Ski Season Arrives In Swarm of Locusts
Sure, this is gonna go great
Things are not OK
After a skiing offseason longer than any skiing offseason should be, lifts are cranking back to life across North America. Wild and Norquay, Wolf Creek and Loveland, Keystone and A-Basin of course. Scattered others. Even the ski areas lofted improbably over Los Angeles cracked open this weekend. And after a typically atypical snow-dump-followed-by-pool-weather cycle, snowmaking is back in the Northeast. Give it three or four weeks and the whole machine ought to be zipper-lining toward a socially distant merry motherfucking Christmas. Yay skiing.
After a spring and summer of halting progress and frequent setbacks, of regional outbreaks and mass tinkering with combinations of lockdowns and mask mandates, of learning how coronavirus spreads and how it doesn’t and how to treat it, Covid-19 has erupted across the United States like Krakatoa. The graph charting new infections is blowing straight skyward like a giant sequoia, with case numbers rising in all 50 states. Even as doctors get better at preventing Covid deaths, the nation will reach a quarter million deceased this week. Yesterday, 1,210 people died.
Somewhere in the chaos of a bitter presidential election and endless Covid fluctuations and attendant culture wars, we have lost all perspective on what these numbers mean and how much worse they are than we could have ever predicted. As we document more than 100,000 new Covid-19 cases for the 12th straight day, consider that the United States reported just 674 new coronavirus patients on March 14, the day Vail and Alterra slammed the doors shut on their 49 combined North American resorts, effectively ending the 2019-20 ski season. Ambushed and disoriented, the industry, like everything else in America, had no alternative but to shutter. But it would be OK, we thought. The season’s three major holiday periods had been banked. The industry would spend the offseason re-imagining skiing as a socially distant, brown-bagging, boot-up-at-your-car, blue-collar pursuit that could weather a coronavirus winter - and surely the virus would be under control by winter.
But the ski industry now looks like the flood-ravaged neighborhood that rebuilt its houses on 10-foot stilts, only to face a 30-foot storm surge when the next hurricane washes through. That hurricane is now boiling on the horizon. And it is no normal hurricane. It looks to be a category 8 or 10. And instead of wind it’s made up of alligators and locusts. And tigers. And lava. And you would think such a thing would draw great interest from sandal-wearing tourists and television reporters in raincoats with their floppy hats blowing sideways as they tell Laurie and Steve back in the studio just what it’s like to stand in 175-mile-an-hour winds filled with deadly flying animals. But nah actually no one cares anymore. It’s just another lava-filled hurricane and football is back so please don’t bother me with this bullshit anymore.
The springtime Covid surge that devastated New York City inspired panic and national unity, as the country locked down to fend off an invisible and little-understood enemy. The summertime surge, focused on the sunbelt states of Florida, Georgia, and Texas, fueled mass denial and Free-dumb debates about whether mask mandates were a warpzone to some kind of socialist house of horrors. The current surge, which is everywhere and enormous and seemingly unstoppable, has been met with utter apathy. Yes, Oregon and New Mexico – important ski states – have re-imposed stay-at-home orders (New Mexico’s order applies to ski areas; Oregon’s does not). Iowa is putting limited mask mandates in place. Mostly, however, we are doing nothing but yelling at each other as our hospitals overflow and case counts zoom well past crisis levels.
And it’s going to get worse. Because our political leadership has failed us and we have failed each other. We should have been ready for Covid, and we were, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times in September:
It wasn’t as if the United States was unready. A 324-page study in October 2019 found that America was the best-prepared country in the world for a pandemic — but it didn’t imagine that the United States would fumble testing, data collection, contact tracing, communications and just about every other facet of managing a novel virus.
“The administration made every single mistake you could possibly make,” Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who early in his career helped eradicate smallpox, told me.
“We could have beaten it back,” Brilliant said. “We could have prevented the horror story we have now.”
Even now, as the spear tips are coming over the castle walls, the president talks only of a vaccine that could be available “as soon as April.” There is no acknowledgement of the gravity of the outbreak and no plan to confront it. A new administration that will perhaps act with the full force of the federal government to battle the virus is months away from taking power. And in the vortex of confusion and cruelty erupting from this leadership vacuum we have turned on one another, breaking into factions of masked and un-masked, politicizing ruthless nature and dying by the hundreds of thousands because of it.
