An Uncertain Season Takes Shape
Planning and hoping during the chaos of Covid.
There’s never been a ski season like this one. The lifts have spun through wars, recessions, industry consolidation, and times of civil and cultural upheaval. The world outside our mountain idylls is often turbulent, but for as long as there has been a ski industry, North America’s ski areas have served as a balm for what ails us. But not this time.
Skiing cures a lot, but it can’t do much about the ‘Rona – except adapt. So that’s what skiers, riders, and ski areas have to do in order to cope during a year like no other. Make no mistake, there are turns to be had, but they will require flexibility, planning, responsible behavior on everyone’s part, and a willingness to deal with less-than-ideal circumstances. Good thing we here in the Northeast know a little something about less-than-ideal circumstances. Scientists have learned a lot about SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes the disease Covid-19, since the world fell apart last March, and while widespread availability of vaccines will probably come too late to have a measurable impact before summer, there are things we can do to have a relatively safe and successful season, and to protect the health and well-being of as many other people as possible. But there are barriers to this success, and they are formidable. A successful ski season will depend on our collective response to the pandemic (and the track record on this front has been abysmal so far, with the U.S. doing much worse than similar countries). Who we gather with, where we gather, and how we behave will impact us all. WEAR A MASK, SAVE A LIFE It all starts with masks. Universal mask usage would be the most important first step in addressing this pandemic, but there are those who sneer at such a small and simple effort. Masks, along with basic science, have unfortunately been politicized in this country, but the numbers are the numbers: masks protect both wearers and those around them, and they save lives. They’re also required at every Northeastern ski area, whether you’re on the lift line or queued up for a grab-and-go sandwich. Unless you’re actively eating, drinking, or skiing, masks should be up and worn properly. Worry less about the type of face mask than that one is worn – even thin neck gaiters can be doubled up to make them more effective. Almost all masks offer some protection. We don’t all have access to the coveted N95 masks, but a couple of barriers between our breath and our neighbor’s mouth, nose, and eyes will go a long way toward bringing the numbers down. We know that while other coronaviruses (such as the common cold) are transmitted both through the air and through fomites, or contact with infected surfaces, this pandemic is mostly airborne. We’ve stopped worrying so much about doorknobs, shopping cart handles, and package deliveries, and while it’s still important to wash our hands as often as possible, studies have shown that we’re much more likely to get Covid-19 through close proximity to infected persons and breathing the same air as them – especially indoors. So while entire sectors of the outdoor recreation industry shut down with the rest of the planet early on in the pandemic when we didn’t quite know how this virus spreads, we now know that outdoor activities are some of the safest things we can do during this challenging time (to say nothing of their therapeutic value). As of this writing, the number of confirmed deaths related to Covid-19 is almost 270,000 Americans, but experts believe that the true number of associated deaths could be much higher than the official count, due to postponed necessary medical procedures and unaddressed issues – so our season could still be in jeopardy if it becomes clear that ski areas are becoming super-spreader sites, as they were in Europe and Colorado last winter.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO Depending on where you plan on skiing or riding, and on what days of the week, your planning process will be different than others. Is your home mountain a local’s favorite or a larger resort? Is it Epic or Ikon, or do you have a season pass? Epic passholders, for example, must reserve their place ahead of their planned visits, and they get seven “Priority Days” to reserve throughout the season before non-passholders can make reservations. Ikon’s policies, on the other hand, differ depending on which resort you’re visiting. Rather than needing to reserve a slot enabling you to ski, Ikon partner resorts such as Killington are requiring visitors to reserve parking space ahead of time, in an effort to limit crowd density at peak times. Other resorts aren’t requiring advance reservations, but some, such as Mad River Glen, have limited season pass sales in an effort to try to cut down on an expected surge in demand. On the whole, it’s all very complicated and varied, which is why it’s essential that you visit the website for each ski area you plan to hit up to plan for the differing policies you’re likely to encounter if, like me, you like to put some destination variety into your season. Some mountains will require more advance planning than you may be used to, and it may be especially hard if you’re chasing powder or if you’re a frequent weekend skier or rider. Larger resorts such as Stowe may be more difficult to reserve slots at, especially at peak times, so this is also the year to branch out and explore that smaller, independent mountain you’ve heard so much about but haven’t yet made time to visit. Of course, the same rule applies to each ski area no matter how large or small: check the website for individual rules and visitor’s policies at least twice – once during planning and again before leaving for your trip, as any and all of these rules and guidelines may change as the season progresses.
TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS Another complicating factor is that different states have different entry rules and quarantine requirements. That annual family trip to Vermont won’t be as easy to plan if everyone has to quarantine for two weeks, or one week with Covid testing, before piling into the car and crossing state lines. New Hampshire, on the other hand, has no quarantine rules for the rest of New England as of right now but if you’re visiting from New York it’s recommended that you quarantine for 14 days, and you might have to quarantine upon returning home for three days before getting a Covid test. Just as each ski area’s policies are different, so are the travel policies in states around the Northeast. These rules are changing all the time, and you can expect them to change further as the infection rate continues to climb with the onset of winter and the holiday season, so check your state’s rules as well as those you’re traveling to. Of course, most of these travel policies have been dependent on the honor system, and with a few newsworthy exceptions they haven’t really been enforced, but violating a state’s quarantine rules can come with steep fines and some governors have started hinting that enforcement may be ramped up along with case numbers.
Beyond any financial repercussions, there’s also the frustrating truth that these policies, unenforced, serve to reward those who have flouted the rules, and have limited trips from the more responsible sort of visitors who are inclined to actually follow rules. Vermont has tried to address this imbalance by introducing a required “attestation” from all visitors to the state’s lodging and ski properties, which declares that each individual knows and has adhered to their quarantine policies. It’s unclear what, if any, legal force these signed documents might have going forward. As it stands now, even though Vermont has the most restrictive quarantine policies in the country, in practice it seems as if these signed forms are little more than ski area versions of those much-ignored End User License Agreements. “Click OK to ski.”
LUNCH, LIFTS, LODGES, AND LESSONS Restaurants everywhere have invested heavily in all-season al fresco dining infrastructure, including outdoor tables, seating, barriers, enclosures, and heat lamps, and most ski areas have done the same at their base areas and outside lodges. If the social aspects of skiing and the après scene are your favorite parts of skiing, then this might not be the best year for you. Some locations have added food trucks to their dining options. Some mountains are erecting pop-up outdoor dining locations with grab-and-go options. And all have restricted indoor capacity to 50 or even 25 percent. But make no mistake – a beer and burger among friends at Killington’s Umbrella Bar will be a much safer option than a sit-down meal indoors in the lodge. That’s the reason that Killington’s famous Wobbly Barn has decided not to open this season, and it almost certainly won’t be the only place to remain closed due to the challenging environment. Outdoor heat lamps will be the safest refuge from the cold, but they will also as a result be very popular. Plan accordingly and don’t linger long so that others may warm up also. Finger foods such as sandwiches, burgers, and fries, and hot bowls of soup will be the fuel of the 2020-21 season. Lifts will have capacity limits, and some might not run at all, or might get curtailed. Chairs are limited to groups that have traveled to the mountain together, or to singles spaced on opposite sides of quads and larger chairs. Gondolas will be similarly controlled, and windows should remain open at all times to ensure healthy air exchange. Trams, such as those at Jay Peak and Cannon, are limited to 25 percent capacity, and will ideally also have all windows open. Dress warm with multiple layers, and expect lift wait times to be longer than usual, despite general resort capacity restrictions. It’s all about quality over quantity this season – chase vert another year and just enjoy the fact that we can all ski again. The lodges themselves will largely function mostly as warming huts, areas to pick up food to take outside, and a place to hit the restrooms. Many ski areas are also adding port-a-potties to their outdoor areas, to keep indoor traffic to a minimum. Seating and indoor dining will be available at a significantly reduced capacity, but honestly, the safest bet is to spend as little time indoors with other people as possible. Lots of places are asking visitors to boot up in the parking lots before making their way to the lifts, and are banning indoor bag storage in an effort to cut down on the usual crowds that gather in the mornings and afternoons. They’re also actively encouraging visitors to bring their own lunches or get to-go bags and eat back at their cars, which is an incredible concession considering how much ski areas rely on concessions for their profit margins. Then again, profit isn’t the concern this year as much as survival is – in all its forms. The key is remaining flexible. The same goes for lessons. Ski school is still in session this year, but many mountains are limiting the size of lesson groups, making lesson slots harder to schedule. Some are also limiting their lessons to one-on-one instruction (CQ EXAMPLE) and are eliminating daycare and early beginner programs. Check with the ski school in question before booking lessons this season.
