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Meet Chris Sorensen, the new general manager of Keystone Resort

Keystone Resort’s new Vice President and General Manager Chris Sorensen is pictured Tuesday, Nov. 23.
Katie Young/Keystone Resort

Chris Sorensen, who was named Keystone Resort’s new vice president and general manager in May, started from humble beginnings.

Sorensen began his professional career in a server closet in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, programming phone switches for an insurance company. He also picked up a part-time job at Best Buy, where he would work a shift at night just so he could alleviate his itch to interact and communicate with people.

While working these two jobs, Sorensen came across an advertisement in one of Tulsa’s local newspapers that turned his life path a full 180 degrees.

“The advertisement featured a snowboarder jumping off a cliff that said, ‘Do you want to get paid to play?’” Sorensen said. “And I was immediately like, ‘Uh, yes! Sign me up!’”

From there, Sorensen would attend a job fair at a hotel in Tulsa, where he was exposed to ski resorts from across the country. He would eventually be offered a job to come out to Keystone Resort in order to be a ski lift operator.

Sorensen deiced to pack up and move on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 in order to be set up in Summit County in time for his first day Dec. 4.

Sorensen said he initially came to work one season and was willing to change course if things didn’t go as planned. But after two weeks on the job at Keystone, Sorensen said he fell in love with the ski resort lifestyle.

“I can remember calling my parents back in Oklahoma and saying, ‘I’m never coming home, and I am going to find a way of how I can make this a career,’” Sorensen said.

Skiers walk through the gates to board the River Run Gondola on Keystone Resort's opening day, Friday, Oct. 22.
Lindsey Toomer/Summit Daily News

Sorensen had a goal in mind when starting at Keystone in 2004: He one day wanted to be the vice president and general manager of the Resort. Sorensen worked toward this pipe dream by raising his hand to do anything and everything in order to see how the resort was able to run successfully.

After about five years, Sorensen realized that if he wanted to move up higher into the Vail Resorts system, he needed to oversee a part of Keystone’s revenue department in order to prove he could manage operations and revenue systems. Sorensen got this opportunity when he became the tubing and night operations manager for Keystone.

Sorensen loved the new position as it allowed him to be at the top of the mountain, in the sun, looking off Independence Bowl. But Sorensen was still eager to move his way up in the company.

By 2014, he transitioned to Breckenridge Ski Resort as the senior manager of EpicMix Photo, guest service and scanning. Sorensen said his stint at Breckenridge was short-lived as he nailed down his first Vail Resorts general manager position at Mt. Brighton outside of Detroit the next year.

Sorensen made the move with his wife, who he had met at Keystone, along with his two new stepchildren.

After three years in Michigan, Sorensen and his family made another move to Hastings, Minnesota, in order for him to lead Afton Alps Ski Resort. He would remain in this position for only a season before he was promoted once again, this time to vice president of Vail Resorts’ Midwest region, which includes 10 resorts.

Then in June of this year, Sorensen started his new leadership role at Keystone.

“Vail Resorts is thrilled to welcome Chris Sorensen as the new vice president and general manager of Keystone Resort,” Keystone Resort spokesperson Loryn Roberson said at the time. “… Chris has a long history with Vail Resorts. He joined the company in 2004 as a lift operator at Keystone and quickly articulated his dream of one day becoming the GM.”

Sorensen said his latest title takes things “full circle” to the position he dreamed about 17 seasons ago.

“I am so proud of how this resort has grown since I was gone,” Sorensen said. “And to be be back in this role leading this resort where I started my career means the world to me.”

Sorensen said he returned to Summit County with essential, newfound experience on how to interact with different cultures and build teams from the ground up. This season, Sorensen said a large amount of his energy and focus will be spent on family.

“Keystone’s brand is family, and it will continue to be family,” Sorensen said. “We will continue to drive activations around the family skier. The overall vision is to continue to make this the No. 1 family resort in the world, add lift service terrain to increase uphill capacity and improve the employee experience.”

Sorensen noted that Keystone is planning the opening of a big expansion next season that will allow more access for families to explore the resort. The Bergman Bowl expansion will provide 500-plus new lift-served acres with 15 trails in order to give visitors easier access to one of Sorensen’s favorite places on the mountain to explore.

