#1: The Ski Season Preview Continues: More Stories From Across the Country:
This week we kick our ski news recap off with what’s become an unfortunately familiar topic: previewing the upcoming ski season. While we’ve covered this extensively in recent weeks, the fact of the matter is that this preseason is entirely unlike any that any of us have ever experienced, resulting in a volume of articles on the subject that could fill a ski town library. As diligent reporters of current news, it’s our duty to cover the stories that are being told. So, with that in mind, we’ll kick things off this week by sharing an article that focuses on our own backyard: the upcoming ski season in Vermont.
Last week, we shared with you the news that Vermont’s state government had finally issued official regulations for ski resorts. For the most part, those guidelines were expected, with one glaring exception: those traveling to Vermont to ski from out of state will have to follow VT’s travel restrictions, and it would be up to the resorts to require guests to attest that they had done so. At that time, it meant that nearly all counties outside of Vermont would have to either quarantine for 14 days within the state, or for 7 days in their home state and then test negative for Covid-19 before entering the state. This week though, those rules became even stricter as the state has elevated its quarantine requirements to all non-essential travel from out of state. So, what do Vermonters and New Englanders think about this? Well, it’s a mixed bag, and one that Vermont publication “Seven Days” covered quite well this week in a story that covers the perspective of managers at an array of Vermont resorts. As for New Englanders on the whole, anecdotal evidence primarily coming from Facebook groups also suggests a mixed bag, with some folks angry at the state for effectively denying their entry, while others are far more understanding. The baseline theme of this argument, we suspect, is a dynamic that’s being echoed amongst skiers across the country. For more on the latest from Vermont, check out this writeup from Seven Days.
In other similar news, we also wanted to briefly share a pair of stories from mainstream media outlets that discuss the upcoming winter, if only to ensure that we’re aware of the full scope of opinions within the ski world. First up on that front is an article from the Washington Post that takes on the topic of planning a ski trip during the pandemic. To kick off the article, the author quotes health expert Darcy Selenke as saying, “Skiing is such a low-risk activity, and it’s a low transmission activity,” an assertion that we tend to agree with. From there, the article focuses on sharing tips and strategies on how to plan for a safe ski trip this winter. What’s interesting to note here of course, is that at least in this instance, mainstream media is not encouraging people to cancel their ski vacations, only to handle them far more cautiously this time around. We won’t be so bold as to suggest whether this is right or wrong as there are simply too many dynamics to consider (ranging from handling a global pandemic to local economies), but it’s certainly noteworthy regardless.
Finally, while the list of articles on this topic could go on forever, the last one we’ll share this week is an article from Fox News that looks to increase avalanche awareness amongst new backcountry skiers. To be perfectly honest, that single statement is the real story here. While the report itself contains some moderately useful information, what strikes us as eyebrow raising is the fact that Fox News is encouraging people to be aware of avalanche danger. To be clear, the use of italics is politically charged, it’s an emphasis on just how mainstream the concept of backcountry skiing has become. If Fox News has decided that their audience needs to be aware of avalanche danger, then there’s a real chance that this winter could mark a real turning point in the sport of backcountry skiing, for better or worse. For more on this, check out the report from Fox News.
#2: Summit County, CO Issues Harsh Repercussions for Violating Covid-19 Policies:
Next up this week, is another Covid-19 story (we’ll provide relief in highlights 3 and 4, we promise). While we likely could’ve included this headline in our first highlight this week, it feels significant enough that it deserves its own. This week, Colorado’s Summit County Public Health released an updated version of their Covid-19 public health order, and made it very clear that they’re not messing around. Just one week after Vermont issued state guidelines that many believed were the strictest in the country, Summit County, home to Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone, and Silverthorne ski resorts, has issued regulations regarding short term lodging that visitors would do well to be aware of. Under the new rules, "No more than 10 individuals indoors and/or outdoors from no more than 2 households at short term lodging operations." In other words, those booking lodging within Summit County will only be able to stay with members from one other household, and with up to 10 people total. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $5,000 or 18 months in jail. Additional restrictions include the mandatory use of masks, a 9:30 PM curfew on bars and businesses, and a ban on social gatherings from 10 PM - 5 AM. All told, Summit County’s new measures have just superseded Vermont’s as the most strict in ski country.
Of course we have to mention that these drastic measures aren’t without cause. Also in Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has just asked state residents to cancel their social plans as the state sees a spike in cases. In Summit County itself, the region saw the third highest two-week cumulative incidence rate of Covid-19 in the state. Finally, as if these two local factors weren’t enough, it’s with near certainty that we can assume the lessons learned from Ischgl last spring also loom large in the head of at least one decision maker in the area. For more on this latest round of increase restrictions, check in with Out There Colorado.
#3: Colorado Lawsuit Forces the Question, "Can Backcountry Zones Be Trade Secrets?"
Ok, let’s take a break from some of this week’s heavier news and instead explore an intriguing question: is it possible for backcountry areas to be deemed “trade secrets”? That’s what courts in Colorado are being forced to consider as backcountry ski operation Steamboat Powdercats has filed a lawsuit against a former employee who they feel is looking to popularize the area in which they operate their business. Thanks to a typically excellent story from the Colorado Sun, we’ve got a plethora of details to share.
