Arizona Snowbowl opens for the winter today, but regulars will certainly notice a difference around the ski resort this season.
After Snowbowl closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce tourism to northern Arizona, Rob Linde, the resort’s general manager, said the company is working with the county health department to ensure the resort can stay open and as safe as possible.
Additionally, the ski resort just outside the City of Flagstaff is expected to open its largest, newest chairlift on Saturday, Dec. 5, assuming weather holds up. The newly named Arizona Gondola is faster than the former lift and uses both chairs and gondolas.
As a part of their precautions, Snowbowl now requires people to purchase tickets for lifts, ski school, rentals, food and beverages online. Linde said the company hopes it will reduce places where people could spread the disease.
“There really aren’t a lot of ski areas doing this in the country. We feel we’re being progressive and innovating,” Linde said. “It’s probably something that COVID has forced us to do, but we’ve been considering doing it for a number of years.”
Snowbowl works through a special permit with the Coconino National Forest, and is widely considered to be a large draw that brings tourists and business from out of the area to Flagstaff.
Snowbowl said there will be employees to help people navigate the online website to purchase the company’s services once they arrive at the ski resort, but those transactions will have to be online.
Snowbowl’s goal was to reduce the touch points between guests and employees to keep people from spreading germs as much as possible. The online services include signing a liability form and entering credit card information.
“It will be required. You can do it in advance in the comfort of your own home at a computer on Thursday, prior to your arrival,” Linde said.
Once people arrive at the rental area, Linde said, they expect to see a large reduction in lines because people will have bought their tickets online. People will need to scan their ticket on their phone, get their boots fitted for rentals inside, but then return outdoors to pick up their skiing equipment.
Linde said Snowbowl tried the new process during the monsoon season for their scenic chairlift ride, and it went relatively smoothly.
“We almost met no resistance from people doing that,” Linde said. “They’re very comfortable with using their phones to make their purchase. We had people around to assist for people who had a bit of trouble with it, but the vast majority of them were comfortable making their purchase online.”
The Arizona Gondola’s upcoming opening comes after years of working for approval through the Coconino National Forest.
It is expected to be twice as fast as the former lift, leading to seven- to eight-minute rides as opposed to 14-minute rides.
Linde said Snowbowl will not increase capacity from 1,200 people per hour. The company plans to keep their faster lift at the same capacity by staggering chairs and gondolas farther apart.
The pandemic likely won’t change Snowbowl’s chair capacity either, Linde said.
Snowbowl plans to leave the windows on the gondolas open to ensure that the gondola and chairs have good airflow to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, if people request to be seated only with family, friends or even solo, lift operators will oblige any requests.
“Whatever people feel comfortable with,” Linde said. “For the majority of people, we'll load chairs and load gondolas as normal. We’re requesting everyone wear face masks [on the chairs].”
Snowbowl expects the gondolas will be attractive offerings year-round, including during their scenic chairlift rides that take people to the top of the mountain during the fall and monsoon season.
Snowbowl has been working on the new chairlift for eight months. The construction involved cutting down trees on the lift line, excavating and pouring concrete at the lift’s terminal and along the towers. Helicopters were required to lift the towers into place.
The former Agassiz Lift was running for about 30 years in use at the ski resort. In addition to older parts continuing to break causing a safety risk for riders, the parts were getting so outdated that many had to be custom made in order to fix the lift causing long closures of the lift.
Linde said the Agassiz Lift was done, and felt the new name both branded the lift better and distanced itself from the controversial nature of Louis Agassiz. The former scientist’s name has been the focus of increased public scrutiny as people begin to learn more about his support for polygeny, and belief that people from Africa were separate and unequal to white Europeans.
“It’s just time to move on,” Linde said.