Exhausted, angry, and confused, we head as a nation toward Thanksgiving. Hundreds of millions of us will gather in the sort of closed-in environments and intimate groups where Covid thrives like a candy-flipper in a moshpit. What America will look like two weeks after that, as we barrel inexorably toward Christmas, is impossible to say. But this much I am certain of: skiing is too small to fix this. As well as the industry has planned, it is going to get swept up in whatever the larger response is to whatever the viral trajectory is. Restrictions are already returning to Vermont and New York, places that will not hesitate to shut skiing off like a lightswitch if they deem another full lockdown necessary. Such shutdowns would cascade outward to surrounding states in unpredictable ways, as skiers seek skiing wherever skiing is, further concentrating people in ever-fewer places.
I think skiing, as currently re-imagined, can be done safely no matter how bad Covid gets. I also think it doesn’t matter. The car is falling apart as we drive it down the road, and there’s a growing chance that we may not make it to the mountain. What will happen to this industry if it misses Christmas is too terrible to consider at the moment. But each day, we are closer to that happening, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
New York comes through with kids passport program
After Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New Hampshire all made the unfortunate decision to suspend their kids-ski-free programs for the 2020-21 season, New York found a way to maintain theirs in a modified form.
The program, for third- and fourth-graders, will only be valid on non-holiday weekdays. No weekends. In previous years, children would get three free days at each participating ski area with the purchase of an adult lift ticket. It is unclear how many days are included this year, or which ski areas are participating. But the program is intact, and that is good not just for New York skiers, but for New York skiing, which, like all skiing everywhere, needs a constant flow of new people who decide to redefine their winters around yo-yoing up and down snowy mountains.
New Indy Pass partner coming this week
The Indy Pass scored huge last month with the addition of Vermont’s Jay Peak, the best and snowiest ski area in Vermont. This week, the pass will add another Northeast partner. New York Ski Blog will exclusively announce the addition. Sign up for their email list to get this news the moment it drops.
In case you missed it
Here’s a secret: Storm Skiing Podcast emails have a much lower open rate than Storm Skiing Journal emails. I don’t know why, other than I guess some of you are not podcast people. I get that, though there is a lengthy written component to each podcast article that I think will be of interest even to people who don’t want to listen to the audio. My latest, for example, with Saddleback General Manager Andy Shepard, includes a copy of an old masterplan that displays how enormous this mountain could potentially be.
When I imagined the podcast, I wanted to create something people could listen to on long drives to or from the ski area, a way to keep skiing when the skiing was all done. I try to really focus on the details that I think skiers care about, or at least the details I care about as a skier: the lifts, terrain, history, and future plans. In the Saddleback episode, for example, Shepard explains why they tore out the Sandy chairlift, and how the retired Rangeley double terminals will be repurposed to bring Sandy back as a quad next season. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify (or pretty much any other podcast service; I can’t even really keep track of all the places it’s available), and line them up to play on your next trip to or from the mountains.
An awesome chart from New England Ski Industry News detailing operating plans at most New England ski areas. Pugski is now SkiTalk. Windham renames the Wheelchair Double the Baker Lift to honor deceased longtime ski patroller Ronald Baker. A replacement has arisen for the cancelled Boston Ski Expo. New York Ski Blog on the conundrum of Vermont’s travel restrictions. Ski Bums podcast does an episode on Tennessee’s only ski area: Ober Gatlinburg.
This week in not skiing
The city erupted in bangs and whistles and clapping and joyous shouts last Saturday, like a place liberated, like the end of a war. In parks bands played and masked dancers leapt about in the Indian summer, 75 degrees in November, as though a day of celebration had been foreordained. Empty champagne bottles stood bunched about overflowing garbage cans and thick about the great lawns were revelers, blankets spread with beer and wine and food about them. I have spent four years shutting it off, refusing to buckle, like the world around me, to one man’s ego. The one name, everywhere, all the time, spoken in awe or horror, devouring more attention and admiration and ridicule than any person ever in history has done. In a year, this horrible year, where my city went silent in a wave of death and mourning, my tiny Midwestern hometown was obliterated in a dam collapse, a health scare sent me into the hospital for two days, my precious football team is an inexplicable flaming garbage barge in year six of our $7 million-per-annum coach’s tenure, and, yes, my ski season ended abruptly, I needed a win. This return to calm, to normalcy, to a sane person toting the nuclear suitcase, is a win. And soon, hopefully, this section will go away and “This Week In Skiing” will return, and life will feel a bit more normal again (it really depends on just how much lava ends up being in this hurricane).
Also I’m just going to keep saying this
If you’re subscribed to The Storm Skiing Journal on gmail, the service will drop the email directly into the promo box. To fix this, just drag-and-drop Storm Skiing Journal emails from the Promotions folder to the Primary folder, as so:
Do this two or three times and Gmail will correct itself and put these into your Primary folder, where they belong. Thanks again to Avant Ski for this awesome tip. Subscribe to their free newsletter here.