Here Come the Ski Area Worker Vaccine Mandates. Good.

The rest of us would like to get on with our lives please

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Are there any other basic public health issues that we can turn into cultural fistfights?

This is likely just the beginning. President Biden’s recently announced Covid protocols “will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated” or produce a weekly negative test. While details are forthcoming, this is likely to include the majority of U.S. ski areas.

Good. I am tired of this. Covid could be over in this country. It’s not because 80 million Americans who could be vaccinated are not. And that’s working out super well for them:

Note the strong correlation in the maps above between states with low vaccination rates and high Covid infection rates. This is not a coincidence. As The New York Times reported recently: “Compared with vaccinated adults, those who were not fully vaccinated were 4.5 times as likely to become infected, 10 times as likely to be hospitalized and 11 times as likely to die of Covid.”

That seems like a severe price to pay in the name of so-called “medical freedom,” which is the rhetorical trick anti-vaxers used with conservative politicians to finally mainstream what had long been a fringe notion. From The Times:

Renée DiResta, a researcher at Stanford, found through Twitter analysis that there was “an evolution in messaging.” The movement discovered that a focus on freedom “was more resonant with legislators and would help them actually achieve their political goals,” Ms. DiResta said to me. Anti-vaccine Twitter accounts that had been posting for years about autism and toxins pivoted to Tea Party-esque ideas, leading to the emergence of a new cluster of accounts focused on “vaccine choice” messaging, she said.

So here we are. When the 2020-21 ski season ended, Covid appeared to be waning. Case and death numbers had plunged. Vaccines had arrived. We had endured the masks, the distancing, the empty lodges, the Thermos of lunchtime soup in our cars. Our reward was a U.S. ski season without a single ski area shutdown, a unique status in a broken world. By the time Killington had pared its terrain to Superstar for May weekend skiing, the resort had dropped its masks-in-the-liftline requirement for vaccinated skiers. Surely, by November, the rest of the ski world would follow. We would be done with this.

We’re nowhere near done with this. I spent the first two weekends of September driving between New York City and Ann Arbor for University of Michigan football games. In the gas stations and fast-food emporiums en route, almost no one, workers or customers, wore masks. The university, which has a vaccine mandate in place for students and staff, opted not to require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test for entry into the game. And there were no capacity restrictions: the announced crowd for the Sept. 11 night game versus the University of Washington was 108,345. In the stadium, the largest in America and one in a notably liberal city, I’d put the number of masked fans at around five percent.

It is this collective fantasy that Covid has passed that, together with vaccine hesitancy, is enabling the virus’ resurgence. The president’s vaccine mandate, should it survive legal challenges, could give us the critical mass to finally reach herd immunity and move on.

Unfortunately there is almost no way that will happen quickly. The issue of vaccine mandates – like everything else about Covid – has been politicized by our unique brand of U.S. American Freedumb Fighters. Pro-Covid lawmakers in 11 states have responded by banning vaccine mandates. The federal rules would trump these, but we are likely in for several more months of Internet Research Bro screaming at us to “DO YOURE OWN REESERCH!!!”

Yeah, I’ll get right on that. As soon as I’m done churning my own butter, checking my traps for game, and building my log cabin. One of the advantages of living in an advanced society is that you can leave specialized tasks to other people. I count medical research and vaccine development among those things. I’m not telling you to listen to me – I’m just a dumbass ski writer. But maybe hear out the CDC, which gets $6.5 billion of your tax dollars every year to solve the problem of rampaging viral diseases for you. They have done the research for us. Their conclusion is that the vaccines are safe and effective. I believe them.

Which brings us back to the 2021-22 ski season. Most major ski states are not, fortunately, run by pro-Covid knuckleheads. California, Colorado, New York, and all of New England have so far held back the surge of the Covid Delta variant. Large ski areas in these states seem likely to initiate vaccine worker mandates and will likely face little revolt for doing so. Lawmakers in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, however, are doing everything they can to make sure Covid can spread as widely and as quickly as possible, banning vaccine and mask mandates and eschewing further shutdowns. If the conflict between local vaccine mandate bans and the Biden rules is not sorted out by ski season – unlikely, as we are only about eight weeks away from widespread openings – resorts in those states will likely have little control over whether their workers are vaccinated or not.

Now let’s mix in millions of skiers, many vaccinated, many not, all veterans of a mostly unmasked Covid-is-over fantasy summer. Last year, the entire industry united around the National Ski Areas Association’s Ski Well Be Well guidelines, which called for universal masking and social distancing. Skiers mostly went along with it. But will they still? People accustomed to standing in a roaring stadium of tens of thousands tightly bunched fans may chafe at the notion of masking up in a liftline. The skier demanding a six-pack chair to themselves may start to seem more eccentric and selfish than cautious. The NSAA has yet to release 2021-22 guidelines, but it’s hard to imagine a set of standards as neat and seamlessly rolled out as last year’s.

