Apr 23, 2020 • 35M

COVID-19 & Skiing Podcast #8: Mt. Baldy, California GM Robby Ellingson – First to Reopen

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Stuart Winchester
Everyone’s searching for skiing’s soul. I’m trying to find its brains.
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Download this episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts | Read the full overview at skiing.substack.com.

What this is: This is the eighth in a series of short conversations exploring the ski industry fallout from the COVID-19-forced closure of nearly every ski area on the continent in March 2020. Click through to listen to the first seven: author Chris Diamond, Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher, Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway, NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak, Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer, Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson, Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz

Who: Robby Ellingson, General Manager of Mt. Baldy, California

Why I interviewed him: Because Ellingson figured it out. After Lookout Pass, Idaho, became the last ski area on the continent to freeze its lifts on March 25 to help stop the spread of COVID-19, I figured the season was done. Even if Mammoth or Arapahoe Basin or Snowbird or Killington did have enough base and enough staff left hanging around to open up again when the curve flattened on the coronavirus outbreak, it seemed unlikely that they would have the will to do so. They’d lost weeks of fat March and early-April spring break revenue, and many of them don’t make much or any money on late spring skiing. Why bother? Mt. Baldy bothered. In a limited, careful manner, with pre-registrations and parking lot check-ins and metered access throughout the day, the mountain is conducting a micro-experiment on behalf of the entire North American ski industry to see if there’s a way to make skiing work in a socially distant world. When the lifts stopped at most of the nation’s largest ski resorts on a frantic Saturday-into-Sunday jumble of panic and confusion in mid-March, no one really understood yet what was going on, how bad it was going to get, and how severe and widespread a shutdown needed to be in order to arrest the disease’s spread. We don’t necessarily have a good long-term understanding of those things just yet, but the ski industry’s doers and managers have had a good long stretch to think through some approaches that may allow lift-served skiing to survive until the scientists can put a stake through coronavirus’ heart. I wanted to see how that experiment was going, if it was sustainable or practical, and what it could mean for the 2020-21 ski season.   

What we talked about: The story of Mt. Baldy’s March shutdown amid a storm cycle; how the mountain’s pre-shutdown social distancing plan informed its April re-opening; how they knew it was time to fire the lifts up again; the issues caused by cityfolk flooding the mountains throughout the closure; aiming for a low-key re-opening in a high-key world; what California has and has not closed and what that means for ski areas; when the government isn’t clear on their guidelines, are there even guidelines Bro?; applying the golf course model to skiing; if Costco and Best Buy can stay open, why not an 800-acre ski area operating at 10 percent capacity?; Baldy’s social distancing protocol, from buying the lift ticket to entering the parking lot to going up and away on the lifts; skiing in the age of mandatory facemasks; how employees feel about returning to work after weeks of shelter-in-place; yeah it makes no sense because it’s pushing 90 degrees in Los Angeles but Mt. Baldy’s been getting hammered with snow and they’re aiming for Memorial Day or later; there’s avy control in Southern California; the plan for Ski Patrol; the community reaction; how opening helped take pressure off the end-of-the-road crowds that had been congregating outside the mountain’s gates; whether this is a sustainable model for a COVID-bombed 2020-21 ski season

Further reading:

Mt. Baldy’s we’re open/social distancing protocol page.

Additional coverage of Mt. Baldy’s reopening: Powder, MSN, LA Times, Gear Junkie, KTLA, KCAL

This Mt. Baldy trip report from the March 1994 issue of Powder will give you a good sense of the place. It doesn’t seem to have changed much since. An overview of Mt. Baldy’s lifts and a trailmap.

Recorded on: April 22, 2020


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The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz

The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio| Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen| Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds