BILLINGS — Skiers and snowboarders heading to Red Lodge Mountain this season will encounter a host of new rules and procedures in the lift line, the lodge and the rental shop designed to keep the facility open for the full season and mitigate COVID-19 spread.
“It’s such an outdoor activity, the skiing itself. Once you’re out on the hill and ready to make your turns is pretty distanced and safe. The challenge is just everything leading up to that," said Spencer Weimar, assistant general manager of the mountain.
Ski lodges, rental shops, ticket counters and food lines all serve as choke points that bottle people up in close proximity. Many of the new procedures target those parts of the skiing experience to better space people out. Once you're on the slopes, the fun is all the same, Weimar said.
One big change is that capacity will be reduced to 40 percent in all of the lodges. Only people buying food or drink will be allowed inside the lodges. People bringing a lunch or just trying to watch others ski will not be allowed inside.
"That's just not going to work anymore. We're taking such a significant hit in seats. One of the initiatives this year is ‘my lodge is my car.’ We’re definitely encouraging people to come prepared to get dressed at their car. To go there for breaks, to potentially do meals there and get warm. Unfortunately, that’s just kind of where we’re at," Weimar said.
Weimar said staff have created a take-out window on the side of the main lodge for people to grab food to eat outside. A similar project is in the works for the Bierstube located with the main lodge at the base of the mountain.
“People will still be able to get our food. We aren’t going to be strained for kitchen capacity. So, the food should still be good as always, we just don’t have the space. When you try to keep up with all the guidelines and restrictions, we just can’t have people hanging out in there all day," Weimar said.
Procedures in the lift line are in for a change. There will be no single rider line and people will have the option to ride alone. Skiers are encouraged to ride the lift with the same people they arrived to the mountain with.
New this year, the implementation of RFID ski passes. Essentially, an electronic tag is embedded within every ski ticket or season pass. The technology allows the lift operator to wave the scan gun over the jacket pocket the pass is held inside to allow lift access. So no more frantic digging while others wait behind you in the lift line.
The passes will also be reusable or refillable. So if you ski maybe three times a year, you will only have to go to the ticket office to pick up your first ticket, which will contain the RFID chip. Further tickets can be bought in advance online and added to the pass you already have in your possession.
“Through our new e-store that we’re about to roll out, you’ll be able to buy the ticket and never come back in. It means you will be able to go straight to the lift," Weimar said.
Last year, the ski season was cut short by about one month because of the pandemic, leaving some people who owned pre-purchased tickets with unused days. The good news is that people with unused 6-tix or 4-pack days last year will have those days roll over into this season. However, those days must be used before they expire on Christmas day.
Prices aren't yet available for single-day tickets, but management will limit the total amount of physical tickets sold on the mountain per day to allow pass holders the most opportunity to ski. The limited tickets at the mountain also cuts down on the numbers in the parking lot, making it easier for people to make it to their car.
Weimar suggested people use the online ticket ordering system on the mountain's web site to make absolutely sure they will have a ticket before they make the drive to Red Lodge.
"There's going to be very few tickets for sale at the mountain. So, if you want to come and you know you want to come you are going to have to buy a ticket online, because you could show up and there not be any tickets available. We're going to do our best to communicate when we're reaching our capacity, but the best way is to buy online in advance," Weimar said.
Patrons aren't the only ones adapting to new policies. Weimar said Red Lodge Mountain staff working indoors will be required to wear masks and all staff will complete a daily health check at the start of their shift. The same company that operates the ski mountain also operates the Red Lodge Mountain Golf Course and retail shop in the town of Red Lodge. Weimar said they've been able to make it so far without anyone getting sick.
“We can’t afford to lose entire departments. As we’ve seen in other businesses around our community, if they lose too many people then they have to shut down. We’re doing everything we can to not have that happen," Weimar said.
To craft the COVID-19 policies for the mountain, staff looked to public health officials in Carbon and Yellowstone counties. They also looked to the National Ski Area Association, an industry trade association, which prepared a best practices document to mitigate COVID-19 spread, Weimar said.
“Luckily when this all started, the southern hemisphere, Australia, South America, all tried to operate ski seasons. We were able to pick up valuable tips from there," Weimar said.
The snow conditions on the mountain aren't as good as this time last year, but Weimar said staff plan to open on Nov. 27. The mountain has had two good snow storms and some days with temperatures right for snowmaking so far.
"Mother Nature doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate in this next two-week period as we lead up to opening. But it looks like we’ll be open and there will be a decent service to start on. It’s not going to be like last year where we were open with most of our terrain. We will definitely be a little more limited this year, but it’s still going to start out really good for Red Lodge," Weimar said.
It's up to all skiers and snowboarders to follow the rules to ensure the mountain operates for the full season, Weimar said.
"I think the big thing is for all of our customers to know that we're in this together and they need to follow the rules and guidelines that we put in place. The more they do that, the more opportunity we have to have a great ski season. Be prepared to wear a mask. Be prepared to get dressed at their car. Buy their tickets online in advance. That's definitely going to need to happen to make sure that we look to make sure that we're not overcrowding the parking and the transportation and all of those little pieces," Weimar said.
Barring any COVID-19 complications, Red Lodge Mountain is scheduled to open the day after Thanksgiving and operate until April 11.
Click here to read the full list of COVID-19 policies at Red Lodge for the season.