And just for fun let’s toss one more hand grenade into the room before closing the door. A little-noted piece of Biden’s rules would require proof of vaccination or testing for entry into “entertainment venues like sports arenas, large concert halls, and other venues where large groups of people gather.” Is a ski area an “entertainment venue?” They are certainly places where “large groups of people gather.” Depending on how the specifics of these rules sort out, it is easy to imagine ski resorts being categorized in this way, requiring individuals to produce proof of vaccination or a negative test to ski.

I hope that happens. This pandemic could be over in a month, but there is a large group of blockheads preventing it from happening. I’m in favor of making life as inconvenient as possible for these people because they are making life as inconvenient as possible for the rest of us. If they want to lose their jobs and become social pariahs, fine. The rest of us are ready to be done.

One last note – some of you have told me to stop writing about politics. You’re just here for the skiing, Man. Well, I don’t write about politics. I write about skiing, and sometimes politics intersects. The Storm Skiing Journal is not, I am sorry to report, a stoke machine. It does not celebrate dirtbag radbrahs or quest widely for the most authentic mountain town. I am not in search of skiing’s soul. I am looking for its brains. And its brains are trying to figure out how to keep lift-served skiing viable in the midst of a pandemic being prolonged by idiots. As long as this is an issue affecting skiing, I’m going to keep writing about it.

Footnote: the modern anti-vax movement emerged not from yee-haw clusters of rootin’-tootin’ conservatives, but from pea-brained upper-middle-class liberals too insulated to place their lives in the context of the centuries-long horror show that was the world pre-childhood vaccinations. From The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019:

“Frankly, these Caucasian, suburban, educated parents believe they can Google the word vaccine and get as much information as anybody,” said Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“These people are educated just well enough to make terrible decisions for their children.”

Maybe the CDC and its billions are better equipped to make these decisions than any random person with internet access.

The disasters continue at Camelback

Now let’s unite around something we can all agree is terrible: Camelback. “Employee run over by a snow groomer” is not a headline that’s good for your brand.

Just horrible. I’ll clarify that an occupied chair fell from a moving chairlift in March. Yes, the same thing happened at Washington’s 49 Degrees North and Michigan’s Indianhead this past season, but the frequency and severity of traumatic accidents at Camelback is alarming.

In the case of the runaway Snowcat, unconfirmed reports suggest that workers failed to follow basic safety procedures while handling the machine. The resort did not respond to a request for comment.

KSL Resorts is new to ski resort management. And they are bad at it. This is an outfit that specializes in running luxury resorts in tropical environments. And while I’m sure the company is adept at managing the emergency towel shortage at cabana six and making sure Mr. Tufflebottoms’ prime rib goes out extra medium, it has so far proven unequal to the challenge of safely operating the complex web of machinery that is a ski resort’s circulatory system.

The simplest solution here is also the best one: transfer ownership to Alterra, which KSL Capital, owner of Camelback, also owns (in conjunction with Aspen parent Henry Crown). And send Blue Mountain along for the ride. Alterra capably manages resorts far larger and more complex than these Pennsylvania molehills, places like Mammoth and Palisades Tahoe and Steamboat and Winter Park, where things like avalanche mitigation present the possibility of daily calamity.

Whether that happens or not, Camelback and KSL Resorts need to answer for and fix what is clearly a broken safety culture at the mountain.  

Here you go getting all futuristic on me again

The season’s first issue of Ski dropped in my mailbox the other day, and a back-page column eulogized the wicket ticket:

Old-timey ticket on a wicket, older than the stem christie, draws near the end of its time and will surely soon join the ranks of beloved emeritus ski relics such as leather boots and an athletic outfit consisting of pleated wool slacks and a matching sweater.

Indeed, the RFID-is-coming announcements are piling up this offseason: Boyne Mountain, Boyne Highlands, Camelback, Greek Peak, Red River, and Tamarack will all move to the gated technology for the 2021-22 ski season. If you know of any others, please let me know.

As I’ve written before: I love wicket tickets, as a token memorializing a ski day and as a tangible connection to a ski area.

I also love the ease and fluidity of skiing with RFID, the muted beep and parting of the gates as I bump my hip toward the register. It’s like entering a ride. Or a spaceship. The evocation of something spectacular. Which, well, it is.

Fortunately, I don’t think we have to choose. Cool as RFID is, the technology remains quite expensive, and Caberfae owner Tim Meyer told me on the podcast this summer that he intends to stick with metal wicket tickets indefinitely. Most remaining wicket-ticket areas are like Caberfae: family-owned, small, and remote. The accoutrements of bygone decades – the fixed-grip lifts, the slow-cookers lining the lodge, the wicket-tickets – are an enormous part of their appeal.

Not every ski area can afford RFID, and not every one that can afford it needs to upgrade. There’s no one right way to do any of this, and it is the mottled variety of a thousand versions of the same thing that draws me to lift-served skiing with such enthusiasm anyway.

Vail and Alterra begin making good on their diversity promises

Last year, the CEOs of both Vail and Alterra acknowledged the need to do a better job diversifying skiing. The nation is rapidly diversifying, and skiing had not done a good job making audiences beyond its white core feel welcome. Creating that sense of belonging would be key to growing the sport’s appeal.

In the past weeks, both companies have launched pipeline programs aimed at getting more youth of color skiing. Vail – building off a $10 million, five-year commitment it launched in 2019 – will donate $1.1 million in lift tickets, ski school, meals, and gear rentals, while the Katz Amsterdam Charitable Trust will funnel $560,000 to 11 organizations to expand programs, support staffing needs, and fund transportation. Alterra, meanwhile, has partnered with Share Winter Foundation on a multi-year, $4 million initiative that will deliver lessons, lift tickets, rentals, and meals to thousands of youth “that may otherwise be denied access to the sport.”

It is impossible to overstate how crucial these programs are. They get kids on snow that otherwise wouldn’t be on snow. That’s hard. Skiing is: expensive, cold, intimidating, hard, and far. And, yes, very, very white. Whether a person feels as though they are welcome there requires overcoming all of those barriers. Which can be as simple as sticking them on snow with people who look like them and showing them they can do it. Both programs should help accomplish this in an incremental but meaningful way.

I can’t seem to stop writing about Mt. Bohemia

I will admit that I find Michigan’s Mt. Bohemia to be the most interesting ski area in America. It is the realm of fierce ungroomed terrain that I wish all ski areas to be, an unlikely kingdom of cliffed-out gladed gnar in the remote wilds of far-northern Michigan. Why does it exist? How? That is works as a business model is astounding: Bohemia is farther from Detroit – around which roughly half of Michigan’s population lives – than Detroit is from New York City or Nashville.

But it works. And most of its business model seems to revolve around the $99 season pass, which this year will be on sale from Nov. 24 to Dec. 4. A two-year pass is $162 (both passes include “processing” and “usage” fees).

The pass, remarkably, also features an extensive reciprocal program. This past week, the mountain confirmed its 2021-22 partners. While the stately Whitefish, which they’ve partnered with in the past, is absent, the offerings are strong: three days each at Mission Ridge, Brundage, Great Divide, Pine Creek, White Pine, Sleeping Giant, Mt. Spokane, and Eagle Point; two days each at Hurricane Ridge, Porcupine Mountains, Bogus Basin, Crystal (Michigan), and Lost Trail.

There are some rules and blackout dates, which are spelled out on Bohemia’s season pass page. But this is clearly one of the best season pass deals in America. Just one of those reciprocal tickets would, in some cases, pay for the season pass. Hell, Mt. Bohemia’s own day ticket costs $85. That the best season pass deal in the Midwest also happens to be offered by the best ski area in the Midwest is an amazing thing. Don’t pass on it if you’re anywhere near there.

This is the best online ski map I’ve found

It is surprisingly hard to find a good, comprehensive ski map tallying all U.S. ski areas. The most comprehensive physical maps I’ve found are at Best Maps Ever. I highly recommend these. I use them as a reference constantly. They are, however, big and unwieldy, and when I’m working outside (which I do all summer), or when I want to calculate the distance between ski areas (which is about 25 times per day), then I need something online.

This is the best one I’ve found so far. It’s a Google Map that appears to list every ski area in the United States, with skiable acreage, vertical drop, base elevation, average annual snowfall, and day-ticket prices for each. The map dots are color-coded to indicate Indy, Epic, or Ikon pass affiliation, and icons loosely sort resorts by their lift fleets (this is imperfect, as Mountain Creek, Snowshoe, and Camelback, with their multiple high-speed lifts, end up in the “large resorts” category).

The map is the work of Will Beck, a Portland, Oregon-based skier who grew up racing at Wachusett. You can give him a follow on Instagram to give him a shout for creating this incredible resource. If you know of any other good online ski area maps, please let me know.

Elsewhere

Boston and Denver ski shows cancelled. The Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation debate is a mess that is likely to keep dragging on. Speaking of projects ruined by endless environmental debate and lawsuits, Big Tupper may be giving up on the idea of re-opening as a lift-served skiing operation. Sierra-at-Tahoe’s fire damage is significant, but the resort still hopes to open this ski season. I am not optimistic about the Pandora expansion at Aspen after reading comments from Pitkin County commissioners. New England Ski Industry News is crushing it with its Merrill Hill coverage at Sunday River. New Hampshire’s smallest ski area could re-open “with adequate natural snowfall.” Plattekill’s tree-skiing work day will be Saturday, Oct. 13. Ski’s gear guide; the cover was the first of a Black skier shot by a Black photographer. Great Divide permanently brings the Meadow chairlift into its night-skiing footprint. Jay Gamble, who has been Ragged’s GM for three years and led Sunapee for 20 years prior to that, is Wintergreen, Virginia’s new GM. Afriski!

This week in not skiing

Yeah, it’s coming.

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