Skiing Wasn’t Built for This

Sorry this is not a stoke machine

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Are we having fun yet?

We all knew it would be weird. Ski season. Add: masks, anti-maskers, reservations. Delete: apres, lodges, childcare, walk-up lift tickets. It would be expensive and inconvenient and bizarre. But at least we would be skiing.

And we are. I guess. That Covid restrictions landed alongside warm weather and rain to push openings later than anticipated and constrict early-season terrain is an accident of nature. That all the major Northeast resorts cleared the holidays without a major disruption is a testament to their grit and an affirmation that the season will proceed no matter what. We have found a way to ski with Covid. Isn’t it great?

Sure. But I have to admit that I do not love this version of lift-served skiing. I do not like the reflexive anger I feel when someone is not wearing a mask. They probably just forgot to pull it back up, right? I ignore it, move on. But I hate the feeling. Covid has introduced too many purity tests, has made it too easy to internalize someone else’s intentions. Usually unfairly. Not everyone will ignore it. If you’re looking for a fight this season, you’re going to find one. Already etiquette-conscious skiers have turned mask-shaming into a social media bloodsport.

It’s not just skiing. Covid has made us all slightly insane. From a yeah-I’m-cool-but-I’m-also-not-anymore parent writing in The New York Times:

Which is how I found myself a couple of Thursdays ago, stealthily driving to the skatepark to see if my boys were, in fact, wearing their masks … and then screaming at them in front of their friends because they weren’t. I don’t want to be a mom who spies on her kids. I don’t want to be a mom who yells in public. And yet, here I am.

I don’t like the mom that Covid has made me. I don’t want to run my house like a police state, or control my kids’ every movement, or discourage them from spending time with friends. But as an asthmatic with a wonky immune system, I don’t want to catch Covid, and I’d never want my family to be responsible for infecting anyone else in our community.

No one asked for this and no one wants to be here. Because of a desire to social distance, I have been skiing alone a lot. Which I do often and don’t mind, but I do mind that it doesn’t feel like a choice, like it’s the only way I’m able to ski. It feels passive-aggressive to board a quad alone at the head of a line dozens-deep.

And oh my the lines. Skiing is like Jan. 1 at the gym right now, everyone recommitting to it. Desperate for activity after lockdowns killed anything indoors outside of the home, I get it. This great reorientation of American life has had upsides. More people loving skiing is good. More people skiing when the snowpack sucks and we have to stand apart like human chess pieces is bad. Sure, there are mountains with no lines. They also have almost no open terrain. Trade-offs.

The resorts are doing the best they can, but skiing wasn’t built for this. We are operating it like a stadium sport, limiting access, assigning seats. But it isn’t one. Skiing is about exploration, not focus on a common spectacle. It’s been a rough adjustment for skiers and for ski areas. Killington had to lecture parking no-shows, calling them “selfish.” Vail modified its cancellation policy after too many people flaked on Epic Pass reservations. ORDA – which manages Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre – cut off day-ticket sales ahead of the holidays and infuriated frequent skier card holders who suddenly found themselves cut off after they had been promised access. “We are sold out for the day” became standard social media messaging for ski areas large and small across the region in December and early January. The changing rules and clubiness are frustrating.

Yeah I get it. Covid. Understanding why something is necessary and complaining about it are compatible reactions. If you’re hear for stoke, I’m sorry to report that you’ve taken a wrong turn. Yes, some of you, trapped on Planet Jay with scarce tourists, are still going to have a great season. Spare me your “You’re just not doin’ it right Bro” emails. I’ll get by, have some good days. Probably once the people who think ski season ends in February lose interest. Or whenever I find some powder or the glades open up. It might take a while. Boxed in by cross-state travel restrictions in a region where I can typically choose between nine states on a powder chase, that quest will be more constrained now than it has been in past years.

But wait, a bad day of skiing is still better than a good day at the office. Am I right? My man? Dear lord spare me this bullshit. Sure it is, in the same way that eating at Shoney’s is better than starving to death, but that doesn’t make it taste any better.

This is not how words work

Hunter shut down for three days this week for thus-far unexplained reasons. And no this doesn’t count as an explanation:

“Excluded out of work” looks like what used to happen when you would drop random Chinese characters into a 1990s 1.0 version of an online translator. Yes, this is English. See: these are all words. Yeah OK but “excluded out of work” doesn’t mean anything so it can’t explain anything.

In a safety-first era of mortal Covid fear, Vail owes us a better explanation than this. Why did these patrollers “exclude out of work?” Was it Covid? If so, how widespread was the outbreak? Were guests potentially affected? If so, when? Are the patrollers safe and healthy? How was a company with Vail’s scale and resources unable to fill staffing gaps at one of its key Northeast mountains in the dead of winter? This would not happen at Whistler or Park City. If it was not Covid, then why were season passholders stuck without access to their local mountain for three days when their ability to cross state lines to another Vail mountain has in most cases been curtailed?

Representatives from Vail did not immediately reply to requests for comment. I’ll update this story if and when they do. We’ll see if this is an anomaly or the first breakdown in skiing’s Great Wall of Covid.

Good mountain, bad luck, familiar story

I haven’t taken an inventory of which Northeast ski areas have managed to open this season in defiance of both virology and meteorology, but New Hampshire’s Tenney recently became the first to more or less give up on the season. The mountain may open with all-natural snow for holiday weekends, but it is refunding all season pass sales. Skiers are free to skin it if they have the ambition to do so.

Tenney is a typical good mountain/bad luck New England skiing story. The mountain missed sporadic seasons as successive owners dismissed snowmaking as a fad and later misallocated resources on a harebrained year-round snowmaking scheme. After a multi-year effort, the current ownership group finally got the lifts spinning again in March 2018, then operated for two full seasons until Covid ruined America and everything else.

The turnaround had been based upon the cheap pass/sell-the-rugged-indy-vibe image that should continue to play well as megapass membership grows and congestion increases at the region’s larger resorts. Whether that’s going to be enough to help it off the mat after Covid passes remains to be seen.  

And who’s this running out of the back? But I thought they were atomized by the photon ray back in season 6!

After a 2011 fire destroyed its landmark lodge – originally the Austrian Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair – Cockaigne closed for the rest of the decade. After a promised re-opening by new owners failed to materialize last season, the future looked dicey. So it was a delightful surprise to see this 430-vertical-foot Western New York bump finally re-open over the December holidays. Staying open this year is hard enough for even the best-equipped resorts (see Hunter Mountain this week). Reformulating from atoms after a decade in the dustbin of lost ski areas is a damn miracle. Well done.

And stuck somewhere in between is Bousquet

After new owners took possession of Bousquet in June, they spent the summer tearing the hill apart. Unfortunately, they ended up needing part of the winter as well. Upgraded snowmaking. A new-used chairlift. Demolition of two old lifts. A relocated beginner area. All while dealing with the same Covid operations overhaul that, alone, preoccupied everyone else. Now, here we are in January, and the ski area is still not open and has no firm date to do so (they are targeting the middle of the month). Fortunately for anyone who purchased a Berkshires Summit Pass, they also have access to Berkshire East and Catamount while they wait. Those who bought the Bousquet-only option will have a better mountain when it does get going, but wow that’s a late opening. Hopefully all the investment will prove worthwhile for an earlier opening in future seasons.

This is not the order I would have gone with

If you’re into lists, this one ranks Killington as the 11th best ski resort in North America, ahead of Beaver Creek, Mammoth, Steamboat, Snowbird, Copper Mountain, Grand Targhee, Taos, and Alta. I am sorry to report that this is objectively untrue. And I love Killington. Also making the list from the Northeast: Sunday River (24), Stowe (34), Jay Peak (42), Smugglers’ Notch (46), Sugarbush (53), Stratton (54), Sugarloaf (55), Mount Snow (63), Holiday Valley (64), Cannon (68), Bolton Valley (69), Bretton Woods (70), Okemo (71), Gore (72), Hunter (76), Loon (81), Camelback (83 – should I just stop here?), Pico (89), Gunstock (90), Attitash (92), Cranmore (94), Windham (95), Mad River Glen (96), and Mount Sunapee (99). The problem with ski lists built entirely on data is that they don’t take into account the, you know, skiing part. This one isn’t terrible if you strip out the non-Northeast resorts, but it falls apart at Holiday Valley and reaches irredeemable territory soon thereafter.

Meanwhile, at Bristol

Well this looks fun. Good job rescuers. Glad she’s OK.

Elsewhere

Lift Blog’s annual chairlift roundup. Ski’s top 10 articles of 2020. New York Ski Blog at Gore, Holiday Valley, Catamount. Ice Coast Mag at Gore. Skiing with babies. Ski small. Shop local. Hire these people.

This week in skiing

Nothing to see here but some dodgy Mountain Creek ramblings. I had lots of additional days planned that didn’t happen. A long season ahead so hopefully life stops interfering with my skiing. Until then it’s all shrug emojis and “that’s life” declarations from your parents.

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COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak | Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson| Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory | NSAA Director of Risk & Regulatory Affairs Dave Byrd

The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn | Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith | Loon President & GM Jay Scambio | Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen | Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds | Mad River Glen GM Matt Lillard | Indy Pass Founder Doug Fish | National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers | Winter 4 Kids & National Winter Activity Center President & CEO Schone Malliet | Vail Veterans Program President & Founder Cheryl Jensen | Mountain Gazette Owner & Editor Mike Rogge | Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows President & CMO Ron Cohen | Aspiring Olympian Benjamin Alexander | Sugarloaf GM Karl Strand – Parts One & Two | Cannon GM John DeVivo | Fairbank Group Chairman Brian Fairbank | Jay Peak GM Steve Wright | Sugarbush President & GM John Hammond | Mount Snow GM Tracy Bartels | Saddleback CEO & GM Andy Shepard | Bousquet Owners & Management | Hermitage Club GM Bill Benneyan | Powder Magazine Editor-in-Chief Sierra Shafer |