And it was said that the revolution would begin at the Basin Express Quad
Less than a week after a horde of Viking cosplayers, doomsday-couture freedom fighters, and rabid consumers of the MAGA fall catalogue stormed the U.S. Capitol on an ill-conceived mission to overthrow the U.S. government, our toxic partisan dysfunction did what surging Covid cases and travel restrictions have so far been unable to: shut down skiing.
“I will not continue to tolerate the verbal abuse that has been directed towards our staff as they have attempted to enforce our safety requirements,” said Schweitzer CEO Tom Chasse in the full statement. “We hope this will only be a ‘pause’ but we will need to reassess our approach to twilight skiing before we commit to any future dates. … We hope this ‘pause’ in our twilight skiing operation will provide our staff a much-needed break from the constant struggle of trying to operate safely during the pandemic as well as a reminder to our guests of our commitment to our safety protocols.”
This apparent belligerence on the part of night-riders can probably be explained by a simple contradiction: Schweitzer requires masks, Idaho is the only serious ski state that does not (some counties, including Schweitzer’s, do, but the local sheriff has refused to enforce it).
An impromptu survey of New England ski area GMs I conducted after Schweitzer’s announcement suggests mask compliance is more consistent in states with months-old mask mandates. Still, nine months after New York began requiring masks, I still accidentally walk out of the house without one on occasion. It can be a hard habit to build, and it’s easy to forget.
But putting a mask on, when reminded by a resort employee enforcing a resort policy, is not hard. It does, however, present a choice: mask up, or transform the Basin Express liftline into your own personal Alamo, barking about freedom and socialism and Hillary’s emails and probably George Soros too because he’s always tossed into these things for whatever reason.
It’s all a little pathetic. And annoying. Most of us just want to ski, and if the price of that is the inconvenience of masking up, so be it. I’m not a fan of it myself – I have been unable to find the precise mask-goggles calibration that prevents blinding steam-ups. I’ve settled, for the most part, on goggles-up-mask-up-in-the-liftline and goggles-down-mask-down while skiing. It works. Sort of. Until it snows. Then I just sort of flail through the liftline goggles down-mask up. Luckily though we haven’t been having that problem here in the Northeast. At least, though, I’m skiing.
That’s not enough for some people, apparently. Schweitzer’s freedom bros (can I assume they’re mostly bros?), are of course a symptom of the nation’s enormous and growing political divide. Anything, it seems, can be transformed into a symbol of fealty to your chosen team: electric cars, lightbulbs, plastic bags. And now, of course, masks. For an argumentative person in a conservative state (Trump carried 64 percent of the Idaho vote), primed by social media hoax conspiracies, the liftline may seem like a logical battleground.
It isn’t, as Schweitzer, its staff exhausted by nonstop confrontation, proved when it shut its lifts for three nights over the holiday weekend. The move likely cost the resort money, and it is too soon to tell whether the message will resonate or just further inflame the antimaskers. If the problem escalates, it’s possible that Schweitzer could shutter the whole operation, as Chasse threatened to do in December.
Count skiing as another thing that politics has ruined, in this case by transforming a public health initiative into a partisan symbol. The mask debate has dropped a cloud over lift-served skiing, as I wrote last week. I miss the days when you had to get to know someone before deciding they were an asshole. Now you just find the guy yelling at the 16-year-old lift op. There are better places to flex your political beliefs than a liftline, where all anyone wants to do is get on the chair and up the mountian.
RANDOM GUY ON THE INTERNET: “Listen if you’re so scared of covid why don’t you just stay home? I don’t go skiing to hear a bunch of wussies whining about masks, and I don’t read this newsletter to hear political opinion.”
Look, Random Guy on the Internet, I didn’t introduce politics to skiing. Politics found skiing. I’m just reading the room. If you want to read a pure Schweitzer story, start with this one in Ski Magazine.
Chasse is scheduled to join The Storm Skiing Podcast next week to discuss his decision to temporarily shut night skiing and more.
Well now about those season pass policies
As civilization cracks in half and U.S. Covid deaths near 400,000 and the vaccine rollout dodders along like a 105-year-old trying to figure out TikTok because yay America, I’m beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that the 2020-21 ski season will wrap before state-to-state travel restrictions are lifted.
This has been a particular problem in the Northeast, where states are small and skiers are accustomed to crossing multiple borders for a day or weekend of skiing. Vermont, still the most successful U.S. state at preventing Covid infections, is unlikely to ease its strict quarantine rules even as its ski industry struggles.
Which leaves skiers wondering what the hell to do. If you’re stuck in Massachusetts or Connecticut, you still have skiing options, but your fancy megapasses are useless. If you’re in New York, you have one Epic and one Ikon option, but you probably didn’t buy the pass exclusively for Hunter or Windham. What to do?
If you bought an Ikon Pass and can’t break past the Great Wall of New England to ski, congratulations, you have until April 11 to turn your unused pass in for a credit toward a 2021-22 pass. No reason required.
Epic Pass holders have no such option. There are limited exceptions for residents of Washington State or Canada. And full shutdowns of the sort that we saw in March would trigger some sort of refund, based upon a formula that accounts for the number of days you’ve already skied. But the basket of conditions for that to happen are so broad and specific that we are more likely to see Rob Katz throw down in the Kings and Queens of Corbet’s than we are to see Vail pay up.
Most other major Northeast resorts have long blown past any rollover deadline. ORDA’s was Dec. 1, which ended up being before any of their three mountains had opened. Boyne’s deadline for its Loon, Sunday River, and Sugarloaf passes was yesterday.
Vermont resorts have, in some cases, been more forgiving. Killington will grant vouchers to anyone who doesn’t use their season pass. Magic made a similar gesture, and Jay Peak and Mad River Glen refunded Canadian passholders, who cannot cross the border at all.
This is not a complete list, but it crystalizes one truth of this season: if you’re close to a ski area and have a season pass, you’re protected against the constant peak-day sellouts and insulated from travel restrictions. If you’re in a big metro area a state or three from prime skiing, you’re going to have to downshift your expectations, and that big pass investment you made in April may go unused. I expect that Vail may re-roll the credit program it introduced for unused passes last season, but there’s no guarantee of that.
Hey here’s an idea that would instantly kill skiing
Ten months after Covid put Mickey Mouse into hibernation, Disneyland announced that it would stop selling season passes. This is worth discussing here because the pricing dynamic is similar to skiing: a day pass to Disneyland runs around $200, while a season pass ranges from $419 to $1,449, just as a lift ticket to Vail Mountain is $229 today (a holiday Saturday), but an Epic Pass granting unlimited access to every Vail resort on the planet for the entire season was $979 at its lowest price.
As I recently recounted in this newsletter, I would and have paid $200 for a day at Disneyland. I thought it was worth it, mostly because I considered it a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I never plan on repeating. I would not pay $200 for a day of skiing, because skiing is not something I can only do once per year, and I cannot afford to pay $200 a day for something I must do with frequency. Any move to shift skiing away from season passes and toward rack-rate day tickets would automatically reorient the sport to vacation groups from Texas.
I don’t think there’s any danger of this happening. The Epic and Ikon passes have become the cornerstones of Vail and Alterra, the bedrock purchase that all other revenue flows from. But there’s another reason, and that’s simple competition, which is what started the season pass wars two decades ago in Colorado. We are fortunate to have many large mountains in extremely close proximity to one another in snowy clusters spread across the country. And while I still find it weird that Vail owns both Keystone and Breckenridge, Copper, Arapahoe Basin, and Loveland are right there, and if Vail ever dared to kill the Epic Pass (unlikely, as they pioneered the multipass concept to begin with), skiers would have plenty of options nearby. There is only one Disneyland. Thankfully.
New York’s Royal Mountain has new owners
There are 51 ski areas in New York State, and a half dozen that hoover up 90 percent of the attention: Whiteface, Gore, Hunter, Windham, Bristol, and Holiday Valley. That doesn’t mean the rest aren’t worth talking about. The state is stuffed with small-by-Northeast-standards family-run shops that act as community anchors and respites from the throngs avalanching down the state’s flagship resorts.
One such area is Royal Mountain, a 575-foot bump marooned between Gore and the Catskills. It has three doubles and five of its 17 trails are glades. It’s open weekends and holidays. The top lift ticket price is $45. It’s the kind of place we all celebrate but most of us never go to, figuring we graduated to Gore and well I guess that’s the end of small-fry skiing for me.
Reconsider that. Owned for 50 years by Jim Blaise, who bought Royal for $30,000 in a foreclosure auction and stapled together a snowmaking system and a grooming crew he claims will embarrass Windham, the place has new owners: married couple Jake and Brooke Tennis. From The Daily Gazette:
Change at Royal had already been afoot, like substantial refurbishment and improvement to the motorcycle racing courses this summer. Largely unchanged will be the experience there, as the Tennis family inherits a foundation built by decades of dedication from Blaise.
In the landscape of ski areas in the U.S., Royal Mountain is about as mom-and-pop as it gets, and the Tennises first and foremost are committed to maintaining that reputation, while adding their own touches to align with the times.
In this Covid year, with crowds throttling the big mountains and capacity limited everywhere and the weather slicing away the best parts of the mountain and no easy way for New York residents to slide up to the New England big boys, dipping into a place like Royal to support a family business and rediscover the joy of small-hill skiing isn’t the worst thing. If you happen to know the Tennis family, let them know I want them on the podcast.
More on Hunter’s closure last week. Sutner profiles Ski Ward’s 24-year-old GM and the Indy Pass. An excerpt of Dan Egan’s soon-to-be-released book. Five-year-old falls off a lift at Ski Sundown. Bousquet opens for the first time under its new owners. New England Ski Journal profiles Bretton Woods and the Berkshires. Ice Coast Magazine hits Elk. Balsams update. Harvey’s gonna be OK. Jay and Burke get paid (kind of). How-it’s-going roundups from SAM and Ski. Vail Resorts skier visits and lift ticket revenue drop substantially. Killington postpones K1 base lodge construction until next winter. Former NSAA President Cal Conniff has died. Nordic skiing is booming. I love how in Montana a 2,000-vertical-foot ski area is considered some forgotten backwater:
This week in skiing
Ski day 10 was supposed to be Dec. 31, then Jan. 1, Jan. 3, and Jan. 9. Ski day 10 finally happened on Jan. 10. It took so long because sometimes when you’re a grown-up with a family and a job you’re like, “Hey I’m going to ski this day and this day and this day,” and Life is like, “Nah I’ve got a bunch of other bullshit planned, none of which is fun or interesting or less than soul-crushing,” and you’re like, “well that sucks,” and Life is like, “Yeah and don’t forget to go fuck yourself.” So what should have been ski day 14 was ski day 10 and since it was at Mountain Creek it wasn’t interesting so I’m not going to write about it. I’ve got some good stuff planned for this weekend, though. Follow on Twitter to see where I’m going as I get there.