Sorensen said Keystone is also in the process of expanding and developing its base area over the next three to four years.

Although Sorensen spends the majority of his time in meetings, he said he likes to spend at least fives days a week out on the hill seeing the finished product of employees’ hard work and dedication.

Sorensen said he expects a strong ski season with visitors coming to get outside and explore the mountain.

“Our expectations are that there is going to be a demand,” Sorensen said. “People are going to want to be here, they are going to want to get outside, and we are excited to be able to offer them a product to do that. Hopefully, people have fun and laugh with their friends, family or themselves if they are powder hounds.”

Breckenridge’s 60th anniversary begins with waffles, music and 5 inches of fresh snow

Skiers and snowboarders cheer with excitement as they board the first chair of the season at the base of Peak 8 on opening day Friday at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Katie Young/Breckenridge Ski Resort

Windy weather and warm waffles was the scene the morning of opening day Friday, Nov. 12, at Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 8. The resort’s 60th anniversary kicked off with the BreckConnect Gondola spinning at 8 a.m. followed by the Colorado SuperChair and 5-Chair firing up at 8:30 to give guests about 50 acres of terrain on the 4 O’Clock and Springmeier trails.

For Shawn Daws, the day began even earlier. He arrived at the base around 5:15 a.m. to be on the first chair of the Colorado SuperChair. The shuttle driver and river guide works nights so he can ride each day, yet Friday was his first day of the season.

“It’s my backyard, and I love it,” Daws said. “I love this mountain. It’s the best mountain.”

It was the third opening day the seven-year Breckenridge resident has attended at the resort. He was on the first chair of Vail Mountain last season and is thrilled that the reservation system to ski is gone. Daws lived in Pennsylvania before Colorado, but grew up riding Taos and Angel Fire Resort in New Mexico.

Joining him Friday was Zion Laman from Castle Rock and his three friends. The two parties rode the first chair at Breckenridge last season, as well. It was Laman’s fourth day of the season, with the other three at Keystone Resort.

“Breck is pretty easy to get first chair,” Laman said. “There are some places where you have to camp multiple nights.”

The 16-year-old and his group stayed overnight at the Grand Lodge on Peak 7 and skied down the road to get in line at about 5:30 a.m., shortly after Daws.

“We were supposed to get here at 4, but we got lazy,” he said.

Skiers and riders who arrived early Friday were greeted with a DJ, free waffles and 5 inches of snow that fell overnight.

“It was awesome,” Laman said after his first run. “There was a little bit of fresh powder at the top. It was sweet. I loved it.”

Matt Baker, a snowboarder who was also one of the first to complete a lap, thanked the Norse god Ullr for the conditions.

“It was great,” Baker said. “Ullr has been kind. It’s a little hard and kind of windy, but Ullr was kind.”

There was a base depth of 18 inches reported, and 15 inches fell throughout the week before Friday morning’s mostly cloudy weather.

Snowboarders ride down Springmeier trail on opening day Friday at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Spence Linard/Breckenridge Ski Resort

Six-year Breckenridge resident and event producer Cara Loux arrived after the initial surge.

“It’s a lot better than I thought it would be,” Loux said while taking a break on the deck of the Vista Haus between runs.

She doesn’t do opening days often due to work, and Friday was her first day of the season, but she said she came out to meet up with old friends and enjoy her home mountain.

“I did Wake Up Breck yesterday for the first time ever,” Loux said. “It was cool to see almost over 2,000 people line up to watch the opening of a garage, get a mug and activate local businesses. I like to see that.”

Next on her list for the season is Breckenridge’s upper terrain and skinning in the backcountry.

Over at 5-Chair, which wasn’t running during last season’s opening day, was Jennifer Stone and her family from Colorado Springs. It’s been a tradition for the past five years to come out for opening day.

“We took the kids out of school and came up last night,” Stone said. “We just love being in Breck.”

The mountain is where her 13-year-old twins learned to ski, and learning was once again on the agenda as one made the switch to snowboarding. They chose 5-Chair to ease into the new equipment before lessons Saturday at Keystone.

Stone said this season feels more normal when compared with last year. While the ski reservation system is gone, reservations will still be required for on-mountain restaurants as well as proof of vaccination at cafeteria-style eateries. Face coverings are also necessary indoors.

Stone is also excited for the new Freedom SuperChair to debut on the north side of Peak 7. The opening of the lift is planned for early December. Spokesperson Sara Lococo said more Peak 8 terrain is the current priority, followed by opening Peak 9 and then Peak 7.

Summit ski areas raise wages, hire international employees to contend with labor shortage

Keystone Resort employees greet a skier as she walks to the River Run Gondola on the resort's opening day Oct. 22. All four Summit County ski areas have raised their starting hourly wage to $15 to stay competitive in the area.
Lindsey Toomer/Summit Daily News

Employee hiring — or lack thereof — continues to pose a challenge for Summit County businesses. With ski areas being the largest local employers of seasonal workers, where do they stand?

Summit County’s four ski areas — Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort — all had different responses to the ongoing labor shortage.

A-Basin spokesperson Katherine Fuller said the ski area’s main challenge is related to work visas. Copper spokesperson Taylor Prather reported that the resort is not having hiring issues.

Breckenridge and Keystone spokesperson Sara Lococo said this year has presented unique challenges on the staffing front but would not specify what those challenges are.

Copper typically hires about 1,600 employees for its peak winter season, and about 300 of those employees are part-time, Prather said Oct. 21. While hiring employees for the 2020-21 season saw many challenges related to the pandemic, including the suspension of international employee visas, Prather said the response to seasonal hiring this year is similar to what was seen in 2019. She said the resort is excited to welcome back international employees.

“Although it’s a small percentage of our overall workforce, it’s definitely helpful to be able to bring that program back,” Prather said Thursday, noting that the resort mainly uses the J-1 visa program.

As many local businesses are struggling to hire employees, Prather said she believes the reason Copper isn’t feeling the same strain is that the resort is a competitive employer within Summit County.

“Being able to offer some level of affordable housing to up to 45% of our workforce has helped us,” Prather said.

Across the county at A-Basin, hiring for the season has overall been on par with previous seasons except for food and beverage employees, which have posed unique challenges, Fuller wrote in an email. One of the main hiring challenges A-Basin is contending with is work visa caps, Fuller said.

“The H-2B out-of-country cap was met for the first time ever,” Fuller wrote, referencing the statutory limit on the total number of individuals per year who can be issued an H-2B visa. “We missed that cap, so we could not bring on the cooks we had hired. This has been our biggest challenge this season.”

Despite the setbacks with the H-2B visa cap, Fuller said the ski area was able to hire international workers and noted that there are a few more international workers than in past seasons. In addition to returning seasonal employees, A-Basin is hiring about 200 new seasonal workers this season. To attract employees, Fuller said the ski area did more local recruiting than usual.

“We have also reached out to social platforms that target under-represented populations within the ski industry,” Fuller wrote.

At Breckenridge and Keystone, the resorts are focusing on competitive wages, benefits, company culture and leadership development to attract employees despite labor challenges this year, Lococo wrote in an email. She noted that Vail Resorts increased its wages ahead of the ski season, bringing the minimum hourly wage from $12.50 to $15. The companywide announcement was made in June.

Summit County’s ski areas tend to keep their wages similar to each other to stay competitive.

Prather reported that Copper also raised its starting wage to $15 per hour as did A-Basin.

Lococo said seasonal employees from previous winters are working at the resorts this season along with new employees. She noted that most of the resorts’ workforce is seasonal but did not provide specific numbers.

Skier triggers avalanche on Loveland Pass

A skier triggered an avalanche Friday, Oct. 29, in an area known as Kitchen Wall on Loveland Pass. The two other avalanches ran sympathetically, and the skier was unharmed.
Summit County Sheriff’s Office/Courtesy photo

A skier triggered an avalanche Friday on Loveland Pass. Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Charles Pittman said they received a call from dispatch at 12:50 p.m. Friday and that the avalanche occurred in an area known as Kitchen Wall, above Pass Lake before the summit.

Pittman said two local, experienced skiers — who had the proper gear, skied the area before and took the time to analyze the snowpack with a snow pit — were in the area. The second skier triggered the avalanche and was carried over 400 feet. The skier was not buried or injured.

“Even people like that, the conditions can conspire against them, which is what happened this time,” Pittman said about the pair’s experience level. “It goes to show that the snowpack this time of year is very tender, and I think a lot of it has to do with the snow that is up there is sitting on a grassy surface, and the snow is still warm. It hasn’t frozen yet. It’s not at all unusual to get a slide this time of year.”

Another avalanche near Loveland Pass occurred as recently as Oct. 24.

According to Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the snowpack is touchy in steep areas below ridgelines and in steep, confined gullies where winds have deposited snow over weak, early season layers. Steep, northerly and easterly facing slopes near and above treeline are likely spots to trigger an avalanche.

Epic Pass prices set to increase after Labor Day

Monday, Sept. 6, is the last day to get the lowest price on Epic Passes this season before prices go up Tuesday, Sept. 7.

Priced at $783 for adults, the Epic Pass offers unlimited, unrestricted access to 34 resorts in North America, including Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, in addition to Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort in Summit County and Crested Butte and Telluride elsewhere in Colorado.

The Epic Local Pass, priced at $583 for adults, offers unlimited, unrestricted access to 26 resorts, including Keystone and Breckenridge, as well as 10 days total at Vail, Beaver Creek and Whistler Blackcomb in Canada.

For those who only ski a few days each season, there’s the Epic Day Pass, which allows users to purchase one to seven days at rates that are discounted depending on how many days are added and whether users want holiday access. A four-day pass, for example, costs $323, or $80.75 per day for adults, for access to all resorts but no holiday days. A seven-day pass with access to 29 resorts and no holiday days is priced at $396, or $56.57 per day for adults.

All pass prices represent a 20% decrease from last season. Vail Resorts announced the discounts in March, saying the move brings back prices last seen during the 2015-16 season, when Vail Resorts offered access to 11 North American resorts compared with 34 today.

The global resort operator said the move was part of an effort to grow the sport and make it more affordable. Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz added that he expected the change would also help improve the company’s bottom line.

All 2021-22 pass products come with Epic Coverage, which provides full or partial refunds for personal events like job loss, injury or illness, as well as for certain resort closures, including closures due to COVID-19. The coverage was introduced as part of 2020-21 season passes. However, Epic Pass holders from the 2020-21 season expressed frustration with the refund process.

The start to ski season is now just weeks away, with Vail Resorts announcing that it plans to open Keystone “as early as possible in October.” Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Loveland Ski Area also typically open sometime in mid- to late October, depending on conditions. Copper Mountain Resort typically opens in early November, and Breckenridge is set to open Nov. 12.

‘It didn’t have to be that way:’ Epic Pass holders frustrated with refund process

A Vail Resorts' Epic Pass with Vail Mountain in the background on Nov. 17, 2020.
Photo by John LaConte / Vail Daily

Some Epic Pass holders say they finally received the refunds they requested for their 2020-21 season passes, but it’s been a long and difficult road.

In spring of 2020, Vail Resorts launched Epic Coverage following the sudden closure of the resorts and in preparation of an uncertain ski season. Epic Coverage was free for passholders, and a news release announcing the coverage explained that it replaced the need to purchase pass insurance.

“Epic Coverage provides refunds in the unlikely event of certain resort closures (i.e. for COVID-19), giving pass holders a refund for any portion of the season that is lost. Additionally, Epic Coverage provides a refund for personal circumstances covered by our pass insurance for eligible injuries, job losses and many other personal events,” the release said.

As the 2020-21 ski season came to a close, Epic Pass holders began reaching out to the Summit Daily News to complain that they still had not received the refunds that they were due.

So, has there been any progress?

Following an article on the subject this spring, several people reached out to the Summit Daily sharing their own frustration about not receiving refunds. When contacted again in August, several of these passholders said they did end up receiving a refund, but many noted the process was lengthy and burdensome.

“I just persevered; I would not give up. Every time they would deny my claim I would go back,” said Bruce Waterson, a Rhode Island resident who said his claim for a refund was denied at least 12 times. “I pleaded with the people at Epic Pass — not at (American Claims Management), the insurance company — to let me speak to a supervisor, and every time I would ask that question they would transfer me to ACM. You’d get to ACM, it would go to a voicemail and the voicemail box would be full.”

Waterson said he believes what helped him eventually get his refund was trying to contact Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, via email and Twitter. He said he tweeted about his frustrations one day, tagging Katz, and that night he got an email from American Claims Management saying his claim was approved.

However, when Waterson got the check, the refund was only for his pass and didn’t include his wife’s pass. He went through the process again, which included getting a doctor’s note, until he was fully reimbursed for both passes.

“My wife kept saying, ‘Why don’t you just give up?’” Waterson said. “… I think that was the whole point, like, ‘Let’s make this so difficult that people will give up.’”

Loryn Roberson, spokesperson for Keystone Resort, a Vail Resorts-owned mountain, said in an email that while there were some unforeseen situations, the company worked earnestly to do their best for guests.

“Our dedicated team set up to administer Epic Coverage worked diligently to ensure that every submitted refund request was evaluated per the Terms and Conditions of Epic Coverage. We thank our guests for their patience. All pass holders who met the qualifications for a refund, including for resort closure or a personal event, have now been contacted,” Roberson wrote in an email.

Roberson declined to clarify whether this means all passholders who qualified had been offered a refund or that they had simply been reached out to.

“As it relates to next season, all passes will come with Epic Coverage included at no additional cost — which is designed to provide refunds for personal situations such as job loss, injury and illness — as well as refunds for certain resort closures, including those due to COVID-19,” Roberson added.

In a Facebook post in the group Epic Pass Holders, passholders commented on whether they were successful in receiving the refunds they claimed. There was a mix of responses: Some said they received a refund without issue, some said they received a partial refund and others said they did not receive one at all.

Similar to Waterson, Peter Lederer said he received a refund after several months. He said he was frustrated with the process and called the experience “unprofessional.” Lederer said he originally called the phone number given for requesting a refund and was told to find information online, where he filled out his claim form. When he didn’t hear anything, he continued to call.

“I called back a dozen times — at least — referring each time to the form I filled out,” Lederer said. “They each time verified that they had received the form and each time said that there’s been no resolution.”

Lederer said he eventually called Vail Resorts’ corporate headquarters and got a call back. He was told his claim form was incomplete and that he needed to attach a doctor’s note. Lederer did so and was given a refund. In all, Lederer’s process for receiving a refund took three months.

While some received a refund and others did not, the recurring complaint of passholders was with the cumbersome procedure. Jessica Murphy, a passholder who filed a claim for a refund for her unused pass in December and received a denial in May, said she felt the process was made “as difficult as possible.”

“The bottom line is it didn’t have to be that way,” Murphy said.

Vail Resorts offers incentives for passes purchased by Memorial Day

In addition to a price reduction for the upcoming season, Vail Resorts is offering incentives to individuals who purchase their passes by Memorial Day. Skiers and riders who lock up an eligible pass by May 31 will receive 10 buddy tickets, which offer discounted lift ticket rates to family and friends, and can secure their pass for a down payment of $49.

According to Vail Resorts, the discount to season passes is part of the company’s effort to deliver on its Epic for Everyone commitment to broaden engagement in the sports of skiing and snowboarding. A news release states that the price reset for 2021 takes Epic Pass products back to prices last seen during the 2015-16 season.

In Eagle County, that means the Epic Local Pass — which provides access to Vail Mountain Resort, Beaver Creek Resort, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, Park City Mountain Resort, Whistler Blackcomb and all of Vail’s northeastern resorts — will be on sale for the price of $583.

Breckenridge chief John Buhler hangs up his hat after 27 years with Vail Resorts

Breckenridge Ski Resort Chief Operating Officer John Buhler is pictured Thursday, April 8, at Breckenridge's Peak 8. Buhler will retire from his position after the ski season wraps up in May.
Photo from Breckenridge Ski Resort

Longtime Vail Resorts employee John Buhler is retiring from his position as chief operating officer of Breckenridge Ski Resort. Buhler has served as the COO of Breckenridge for six years following his five-year role in the same position at Keystone Resort.

With a dad on ski patrol, Buhler started skiing when he was just 2 years old. After getting involved with other sports during his teenage years in high school, Buhler revived his passion for skiing in 1980, when he kicked off his career in the ski industry as a part-time instructor in California.

“To have the ability to have an entire career in a field that was your lifelong passion is pretty cool and pretty rare,” Buhler said, adding that the reason he got into the ski industry is the same reason he’s stuck with it for nearly 30 years. “It’s the passion for the sport that I love, the mountains. And more than that, it’s the passion of everyone that lives up here.”

After progressing as an instructor, he became the ski school director at Mountain High Resort in California and then made his way to Breckenridge as the ski school manager in 1994. In that role, Buhler was credited with creating the family-friendly resort icon Ripperroo, Vail Resorts’ dog mascot.

When working to name the mascot, Buhler said he took drawings of the dog to the two Breckenridge elementary schools and created a contest for students to color the image and come up with a name. The winner was rewarded with a snowboard, and Ripperroo was born.

“We have so many people that come to Breckenridge from around the world, and I felt like we could step our game up in the kid’s world,” Buhler said about his efforts with building children’s programming.

In 2010, Buhler became the chief operating officer of Keystone and worked to build a family-friendly atmosphere at the resort with Kidtopia children’s programming and the snow fort on top of Dercum Mountain. He was asked to take the helm at Breckenridge in 2015.

At Breckenridge, Buhler oversaw major capital improvement projects, adding the Falcon chair and the Pioneer Crossing restaurant to the mountain. He also spearheaded the Peak 8 base area update, which included escalators, new locations for ticket sales, the Breckenridge Ski & Snowboard School and retail and rental stores.

Breckenridge Ski Resort Chief Operating Officer John Buhler started skiing when he was 2 years old, and he became a ski instructor in 1980.
Photo from Breckenridge Ski Resort

In his 27 years with Vail Resorts, Buhler said he’s most proud of the teams he’s built.

“In every position I’ve had, I feel like I’ve built a really strong team and have had great players around me,” Buhler said.

As for passing on the torch to the next leader at Breckenridge, Buhler said he would want the person who fills his shoes to know “what an amazing community they’re joining.”

He went on to say why he’s made Summit County his longtime home.

“It’s a lot of like-minded people who love to live, work and play in this environment, and I just think it’s such a caring community,” Buhler said. “The amount of support for our nonprofits — the willingness to give is huge here. People are concerned about the environment; people are here for the right reasons, I believe, and that makes it easy to want to live here.”

Buhler said he’s not afraid to put himself out there for the community, naming his participation in “Dancing with the Mountain Stars,” a fundraising event for the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center Foundation, as an example. Buhler danced in the event in front of 800 community members to the theme song of “Mission Impossible” despite proclaiming that he “can’t dance at all.”

Buhler will officially retire after the ski season comes to a close at the end of May. However, he plans to stick around, staying in the county with his wife, spending more time with his two daughters — one of whom lives in the area with her husband and children — and skiing moguls, which he said is still one of his favorite things to do.

John Buhler originally came to Summit County as the Breckenridge Ski Resort ski school manager. He plans to stay in the area after he retires from his position as chief operating officer of the resort.
Photo from Breckenridge Ski Resort

 

Some Epic Pass holders say they did not receive refunds under this season’s Epic Coverage plan

An Epic Pass is pictured Nov. 17 with Vail Mountain in the background. In April 2020, Vail Resorts announced Epic Coverage, which was meant to refund passholders if resorts closed due to COVID-19 or customers had certain personal events that prevented skiing. Some passholders say they have not been issued refunds.
Photo by John LaConte / Vail Daily

As the ski season comes to a close, some Epic Pass holders are complaining that they still haven’t received refunds that they’re due.