APRES Short answer: Just don’t.
Long answer: Just don’t anywhere inside. It’s probably relatively safe to meet a friend who isn’t in traveling with you or in your pod for an outdoor drink or some afternoon wings on a heated outdoor deck beside your favorite ski town spot, but not for too long and not too close. One of the many variables that makes risk during this pandemic so difficult to gauge is that viral load is an important part of the equation. Combine this unknown with the fluid dynamics behind outdoor airborne virus transmission (Partially enclosed? How close is everyone? Is there wind or a breeze? How loud are people talking?) and these multiple variables make it impossible to calculate the risk of catching this virus from any prolonged outdoor social gathering. But we do know that smaller groups are better, outdoors is safer than indoors, and that the experience with expanded outdoor dining in places such as New York City demonstrates that it is possible to gather in small groups outdoors without driving up infection rates. The problems mount as the doors are closed and sick individuals add more to the collective viral load. And it should go without saying, but moderation here, as in all things, is key. SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the first virus to exploit sloppy behavior by drunken disease vectors, and it won’t be the last.
HOW TO PREPARE The best way to be prepared is to think of your car as your own personal base lodge. It’s your go-to spot for booting up, storing gear, lunch, or beer breaks. Those of us who have already embraced the car boot-up and the tailgate lunch before are more mentally prepared than those who are used to using the lodge as home base, but there are steps you can take to ensure that the new normal will be as comfortable as possible. It’s always a good idea from a cost standpoint to rent gear at a shop that’s not directly on-mountain, but this year it’s a solid public health choice. Whether you’re renting for a day, a week, or the season, check out the rental options near home or from one of the many shops lining your favorite ski town, and get your rented gear squared away before you head out. Booting up is easy enough while seated sideways with an open car door, depending on the clearance of your vehicle. The front seat footwells serve as handy boot and glove warmers when placed on full blast, but even so it might be worth saving some packing space for a couple of camp chairs, which will come in handy as changing stations as well as lunch seats. Dress in multiple layers that will give you the flexibility to add or shed layers as conditions demand, and carry a small, low-profile backpack in which to stick that extra layer, some water, a snack, and any other essentials a day spent avoiding the lodge might require. Buy hand warmers and toe warmers in bulk, and keep extras handy for when they lose their zing every few hours. Invest in a high-quality large thermos or two for coffee, soup, chili, or even some mulled wine. A good thermos will pay dividends in warm bellies on cold days. Or better yet, bring a small camp stove and cooking setup. I have a small metal table, kitchen supply tote, and a two-burner Coleman camp stove that has kept me in good stead during all but the coldest of Ice Coast tailgate lunches. I’ve whipped up everything from sausage and peppers to a full Maine lobster boil (at Tha Rivah, ‘natch) with that thing, and my ski lot tailgate lunches are some of the most memorable times I’ve had in the mountains. Something to keep in mind: some ski areas – and the state of Vermont – say they are discouraging “tailgating” during the pandemic, but they also advise considering grabbing lunch at your car. These rules are geared more toward discouraging large social gatherings in tailgate situations, with multiple households drinking and eating in close proximity, but I don’t think small groups and families that have traveled to the mountain together are meant to be discouraged from cooking or heating meals out of the backs of their vehicles. As always, check with the rules posted on each ski area’s website, and make sure your lunch isn’t violating mountain policy. But more than anything else, the most important piece of advice we have for those of us looking to head out into the mountains during this twisted, upside-down plague year is to be flexible, to roll with the punches, to have a backup plan, and to be the reed.
It’s not always easy to gear up in the car, and it’s often less than ideal to eat back at the car, but keeping in mind that the skiing and riding is the point is the best way to put this year’s inconveniences in perspective. Yes, these rules are gonna suck and yes, you will be impacted in a myriad of ways, but if we all focus on the skiing and the mountains around us and on the fact that we’re all on snow again despite absolutely nothing changing about this disease from an epidemiological standpoint, despite the fact that the pandemic is worse now than it’s ever been, then there’s a way to weather these changes with grace, and maybe even a little gratitude.
After al, things could be worse. Indeed, for many people things are very bad and will continue to be for a long time. We’re fortunate to be able to get away to the mountains and play in the snow. If we act accordingly, maybe we get to keep the whole season.