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Mt. Ashland closing with record in sight

file photoPete Mackavey and his daughters Anna and Katie head out onto Mt. Ashland for Hallowednesday.

With just two days remaining in the Mt. Ashland ski season, an attendance record is in sight for the ski area despite a year of COVID restrictions and low snowfall.

The area reopens for its final operating days Saturday and Sunday.

Through April 11, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area was 1,086 visits shy of the five-day season record of 98,677 set during the 2018-19 season. A total of 104,744 guests visited the mountain in 1995-96, when the area was open seven days per week.

Return of the annual Ski & Snowboard Against Hunger canned food drive to benefit ACCESS on Sunday should help push up numbers, said General Manager Hiram Towle. Donors receive a free lift ticket. The event was canceled last year due to the pandemic.

“They can bring five cans of food and get a $52 lift ticket. We are really happy to work with ACCESS,” said Towle. The last time the event was held in 2019, the area gave out $21,000 in lift tickets.

Operations changed considerably this season due to the pandemic. Patrons were required to mask-up and maintain social distance in congested areas, didn’t have food service and warming opportunities in the lodge and used portable potties in the parking lot.

Board members began the season with trepidation because the lodge would not be open for regular services and patrons would need to use their vehicles as their bases, said Annette Batzer, board president for the nonprofit Mt. Ashland Association.

In addition, ticket sales were conducted online and people needed to arrange for private lessons and equipment rental via the internet.

“The most impressive and remarkable part of this experience was how well the public really stepped up and did their part to allow us to do our part,” said Batzer. She and other board members heard numerous comments about how important it was to have the mountain open during a stressful year for the community, she said.

Staff carefully monitored activities and were able to make adjustments as they were warranted, said Batzer. One of those changes was making half-day ticket sales available on the mountain beginning in early January. The tickets covered noon to 4 p.m. skiing.

Season pass sales totaled 3,500. Sales of full-day lift tickets were limited to 500 per day in advance, online to ensure adequate distancing for both purchasers and pass holders, Towle said. Enough users would leave to allow for midday sales of tickets.

“We made money. The operating income was up over last year by $200,000, but we had an early closure last year,” said Towle. The area shut down March 9, 2020, due to the pandemic.

Most weekends saw sellouts of full-day tickets. Attendance was also up on Mondays, Thursday and Fridays. Towle speculated that may have been due to more people working from home and having the flexibility to ski during the week. There have been 85 days of operation so far, and one closure day due to high winds.

“We are seeing a lot of really new passholders and families as the valley grows,” said Towle. An increase of out-of-state license plates appeared to continue in the parking lot, although the area did no marketing outside Oregon this year, unlike past years.

Expenses were down because a food service staff was not required. There was less revenue from lessons because group instruction was not conducted. Rentals were also down, because walk-ins weren’t allowed.

Snowfall for the season through April 13 totaled 171 inches, less than the usual average of 240 inches. Despite the low snow levels, timing of storms meant that coverage on the mountain was adequate throughout the season, which started Dec. 18.

“It came in just right. We got really lucky with the stops and starts,” Towle said of what he called a “not great” snow year.

During the early season Towle sent out information explaining that less than optimal slope grooming was due to the loss of experienced grooming machine operators. The area was later able to bring back a couple of former groomers to upgrade the results.

A new communication system was employed to inform the public. The area sent an email to anyone who purchased tickets online.

“We knew that people were going to be coming here and needed to be aware of what they would encounter,” said Towle. Follow-up questionnaires asking for comments were also sent out.

“We got hundreds and hundreds of five-star reviews and also feedback on what we need to do to be better,” said Towle. “That was a technology investment on our part to ask how we were doing.”

Towle and Batzer both said they hope for a more normal ski season beginning next December. That would include a return of night skiing, not offered this year, which brings in after-school ski classes.

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