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Mt. Ashland readies for a more normal season

file photo Mt. Ashland Ski Area management expects operations to be much closer to normal this winter after a 2020-21 season that saw restrictions on numbers and lodge use along with mask requirements to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The days of “your vehicle is your lodge” may be over at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area.

Mountain management expects operations to be much closer to normal this winter after a 2020-21 season that saw restrictions on numbers and lodge use along with mask requirements to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But skiers and riders will pay more because the nonprofit ski area has raised prices to cover increased costs.

Ticket sales will not be limited this year and reservations won’t be required. Last year there was a limit of 500 tickets per day to provide greater spacing on the mountain and to accommodate season pass holders, who were not restricted.

The lodge will be open to all this season under current plans. Last year access was limited to individuals picking up rental gear and a few other activities, while guests used portable restrooms in the parking lot. Food and beverage services will also resume after a year off. Face coverings will be required indoors except when eating and drinking.

Price of a one-day holiday or weekend ticket for ages 13-69 goes up to $64 daily from $55 last year. Insurance costs increased 50% last year and jumped another 40% this year, reported area Manager Hiram Towle. Labor and material costs have also increased.

“It was a bigger jump than what we have done before. We have tried to slowly increase incrementally, unfortunately that was a big shock to everyone. We have to make adjustments on the revenue side,” said Towle. “At the end of the day, it’s our job to make sure that Mt. Ashland is here for future generations.”

Opening day is set for Saturday, Dec. 11, if snow permits. From Dec. 16 through Jan. 3, the ski area will be open every day over the holiday season, before resuming a five-day per week schedule with closures Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

The final day is projected to be Sunday, April 17, for a total of 91 operating days. Twenty night-skiing sessions are planned. The schedule is subject to weather and changes imposed due to COVID-19.

Despite the restrictions, the ski area saw a record number of visitors with more than 106,000 guests last year. About 3,500 passes were sold last year. Pass sales for this season were over 3,400 as of Nov. 1, and had brought in more than $1 million. Opening day last year was for pass holders only, but a decision on doing that this year hasn’t been made yet, said Towle.

On the mountain, “ghost” lines at the lifts, created to spread out skiers, will be gone. Skiers and riders can partner with others to ride, and masks will not be required on chairs.

Only private lessons were offered last year, but this year group lessons will return. Equipment rentals can be made upon arrival, after two-day advance reservations were required last year to allow for setup and cleaning and to reduce numbers in the lodge. Reservations are encouraged this year to move guests onto the slopes more rapidly, Towle said.

Other features back this season will include night skiing Thursday and Friday evenings, after-school ski sessions for school students, and the free shuttle buses that run hourly on weekends and holidays between Ashland and the mountain.

Employee minimum wage has been set at $15 per hour for this year. Employee benefits include a ski pass, exchange privileges at other ski resorts in the Northwest, discounts on food and merchandise, and free rentals and lessons.

“We are looking for people to join the team,” said Towle. Experienced grooming machine operators from elsewhere have been hired. Last year grooming early in the season was less than optimal due to inexperienced operators.

Skies and riders can save money on tickets by purchasing in advance online. There’s a 10% discount for purchases made one to nine days in advance. Purchases made 10 or more days in advance get a 20% discount. Cheaper tickets are available weekdays ($57) and for twilight skiing Thursdays and Fridays ($25).

Most improvements made over the summer won’t be highly visible to patrons this year. They include things like a new water system, upgrades to sewage treatment, a new control system on the Windsor lift and a new communication line run up the Ariel lift line. Some trimming of vegetation was done on runs, and a new snow fence was put up on the Dream run to prevent snow scouring by wind.

Mt. Ashland joined the Indy Pass network this year. The collection of more than 75 resorts across the nation offer pass holders two tickets at each resort. Towle hopes the new network will help continue a trend of increasing out-of-state visitors.

“A lot of guests ski and ride at Mt. Ashland because of the vibe. It’s not got long lines. It’s not about the lattes, it’s about the soul of skiing you find at the independent ski areas,” said Towle.

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