Telski owner Chuck Horning stands at a conference table in his office during an interview with the Daily Planet Monday. (Photo by Justin Criado/Telluride Daily Planet)

Growing up in a ranching family that owned and oversaw a 600-acre ranch in Paradise, California, Telluride Ski & Golf Company owner Chuck Horning is quick to compare the rigors of running a ranch to that of a major ski resort.

“Our general approach to this mountain is similar to when we got involved in 2004,” he explained in an interview with the Daily Planet Monday. “It’s like a ranch; it’s a long-term approach. We don’t buy things to sell. Improving this resort has been the goal and the challenge.”

In 15-plus years, Telski has grown into one of the preeminent ski destinations in North America. The recent creation of the summer mountain bike park has made it more of a year-round resort, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for improvement, Horning said.

In speaking about Telski’s more long-term vision during an interview about the upcoming 2020-21 ski season, Horning repeated that the goal is to “continually improve the ski resort,” which means putting more money back into the resort.

“We need to spend another $35 or $40 million on the mountain to bring it up to what we would consider optimal,” he added.

While he didn’t share specifics, he explained that lift improvements can be made moving forward, as well as adding dining options on the mountain.

One of the biggest upgrades the resort has continually made a priority is snowmaking operations. When a year like 2017-18 hits — the dreaded season during which there was only 171 inches of natural snowfall, which was significantly less than the annual average of 309 inches — snowmaking kicks into high gear in providing sufficient powder. That hasn’t always been the case, Horning explained, as outdated equipment made snowmaking a here-or-there matter whenever he first came to the resort.

“The snowmaking that we inherited here was not the quality needed so we made a significant investment in upgrading the system. Today, the system here has been rebuilt and expanded, and replaced with better, more energy efficient equipment,” he said. “We have had weak snow years, and are likely to have more because of global warming. So it is even more important to have good snowmaking, particularly in the lower areas.

“With our new system, we can now be pumping water into the ponds at the same time we’re making snow,” he added. “Above freezing we can make good snow and below freezing we’re making really good snow. This is a significant improvement over where we were. Brandon Green (Telski director of snowmaking and capital) and his crew have done a great job to improve our early season capability.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely going to affect the upcoming season in ways officials aren’t aware of yet, as discussions within the industry and possible governmental regulations unfold throughout the coming months. Horning said indoor guidelines may require more adapting, especially since he wants to provide the same on-mountain dining experience that Telski has become known for.

“We want to focus on the quality of service,” he said. “This town is blessed with a lot of great food, and we are focused on providing good food on the mountain. That’s where some difficulty will come in because the restaurants like Gorrono’s are an enclosed space. We’re going to have to figure out how to serve food outside and we will.”

Other than socially distancing and face coverings, Horning talked about testing, mainly a recently developed saliva test at Yale that received FDA emergency use authorization. If such tests would be widely available to a ski resort like Telski, especially if results come back almost instantaneously, it would quell the concerns many may have of hitting the mountain during a pandemic.

“That’s a big deal. If we had reliable saliva testing that we can even test people as they come into this community. The way we test now, the lag in getting results is a problem. It would be huge if we could get quicker testing,” Horning said. “I’m hopeful that that’s going to happen. We’d certainly participate fully if we could get saliva tests here. … If people on airplanes, lifts and in restaurants have been tested. … It would be a total game-changer.”

According to a Yale News story, the SalivaDirect tests are “simpler, less expensive and less invasive than the traditional method for such testing, known as nasopharyngeal (NP) swabbing. Results so far have found that SalivaDirect is highly sensitive and yields similar outcomes as NP swabbing.”

The tests are currently being used to test players and team staff in the NBA bubble in Florida.

The emergency authorization makes the tests available to other researchers and labs, and “can be scaled up quickly for use across the nation — and, perhaps, beyond — in the coming weeks, the researchers said,” according to the report.

“This is a huge step forward to make testing more accessible,” said Chantal Vogels, a Yale postdoctoral fellow, who led the laboratory development and validation along with Doug Brackney, an adjunct assistant clinical professor. “This started off as an idea in our lab soon after we found saliva to be a promising sample type of the detection of SARS-CoV-2, and now it has the potential to be used on a large scale to help protect public health. We are delighted to make this contribution to the fight against coronavirus.”