Eaglecrest prepares for ski season with high hopes for snow and no COVID-19 disruptions

Attendance numbers have spiked at Eaglecrest Ski Area thanks to fresh snowfall as seen here on March 5, 2017. (Photo courtesy of John Erben)
Attendance numbers have spiked at Eaglecrest Ski Area thanks to fresh snowfall as seen here on March 5, 2017. (Photo courtesy of John Erben)

Juneau’s Eaglecrest Ski Area closed early last spring when coronavirus arrived in the United States.

The city-owned ski area has an ambitious reopening plan for this season. Staff hope it will be enough to provide uninterrupted outdoor distraction this winter and keep people healthy.

Snow has been steadily piling up on the mountain top.

And while Eaglecrest’s opening day isn’t for another month, General Manager Dave Scanlan is feeling optimistic.

“Some really good, strong early season season pass sales and sales of lesson programs,” Scanlan said. “It definitely seems like people are excited to be outside and getting exercise and sharing some well-spaced outdoor social time with their friend groups.”

Last year was a record-setting snow season. But like everything else, things ground to a halt for the ski mountain in mid-March.

Scanlan said Eaglecrest and other northern hemisphere ski areas spent the offseason watching what worked and didn’t work in places like New Zealand, Australia and South America.

“A lot of the ski areas down there were anticipating much lower demand for services, and it was actually the opposite,” said Scanlan. “There was a higher demand because, again, … people wanted to get outside and do something fun for their families.”

Eaglecrest’s plan for this winter is tied to the City and Borough of Juneau’s COVID-19 strategy.

For several weeks, Juneau has remained at its highest risk level, with significant community spread of COVID-19. If that keeps up until the start of the ski season, Eaglecrest will open in the most restrictive phase of its plan.

That means masks for anyone not actively skiing or snowboarding. Lodge access would be restricted, so all rentals, lesson reservations and food and drink orders would happen outside through service windows.

“Obviously, we were all hoping that we would be seeing our infection rate going the other direction, but it seems like we’re kind of holding at this current level with, you know, definitely some community spread and significant numbers of COVID,” Scanlan said.

Skiers and snowboarders are encouraged to treat their cars like the lodge: get dressed there, eat there and — within family groupings or social bubbles — socialize there.

Staff will enforce social distancing between groups and mask wearing. People who don’t mask up properly risk penalties, starting with a suspension of two weeks and working up to the full season.

To help with all the extra enforcement and mitigation this winter, Eaglecrest has a pair of budget requests headed for public hearing before the Juneau Assembly later this month.

One asks for $73,000 in federal CARES Act funding for tents, outdoor heaters and propane.

The other requests $160,500 in city funding to hire more staff for ski patrol and to operate the Black Bear chairlift with expanded hours, allowing people to spread out on the mountain and create less congestion in lift lines.

At an Assembly finance committee meeting in September, City Manager Rorie Watt pointed out that unlike pools or skating rinks, Eaglecrest can’t exactly limit how many people walk through the door.

Even if the lifts move to a reservation system — a possibility under Phase 3 of Eaglecrest’s plan — people will still hike up the mountain.

“Eaglecrest is a different, you know, arena,” Watt said. “It’s outdoors and on a big snow day it’s going to be very difficult for Mr. Scanlan and his staff to limit the number of people at the ski area.”

Skiing is bound to be popular this year, especially if the snow cooperates.

The new rules will be an adjustment for many people, especially when it comes to no indoor access.

“There are days in skiing, where the weather is just brutal,” said Nona Dimond, vice president of finance for the Juneau Ski Club. She also coaches ski racing for younger children and has a son in the youth program.

“We’ve had days where it’s so wet that you have to go into the lodge and wring out gloves and put them on the heater and dry them,” Dimond said. “There’s been days where it’s so cold that you worry about kids getting frostbite, and really the only way to do anything to mitigate that is to keep going in and get warm.”

Dimond said Eaglecrest has been working with the club and will provide heated tents for warming up and getting out of the slush.

She’s hopeful that if everyone follows the rules, this season can be a success.

“Skiing lends itself really nicely to socially distanced activity, yet still having a little bit of interaction with another human being, which we’re all sort of missing,” she said.

Eaglecrest’s opening day is Dec. 5.

If the snow is good, it could open earlier.