One of the biggest looming question marks on the Eastside is Mammoth Mountain: will it open for skiing this winter and if so, what would that look like? What would the overall experience be? Will there be apres ski? Woolly’s Parades? Night of Lights?
As for the skiing/snowboarding, that’s still up in the air, although Mammoth Mountain staff are working towards solutions that can ensure the safety of both guests and employees.
Craig Albright, vice president of skier services, gave a short presentation on the matter on Thursday afternoon, hosted on Zoom by Mammoth Voices. Albright, who oversees everything from ski school to The Fort, first outlined the overarching strategies that have guided MMSA’s staff throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
1. Safety, for everyone involved (employees, guests, local community). “We recognize that as the main draw to Mammoth, particularly in winter time,” Albright said, “That we have a huge responsibility for the safety of all of our groups.”
2. Empathy: understanding that everyone is facing challenges.
3. Long term financial sustainability for the company, community, and employees
As Albright pointed out, “What we do affects so much in the community.”
Mammoth Mountain was able to successfully operate its mountain bike park this summer and as a result, was able to gain some insights on what was working and not working that could translate to success come winter.
First and foremost, “we can operate safely and we can operate safely outdoors,” Albright told the Zoom attendees. “We must be diligent,” he added, highlighting the need to train and educate guests on compliance and best practices.
Albright included an additional caveat: the continued good summer weather that has allowed the park to stay open. How weather may affect winter operations is less certain. He reported that in spite of Covid-19, the bike park experienced its best summer on record in terms of visitation, up 40% from Summer 2019.
And they’ve done so without seeing a major Covid outbreak: Albright noted that only five mountain employees have tested positive for Covid-19 since March, and just a single one of those cases was traced back to the workplace.
Which brought Albright to how MMSA will approach the upcoming winter. He acknowledged right off the bat that it will be a challenging season, but added that the mountain has faced countless challenges in the past, and “Dave taught us well.”
According to Albright, the main area of worry is not the ski slopes or lifts. The concern lies with anything indoors, like dining, rentals, locker rooms, and bathrooms. He explained that MMSA will adapt as many operations outside as possible to avoid crowding in enclosed spaces, and each business unit within the mountain will have its own separate business operation plan. He also stressed the importance of consistent and thorough masking throughout the ski area.
“We know that as we go into winter operations, it’s not a matter of if we have an outbreak, it’s when we have an outbreak,” Albright stated, acknowledging the reality of the task at hand, and noted that the mountain’s efforts to control spread and conduct contract tracing will determine the outcome of the season.
Albright also fielded questions from the attendees, whose numbers peaked at 44 participants towards the end of the meeting.
Corinne Brown went first, asking Albright about a potential reservation system that would limit the number of skiers up the mountain each day.
For reference, a similar system was implemented at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado when it reopened in May; 4,000 people applied for 600 spots on the first day, crashing the system.
“We have no idea what winter’s gonna look like,” Albright began, “We have plans all the way from we can’t operate at all to as normal as possible …the only thing we’re certain of is that normal is off the table.”
With that being said, Albright said that MMSA has no plans to create a reservation system as the capacity issues are really focused around indoor operations. Lodging, Albright explained, would be the limiting factor on the number of skiers, as Mammoth isn’t accessible as a day trip.
He referenced Crystal Mountain in Washington state as a ski area that would need such a system; the drive market from Seattle means most visitors only stay for the day before heading back home.
Another attendee asked about bathrooms, and Albright explained that MMSA would try to have outdoor bathrooms but, barring that, would control access to facilities in the lodges.
“You can’t come in and hang out in the lodge,” Albright said, “You need to come in, do your business and get out.”
Other safety measures the mountain is exploring include: mandatory masks distributed to employees that serve as effective barriers, limiting the number of riders in the gondolas, and continued strict mask enforcement on buses and other transportation. June Mountain’s Covid-19 mitigation efforts will be nearly identical to Mammoth Mountain’s, although June may have some challenges dealing with the initial lift up the mountain.
Albright also reported that non-downhill activities will be open, including Tamarack Cross Country Ski Course, Woolly’s Tubepark, and snowmobile tours, in an effort to disperse crowds even further and avoid the overcrowding issues that have plagued the Lakes Basin this summer.
Albright did not address the status of employee housing.
Prior to the presentation’s conclusion, Mammoth Lakes Town Councilmember John Wentworth joined the conversation to add a parting thought. Wentworth is one of a number of town officials who have been working with MMSA to develop a Covid-19 plan for reopening.
“We’re gonna be the mask capital of winter sports in North America and around the world,” Wentworth said, “and make sure you’ve got a reservation and a place to stay.”
A finalized version of the plan is expected to be complete come October at the latest, with further public forums on the horizon.