Last spring, Vail Resorts announced that it would provide free Epic Coverage on its 2020-21 passes, providing “cash refunds to passholders for certain resort closures, including for events like COVID-19, as well as refunds for eligible personal events like job loss, illness and more.”

The new Epic Coverage program was intended to give people peace of mind following the sudden closure of all Colorado resorts in March 2020, but according to individuals who reached out to the Summit Daily News, some Epic Coverage refund claims have not been fulfilled.

Breckenridge resident Larry Augustyn said he hasn’t been able to get a refund since his wife died in November.

“I’ve called, I’ve sent emails, I’ve left messages, and no one has responded to me,” Augustyn said. “It’s kind of like they’re too busy.”

Augustyn said his wife finished paying for the pass in October but died before the ski resorts opened. He said it’s been difficult to work through his grief as well as the financial paperwork he’s having to do following her death. He said trying to get a refund for his wife’s ski pass on top of everything else is “overwhelming.”

Augustyn said his daughter applied for a pass refund one to two weeks after his wife died and sent a copy of the death certificate. He said he thinks Vail Resorts is trying to make it as difficult as possible for people to get refunds in hopes that people will give up on the process.

“It’s a big corporation, and I understand that they’ve got to go up the chain of command, but I just think it’s ridiculous that they’re taking so long to do this refund,” Augustyn said. “The only thing I would really like to ask Vail is, please don’t make it so hard on someone who is having a grieving process already; it just exacerbates that process.”

Joey Crump said his wife also has not received a refund after she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January and became very ill. He wrote in an email that she is now in a rehabilitation program for people experiencing long-term effects of the virus. Crump said his wife’s medical records were sent to Vail Resorts, but the company denied the claim and is not issuing a refund on the unused pass.

“Vail sold millions of passes with the promise of being able to get a full refund,” Crump wrote, adding that he waited on hold for 30 minutes with the Vail claims management team before being disconnected.

Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz has repeatedly acknowledged a shortage of customer service representatives at call centers this season, calling wait times “unacceptable.” In mid-March, he announced there would be “significant staffing increases” in call centers.

Other passholders are upset that refunds were denied for pandemic-related travel challenges that were not specifically addressed in the Epic Coverage program.

Minnesota resident Jeremy Lane said his family did not travel to Keystone Resort to ski this year because his daughter’s school asked students to quarantine after traveling and before returning to school. Lane said he was under the impression that if people weren’t able to travel due to the pandemic, they could be refunded for unused passes.

“Their whole Epic Coverage certainly seemed to lend itself to some protection if you weren’t able to travel this year,” Lane said. “They really touted themselves as, ‘You’re covered if you can’t ski.’ That was the impression they seemed to be giving, but they don’t seem to be standing behind it very well at this point.”

After filing a claim for a refund, Lane said he received a denial less than 24 hours after the claim was processed. The denial letter said refunds are not issued in the event of travel advisories or governmental-directed quarantines related to travel.

Keystone and Breckenridge Ski Resort spokesperson Sara Lococo wrote in an email that if a guest submitted a refund request, American Claims Management — which handles the claims for Vail Resorts — has received the request and is working to process it. In some cases, the center might have to reach out to guests for additional information, so she said passholders who have filed claims should check their spam or junk email folders.

Lococo added that in order to expedite refund requests, documentation to support requests can be sent to epicpass@acmclaims.com.

“We appreciate everyone’s patience as (American Claims Management) works through this process,” she wrote.

In 35-34 vote, Keystone Resort ski patrollers decide not to unionize

Keystone Resort Ski Patrol Director Mike Daly, from right, is pictured with U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Marcus Dreux and another member of the Keystone Resort ski patrol Oct. 12, 2019. The Keystone patrollers voted not to unionize.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information about the Breckenridge Ski Resort ski patrol unionization vote.

Keystone Resort ski patrol will not unionize.

On Monday, votes from a close race were tallied with 34 for the labor union and 35 against unionization. According to the National Labor Relations Board’s recent election results, there were 88 eligible voters, including all full-time and regular part-time ski patrollers and ski patrol specialists at Keystone.

Jonathan Cernanec, a Keystone ski patroller who was one of the leaders of the unionization effort, said nine ballots were contested with the union and employer challenging several ballots each. The national labor board wouldn’t confirm the number of contested ballots but said none were marked as void.

