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Mt. Ashland season off to fast start

Despite limits on all-day tickets that must be purchased online, no general use of the day lodge, and on-mountain requirements to stop the spread of COVID-19, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area has seen good crowds since it opened Dec. 18.

“There’s only been a handful of days when we haven’t been sold out,” said Mt. Ashland Marketing and Development Director Michael Skinner. On Dec. 28 the area added on-site sales of half-day tickets after assessing the mountain capacity.

The area was open continuously from Dec. 18 though Jan. 4, except for Christmas, when high winds forced a closure. The ski area is now open Thursdays through Mondays.

Four inches of snow that fell overnight Thursday produced a full parking lot Friday morning. The dump continued a weather pattern seen over the past week adding snow to the area’s base.

Danielle Hobbs of Grants Pass came to the area with her father and sister-in-law, Mindy Hobbs. They usually ski Mount Shasta or Willamette Pass but wanted a day-trip destination.

“This is the best powder we have had in a long time,” said Danielle. Mindy recalled it was icy the last time they skied Mt. Ashland.

Season pass holder Cynthia Guthrie of Phoenix was up for her third visit this season. She usually tries to ski weekdays when it is less crowded.

“I’m so happy to have the mountain open. It’s something to do,” said Guthrie. “They are doing a great job. They are doing everything they can.”

To ensure adequate distancing the mountain limits full-day ticket sales. Staff must account for pass holders who will show up then set a limit on the number of tickets sold. This year over 4,000 passes were sold, a 16% increase from the 2019-20 season.

The maximum number of skiers is flexible based on conditions.

“It depends on what is happening. We really don’t have quotas saying that we are doing it one way rather than another,” said Stringer.

“A lot of season pass holders come up in the morning, then go back to work in the afternoon,” said Stringer. Staff assess conditions midmorning, then will announce if half-day tickets are on sale. Sales start at 11:45 a.m. and are good from noon to the 4 p.m. closing. The sales are announced on the ski area’s website and via text message alert.

There are no full-day ticket sales for walk-up customers. Online ticket sales are being handled by Liftopia, a national ski ticket agency. Purchasers take their phones or printouts to an outside booth to get tickets.

Individuals getting rentals or lessons are the only members of the public allowed in the lodge. Food services and the bar in the lodge are not operating this year.

“A lot that purchase lift tickets ... are also getting rental gear and getting lessons,” said Stringer. Both lessons and rentals need to be arranged online two days in advance.

For the rentals only half the fleet is in use on any day. The other half is being sanitized and prepared for use by skiers or riders with reservations. They provide boot size, height and weight so that equipment can be ready when they arrive. Customers come in to try on boots, then go back outside and pick up skis or snowboards, which are brought out to the east side of the lodge.

Visitors have asked why the lower-level restrooms in the lodge can’t be opened. All the space is needed for setting up the next day equipment, so there wouldn’t be space to accommodate others, Stringer said. Visitors use portable restrooms located in the parking lot.

Guests are required to wear masks in lift lines and when inside a building. Lift lines are separated by empty “ghost lines” to keep skiers apart while the skis and snowboards on customers’s feet also help maintain distance. Lines are now set up on both sides of the Windsor chair loading area to help maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

Mask compliance has been good, with fewer than a dozen warnings issued for not wearing them, said Stringer. Visitors are asked to go elsewhere if they don’t want to follow the rules.

Patrons have been using their vehicles as their lodge when taking breaks. Barbecues and grills appear regularly on pickup tailgates, and people are eating inside their vehicles in more blustery weather.

Snowfall for the week before Jan. 8 totaled 27 inches. That boosted snow depth at several spots on the mountain to over 40 inches compared to figures in the low 20s for the first couple weeks of operations.

Warmer temperatures have limited the number of runs that can be groomed. Temperatures must drop below freezing to allow for grooming, said Stringer. On Thursday the Winter run was groomed for just the second time this year. Grooming has yet to be done off the Ariel lift, which has runs from the 7,500-foot summit.

Information on cellphone alerts for ticket sales and conditions, as well as online purchases, can be found at mtashland.com.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

A skier on opening day at Mt. Ashland. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune