In what promises to be a most unusual ski season in Colorado due to COVID-19, it might also be an unusually late kickoff.
In a call Thursday, representatives at Arapahoe Basin and Loveland — the two ski areas historically vying for opening day bragging rights — expressed cautious optimism in running lifts by the end of October.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed," said Loveland's Dustin Schaefer. "Our snowmakers are on standby even when they're not making snow, and when they get the opportunity to turn those guns on, they will."
Asked if she shared the same confidence for October, A-Basin spokeswoman Katherine Fuller chuckled. "Uhm, sure, I will be optimistic about October," she said, adding that snow guns had been firing in early morning hours.
"But not a ton of water to work with this year since it was such a dry summer," she said. "And Mother Nature doesn't look like she's gonna be helping us out too much any time in the near future. I think we'll really need a little bit of natural precip to kind of make this happen."
Severe drought continues to grip Colorado, and the state's largest wildfire ever, the Cameron Peak fire, continues to rage west of Fort Collins. On Friday, snow was not in the forecast for the mountains in the week ahead.
Joel Gratz, skiers' go-to meteorologist with OpenSnow.com, noted in his Friday report that it usually takes A-Basin and Loveland about two weeks of snowmaking to open. This week marked the first for artificial flurries, which depend on certain weather to form.
"If the forecast were for colder temperatures I would be more confident that we'll see a ski area open in the next 7-10 days," Gratz wrote, "but with more marginal temperatures, I'm not so sure."
Enthusiasts might endure their longest wait since 2015, when Loveland opened the season Oct. 29. That was Colorado's latest start to skiing in at least 15 years. A year later, in 2016, A-Basin was first to host guests on Oct. 21, another later start than usual.
In this century of enhanced snowmaking, it's been more common for the winter celebration to be had in the first or second week of October. Following a surprise 2018 kickoff by Wolf Creek Ski Area on Oct. 13, A-Basin opened Oct. 11 last year in what proved to be a bountiful season of powder. That was before chairlifts everywhere shut off as Colorado reported its first COVID-19 outbreaks in ski country.
Previously on Nov. 1, Eldora Mountain, the ski area west of Boulder, enjoyed its earliest opening ever.
"That was fun," said spokesman Sam Bass. "This year, we're opening a lot later (scheduled for Nov. 23) with the idea we'll have more terrain and lifts open, and we'll be able to spread people out from day one."
Spokeswoman Loryn Roberson said that's the intent of Keystone Resort down the pass from A-Basin. With state-of-the-art snow guns stationed near 11,400 feet and automatically firing at the moment conditions allow, Keystone joined the race to open first last year. On Oct. 12, skiers and riders took laps on the 3 1/2-mile-long Schoolmarm run.
Now the resort plans to open Nov. 6.
"We thoughtfully decided not to enter the race this year," Roberson said. "With a later opening date, we're hoping to open more terrain just so we're able to give guests more room to spread out."
Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment this week released its guidance for the ski industry — reiterating much of the social distancing, mask-wearing and lift-loading expectations resorts had already announced in collaboration with their local governments.
While Vail Resorts properties, including Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte, are poised to operate on a reservation system in an effort to cut crowds, policies represent more of a patchwork across the 22 destinations under trade association Colorado Ski Country.
"This is really the year to know before you go," said association spokesman Chris Linsmayer. "Do your research before your trip, do your research leading up to your trip and even do your research the day of your trip."