Contested ballots aren’t counted in the vote total and would need to be challenged successfully in court and then approved by the national labor board in order to be included.

“Ultimately, the union side doesn’t think enough of those contested ballots could be appropriately thrown out or appropriately kept in to win,” Cernanec said. “So we graciously, as best we could, conceded a loss. So Keystone ski patrol will not be joining the Communications Workers of America — at least for now.”

Cernanec added that not having a strong majority of votes for the union isn’t favorable for negotiations. He said the effort to unionize was driven by a goal of making ski patrol a more sustainable career and to have compensation reflect the demand and responsibilities that come with the job. Cernanec said the starting hourly wage for a ski patroller at Keystone is $13.25, one dollar above Vail Resorts’ base pay of $12.25 per hour in Colorado.

“Making ski patrolling a more recognized profession — seen as a career and having the training and ultimately the compensation to match what a profession and a career gets paid — is still the goal,” Cernanec said. “It’s just going to not be through unionizing currently.

“As far as going forward, we’re not going to be a collective-bargaining unit, but we’re still a team. We’ve learned from this. … We may not be a union, but the National Labor Relations Board got involved, and Keystone leadership got more involved, and Vail leadership knows what’s going on, so our voices have been heard.”

Tim Cooney — a retired Aspen Mountain ski patroller and former Aspen Professional Ski Patrol Association president who wrote a letter to the editor in support of unionization — spoke about the demands put on ski patrollers.

“It’s highly technical. There’s a lot of professionalism involved and a lot of training. Especially with these big, higher lifts and gondolas. You have to ride the cables, and you have to be able to lower people from cabins. And if someone has a medical problem in a cabin, you have to have the technical know-how to lower them in a basket. There’s so much involved,” Cooney said, adding that patrollers do avalanche mitigation work and respond to nearby backcountry emergencies. “Every day a professional ski patroller does his or her job well saves a company millions of dollars in litigation.”

While Keystone ski patrol voted not to unionize, some other ski patrols across the country are moving in that direction, including Park City Mountain Resort, Steamboat Resort, Telluride Ski Resort and, most recently, Breckenridge Ski Resort. A petition has been filed for an election at Breckenridge. Ballots will be mailed to patrollers on April 12 and are due at 3 p.m. May 3, according to National Labor Relations Board Press Secretary Kayla Blado.

This is not the first time Keystone and Breckenridge ski patrollers have made an attempt to unionize. Both Keystone and Breckenridge patrollers were previously represented by the American Maritime Officers Union District 2A, according to a 2003 article by the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Paul Chessin, a former Keystone ski patroller, was part of that effort. Chessin, who was a patroller for 20 years, said he doesn’t recall whether Vail Resorts owned the ski area when the union effort began, adding that Keystone and Breckenridge were owned by the same company at the time and that Breckenridge ski patrol was already unionized.

“There was, at the time, some general grumbling and dissatisfaction with members of the ski patrol about how they were being treated by management,” Chessin said.

At the time, Chessin suggested that instead of just talking about grievances patrollers had with management, they should focus the energy and unionize. An election was held, and Chessin said the union won by a significant majority.

“I think if done properly, a union and management can work very, very well together for the benefit of both,” Chessin said. “The line of communication should be open, and a union is one way in which to increase the openness of the communication channels. You don’t necessarily need a union, but sometimes a company thinks, ‘It’s my way or the highway. Employees, if you don’t like it, you can leave.’ … It’s that type of management philosophy that creates the need for unions.”

When the union decertified in the early 2000s, Chessin said he figured things were going well for the patrollers at Keystone, adding that he was sad to see that patrollers feel there is a need to unionize again.

Cooney predicted that if attempts are made by Vail Resorts to rectify things with Keystone ski patrollers following the unionization attempt, they will be short-lived.

“It’s a typical way that (corporations) fight back,” Cooney said. “… They’ll give a concession, and then they’ll satisfy people for then and hope (employees) will back off.”

Keystone and Breckenridge communications managers did not respond to requests for comment.