restrictions
KEYSTONE — For the first time since 1997, Keystone Resort claimed honors as the first Front Range ski area to open for the season on Friday, leaving Arapahoe Basin and Loveland to fight it out for seconds.
With unseasonably warm temperatures and COVID-19 concerns clouding the start of the season in a county hard hit by the virus, the usual assortment of opening-day diehards and familiar faces turned out. They were rewarded with T-shirt weather and 3,000 vertical feet of top-to-bottom skiing as Keystone marked the beginning of its 50th season. This was the first time since 1992 that no Front Range ski area was able to open in October.
“The snow is terrific,” said Geoff Strebel of Golden, who owns a condo in Keystone. “Keystone’s snowmaking system is probably the best in the world. The quality of the snow from the top to the bottom was just berserk good.”
On Friday morning, the usual suspects were at the front of the line, having spent the night at the mountain. Nate Dogggg (“I was 4G before cell phones,” he says), who doesn’t give his real name in his annual interviews about the start of ski season, flew in from a trip to Minnesota Thursday night to make sure he got here in time.
“We always say the season is not started until Nate Dogggg has had first chair before you,” the Breckenridge resident said. “We’re the official start to any ski/snowboard season. We hold it down, and we want everybody to know the season has started, you are behind us, but at least we’re starting a trend. It’s time to come up and play.”
Alas, Nate and his trusty sidekick Tom Miller, a Silverthorne resident who goes by the name Trailer Tom up here, caught the first gondola car, but first tracks eluded them. The Summit Express lift, which parallels the gondola lift line, got up the mountain a little faster than the gondola. As a result, 10-20 skiers and riders made it to the top before the first gondola car. Nate Dogggg refused to concede defeat.
“We still got on the gondola first,” Nate said after breaking a banner at the summit marking the occasion. “The Summit Chair just runs faster.”
An electronic message board in the base area included a COVID-19 dial showing Summit County is now at Level 3 “High Risk,” which flashed in rotation with ski-related messages. Physical distancing was enforced in lift lines. Gondola cars, which normally can accommodate eight people, were limited to related parties or two singles sitting diagonally opposite one another, and tailgating was prohibited in the parking lots. About half of the drinking and dining options in River Run Village remained closed, including a Starbucks that still had the notice posted from March that it was closing because of the pandemic.
At 5 p.m. Friday, new Summit County health restrictions will be imposed because of soaring case numbers here. Restaurant capacity will be reduced from 50% to 25%.
It was still a day for diehards to celebrate. For Miller, it was his 27th consecutive opening day, going back to when he was 16 with a freshly minted driver’s license. He still remembers the bonfire in the Keystone parking lot that year the night before the lifts opened. Everything this year feels different, though — the late start, the pandemic, and Keystone opening first after ceding the race to Loveland and Arapahoe Basin for more than two decades.
“Very different,” said Miller, who arrived on Wednesday to make sure he was on that first gondola car. “Definitely bummed on corona, but so excited that we have something to do that’s outdoors. Keystone has been doing a great job of enforcing the rules, making us feel safe. Hanging out here for two days, I saw lots of wipe-downs, very sanitary, sticking to the rules and being as compliant as possible. Felt safe the whole time.”
Keystone is currently operating via reservations that are only available for Epic pass holders until Dec. 7. After that, the number of limited lift tickets sold to the general public on any given day will depend on how many pass holders have made reservations.
On Friday, the Summit House restaurant at the top of the mountain was operating at 25% capacity with reservations required for dining inside.
“I think Keystone’s done a great job of getting everybody in with social distancing and mask wearing,” said Paula Bovo of Denver, who was sharing lunch in the Summit House with her friend, Richard Patterson. “We both feel pretty comfortable being in the gondolas since we’re kind of from the same household. I’m having a great experience. There’s just this energy about coming out and welcoming the season.”
Rob Decker of Denver was aiming to get in a million vertical feet last season until the pandemic halted the ski season in March, leaving him 60,000 feet short of his goal, so he was raring to go Friday.
“The snow is beautiful,” Decker said. “A little bit thinner toward the top, but halfway down I thought it was really nice. You can look around, there is no (natural) snow up here, yet they have top-to-bottom open for us today. I give it to Keystone and the machines they’ve been putting in the last couple years. They’re just really nailing it.”
Decker lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in April of 2013. He was back on his snowboard in October that year.
“Snowboarding drives my life,” Decker said. “The better I live my life every day, the better I can snowboard. When I woke up in the hospital, and I found out my leg was gone, the first thing I said was ‘It’s going to be OK.’ It makes me a little misty to think about that moment, but that’s how it’s been since. It’s not always easy. There’s a lot of tears, there’s phantom pain, all kinds of stuff to deal with.
“That’s why this is so important to me,” he said. “When I’m coming down that mountain, I’m completely free. That’s where find my freedom.”