Trouble on the Res: Vail Resorts reservation system doesn’t seem to be reducing on-mountain crowds whatsoever

Trouble on the Res: Vail Resorts reservation system doesn’t seem to be reducing on-mountain crowds whatsoever

VicesDecember 15, 2020 By Will Brendza

Between the insane ski-traffic that characterizes I-70 over the winter, and the amount of people who actually end up congesting the slopes, skiing at a resort is already harder than it should be for pass holders. And it’s only been getting harder. Over the last ten years, the crowds descending on Colorado’s resorts and mountains have snowballed (along with Vail and Alterra’s corporate earnings).

Which was why, when Vail Resorts announced that they would be operating at a “reduced capacity” and requiring guest reservations for skiing this season, a lot of people were skeptical. Certainly, it’s better than resorts not opening at all — but how hard was it going to be to get on the slopes? And would it be the same?

I ventured up to Beaver Creek this past Saturday to check it out, and the experience did not leave me hopeful. Instead, it made me nervous that this reservation system was making it even harder to use a ski pass — and that it wasn’t doing anything to reduce the chances of these mountains getting shut down anyway.

It was a typical December Saturday: early season, cold and when we awoke it was snowing. My girlfriend and I had reserved the day, by luck, weeks ago — so naturally, we were stoked about the fortunate weather.

However, we didn’t even end up skiing. The scene we discovered when we got to Avon was hectic and far-busier than the term “reduced-capacity” would lead one to believe: the upper and the lower parking lots were all packed full, at capacity; cars were parked in places I’d never seen them parked, spilling into the town of Avon; where groups of people walked like concert goers, converging on some unseen festival.

My heart sank the longer we drove in circles looking for a place to park, until eventually we decided that it wasn’t worth it. There wasn’t much terrain open at Beaver Creek, anyway — and even if we had made it up there, we would have been standing in crowded lift lines for most of the day. The few runs we would have been able to make, would have been freeways of people still getting their ski legs on.

So, we bailed. And left second guessing our choice to buy a ski pass this year.

Maybe the lots were crowded because carpooling isn’t really an option anymore. Maybe when it isn’t the holiday season things will mellow out. Maybe the resorts have a better grip on handling ski crowds during a pandemic than I’m giving them credit for.  

Maybe. But I grew up in that Valley, and to my eyes, Beaver Creek looked just as thronged and busy as it ever has around Christmas, on New Year’s day or Easter. And this wasn’t a holiday — this was just a random December Saturday.

What that means for the rest of this 2020/21 ski season remains to be seen. I understand that the resorts are working a balancing act right now: trying to stay open to make money, employ locals and keep businesses in the mountains alive — while simultaneously trying to maintain safe operations to stay open through the season. I understand that this reservation system is a necessary evil to try and make sure that happens. I understand that this year is different, and we’ll have to make sacrifices in order to ski in-bounds.

However, I don’t really see how these measures are actually reducing the potential for an “on-mountain outbreak” — which is supposed to be the whole point. If the resorts are staying just as busy as ever, and only implementing half-assed social distancing measures, then what’s the reason for making us reserve our days at all? Is that just a front?

Only time will tell. As we approach the December holidays under “level red” COVID restrictions, resorts are already standing on the edge of operation. Should hospitalizations spike in the wake of Christmas (as many projections show they will) it’s not farfetched to imagine the resorts getting shut down. Again.

All of which is to say: the system has kinks in it, and those kinks have consequences for us skiers and boarders. We’ll see whether or not these issues get ironed out this season before things get worse, or if every weekend just ends up being as insane as Beaver Creek was this past week.