The trouble all started when Stephen Bass, a longtime ski patroller at Utah’s Powder Mountain and former two-year tenured employee of Steamboat Powdercats, approached Andy Sovick, owner of the popular backcountry guidebook series “Beacon Guidebooks,” about publishing a book focused on Buffalo Pass near Steamboat Springs. After learning a bit about the area and realizing that it was the ideal blend of popularity, lack of information, and confusion which often necessitates a guidebook, Sovick agreed. Fast forward several months and Bass and Sovick had their first draft ready to share. Doing their due diligence, they sent it around for an initial review from area experts including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Forest Service officials, local backcountry groups, and Steamboat Powdercats. Upon reading that initial copy, co-manager of Steamboat Powdercats, Kent Vertrees, called Stephen Bass and was allegedly “fired up” about the potential for an exceptional increase in traffic in the area resulting from the book. In other words, it sounds like the impetus for the lawsuit stems from a backcountry operation being upset that a former employee is looking to expose the company’s long existing, exclusive expertise of the zone.
Of course for the sake of the lawsuit, the argument finds itself hinging on an entirely different discussion: safety. In explaining the lawsuit filed on behalf of Steamboat Powdercats, the company’s attorney, Tony Clapp, says, “What’s really concerning… is that the guidebook for that area has too much information and will give a false sense of confidence to the potential user and could very well lead to trouble in the backcountry versus enjoying the backcountry.” In other words, officially, Steamboat Powdercats is concerned that publishing a guidebook to the area with official route names (created by Steamboat Powdercats) will lead to a slew of new backcountry skiers thinking that the area is more or less a backcountry resort, not a full fledged backcountry experience. On the other hand, Sovick and Bass’s counterargument is oddly similar, yet opposite: in publishing the guidebook, they hope to share terrain knowledge and provide common naming conventions that will help skiers avoid dangerous terrain while also making rescue efforts easier to coordinate, ultimately increasing safety. As is always the case when we catch an article from the Colorado Sun, there’s a ton of details in the full story that we simply can’t cover in here. For that reason, we highly recommend heading over to their site and giving the full article a read.
#4: Maine's Saddleback Resort Set to Reopen After Five Year Hiatus:
Finally, we’re excited to be able to end this week’s news on a high note: Saddleback Resort in Maine is approximately one month away from its official reopening. Now, if you’re a longtime reader of Top 5 Fridays, or even a moderately longtime reader, you’ve probably seen us discuss Saddleback at least once or twice, so bear with us while we quickly recap the story of the resort’s last 5 years. Way back in 2015, it was announced that Saddleback Resort would not open for the 2015-2016 season. At that time, there were a range of options for finding a potential new owner or operations plan, but the resort would ultimately sit idle until the summer of 2017, when Majella, an Australian development company, entered a purchase agreement with the resort. At that time, Majella's CEO Sebastian Monsour painted a rosy portrait of the future, suggesting that Saddleback would become a destination resort. Then, less than a year later, he was caught on tape suggesting that he had no plans to actually open Saddleback, and that his intent to purchase the resort was purely to leverage the U.S.’s EB-5 program. In the aftermath of that news, the deal fell through and the resort sat idle for another year before Boston based impact investment firm, Arctaris, made a fresh offer on the resort. While the path to sealing the deal wasn’t perfectly smooth, what’s important is that finally, just about a year ago to this day, Saddleback Resort was finally sold, with Arctaris becoming the new owner.
In the year since, Arctaris has been busy, ultimately building up to this week’s highlight. With a stressful acquisition behind them, Arctaris hit the ground running, immediately opening their wallets to upgrade the resort’s infrastructure and bring it up to modern expectations. Amongst the initial round of redevelopment projects was a complete overhaul of the base lodge, where interior renovations focused on updating the lodge’s aesthetics, improving social distancing efforts, and the installation of a state of the art HVAC system to reduce indoor health risks. Outside, Arctaris installed a brand new detachable quad which reduces the length of a chairlift ride from 11 minutes, to just 4. So far, Arctaris is on track to spend $18 million in improvements in the first year of owning Saddleback, which it purchased for $6.5 million. Looking ahead, the investment firm is expecting its total investment cost to come to approximately $38 million. Quick mental math suggests that this means Arctaris is roughly halfway through its planned projects. From here, they’ll focus on continuing to improve the resort’s snowmaking equipment, as well as the creation of a solar farm to help power the resort. On top of all of that, it’s also important not to lose sight of Arctaris’s primary objective as an impact investment firm: to bring economic growth to high potential rural regions. Part of doing that means being a good employer, an area in which they’re being sure to focus on. In year one, the resort hopes to employ 180-220 people, offering above average pay and benefits packages to full time employees. Additionally, the resort has already stated that it’s, “looking into long-term plans to address the local housing issue.” All things considered, it sounds like the years-long search for a new owner may ultimately pay off in a big way for the people of Rangely, Maine. We’ll start to know more for sure when the lifts start turning again at Saddleback, sometime around December 15th. For more on this, check in with the Boston Globe.