On Thursday, Colorado's Front Range skiers and snowboarders looked to their first weekend on the slopes.
But in what was perhaps a fitting precursor for an uncertain winter ahead, there were no guarantees at first.
Epic Pass holders woke to surprise news of Keystone Resort launching its online reservation system, a day before the scheduled opening Friday. But "government approval" was still pending, Keystone warned customers, and "all reservations are subject to this approval and will automatically be canceled if for some reason we are not able to open on time."
The holdup ended by evening, when the state's Department of Public Health and Environment reportedly gave the green light for Keystone's COVID-19 operating plans. Those were approved by local health officials Tuesday.
Three lifts were to begin running at 9 a.m. Friday, ferrying guests to 3 miles of trail. Weekend reservations were booked, but the resort said spots were available for pass holders next week starting Monday.
Following Wolf Creek Ski Area's season kickoff last week in southwest Colorado, Keystone will mark a return to skiing in the central part of the state. Gov. Jared Polis ordered resorts closed in March as the coronavirus spread.
"We ended the season short last year, so I think people are very eager to get back out on the slopes," Keystone spokeswoman Loryn Roberson said. "We're just excited we can offer that safe, outdoor environment for people and get them back out doing what they love in this crazy time."
It's a time when COVID-19 cases are climbing to record highs in Colorado and across the country.
Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area up the pass from Keystone, seemed alarmed by recent trends in his blog last weekend. Typically the state's first ski area to host guests in early or mid-October, A-Basin has yet to announce its opening.
"If we want to enjoy winter in Summit County, we are going to have to turn things around quickly," Henceroth wrote. "Keep your face coverings on. Maintain your physical distances. Keep your groups small. The time to act is now."
The state of the pandemic factored into Winter Park Resort's decision to delay its opening day, previously set for Nov. 18. That will now be no earlier than Nov. 30, "but that is subject to change based on public health and weather circumstances," read a press release this week.
"We need to spread people out," said resort spokeswoman Jen Miller, "and if we don't have enough terrain open to do that, it makes everybody's life challenging."
For much of Colorado's high country heading into the weekend, drought remained at "extreme" and "exceptional" levels. Balmy temperatures have hindered snowmaking, operators have reported, including at Loveland Ski Area, which like A-Basin annually aims for a mid-October start. Now Loveland is eyeing next week, for what would be the ski area's seventh November start in 40 years.
Snowmakers are vying to cover the Home Run trail in order to open, then they'll move on to other terrain. "It's like that every season," said spokesman Dustin Schaefer, "but this season it's gonna be more of a challenge to get stuff opened faster."
To avoid crowding, Winter Park wants to see more slopes around the state available, Miller said — "so that Front Range skiers in particular have more options, and we can manage the numbers a little better."
That's the intent of Vail Resorts' reservation system, said Roberson at Keystone.
While some ski areas have announced they will be limiting day tickets and parking spots, Vail's destinations are requiring prebookings. (The company has not publicized exact limits, but within an hour of taking Keystone reservations Thursday morning, slots were full for Saturday and Sunday. In the first 10 minutes, the system showed more than 5,500 customers in line, with wait times less than 10 minutes.)
"We have reservations so that we can manage capacity," Roberson said. "We put these things in place with the thought that we're gonna be dealing with this throughout the winter."
"This," meaning the unrelenting coronavirus. Hospitalizations in the state surpassed peaks in April, it was reported Thursday.
Trends didn't threaten Monarch Mountain's Nov. 20 opening plan, spokesman Dan Bender said from the beloved base of southern Coloradans.
"Our early season, we don't see the crowds that Front Range ski areas see," Bender said. "And some of those guys open up with one run, and it's confined to that. But when we open, we have all natural snow that's not limited to any one place."
Without snowmaking technology, Monarch depends on Mother Nature. Finally, her wintry blow is forecasted for the mountains later this weekend.
But who knows? Bender said. "Anything can happen."