They Keep Saying, “Look South to See How Next Ski Season Will Go,” and Every Time I Do I Just See Smoke Clouds on the Horizon

The Southern Hemisphere ski season is not going well – yet our magical thinking persists

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Should we be worried about that kangaroo because it kind of looks like it’s on fire?

Hey remember that one time back in March when Italy was completely disintegrating and closing down all their ski resorts and everything else and they were like, “Uh, hey Rest of The World, you might want to take this Covid thing seriously because we are basically at war here and this shit is coming for you like a storm and like a storm there is no way to stop it,” and we were all like, “That’s cute Italy why don’t you go drink a cappuccino on a moped or something we are America and things like that don’t happen in America because we are The Best and we have a plan which is to use our great stockpile of personal weaponry to shoot this virus dead on sight or perhaps our corps of highly trained war eagles will swoop down at the border and capture it in their great talons and go drop it over the border on Mexico if even our mighty eagles can navigate around our border wall which they probably can’t, so great is our Domain and our mastery of it.”

Fast forward three weeks and New York City was locked down like Stalingrad and ambulances were wailing day and night and the hospitals resembled a less organized version of the Running of The Bulls. Three months later, in July, we are faring no better. After seeming to hit peak infections in late April, Eagle Nation began creeping back up in late June and has now set single-day case records seven times in 11 days, clocking an astonishing 68,000 new cases on July 10. Instead of coordinating a unified national response, we have an every-state-for-itself scramble for resources and a bizarrely large percentage of the population fighting off face masks as AN INFRINGEMENT ON PERSONAL LIBERTY and convinced even after months seeing images of overwhelmed hospitals that Covid is either an overblown flu or a dastardly plot by THE MEDIA AND GEORGE SOROS AND THE CLINTONS to take down their precious superhero president.

OFFENDED READER: Hey, Big Time, I just came here to read about skiing because I am such a ski enthusiast that I will read about skiing even in July but I am beginning to think this newsletter is a Deep State plot to infiltrate even my very favorite thing with Leftist propaganda. So can you get to the point here please?

Ahem. Sure. After abruptly shuttering in mid-March, the North American ski industry has been tiptoeing toward a 2020-21 ski season that is likely to be defined by some version of enhanced sanitation measures, social distancing protocols, capacity restrictions, and minimum-wage lift operators fighting Freedom Bro about wearing a facemask. All of which is sure to be a great time. But the industry has it under control, they keep telling us, and they are carefully studying ski resort operations in the Southern Hemisphere to gauge how things are going.

They are going horribly. Let’s review:

  • No major ski resorts appear to have opened in either Chile or Argentina, the epicenters of South American skiing. Even if one were to open, both nations have banned international flights into September. Neither have had particularly severe outbreaks. [“Bro I’m just gonna ride my bike down there I’ve got this sick touring setup and nothing will stop me from hitting that pow.” “OK, thanks Rad Gear Bro, have fun riding that over the Darién Gap.” “Bro no problem my bike totally converts into a kayak which then converts into a shelter I can sleep in which then converts into a hunting blind so I can shoot and eat parrot birds with my Swiss Army Gunknife.” “OK thanks Rad Gear Bro for that contribution.”]

  • Last week, Vail closed its Hotham and Falls Creek resorts in Australia after Melbourne, the nation’s second-largest city and the primary source of skiers for those two resorts, went into lockdown.

  • Thredbo, an Australian Ikon Pass partner that competes with Vail’s still-open Perisher and is opening under capacity limits, sold out its entire season’s inventory in hours. While they’ve promised to consider adding more tickets if Covid and weather circumstances improve, the crush of demand provides a preview of what reduced-capacity, reservations-required skiing might look like in the U.S.

While the U.S. ski industry has been mostly mute on the details of what a modified ski day and season would look like – partly, probably, to preserve pass sales, and partly because they just don’t know – there is a myopic and vocal population of Social Media Ski Bros who strongly believe that the coming winter will be mostly normal. Pointing out that skiers are outside and wearing masks and goggles, they repeat the same arguments that were irrelevant as the industry was collapsing in March.

I generally love optimists and generally am one, but they are missing some important points here. First, ski areas are full of pinch points, both indoors and outdoors, where skiers are bunched tightly. While this may not be a problem for Bro Brah and his Bro Squad, who can go car-to-lift and pee in the woods and eat their magic brownies on the chairlift, orchestrating a ski day that avoids the lodge is an enormous challenge for families. Ski resorts are no doubt hustling to resolve these pinch points, but the logistical obstacles are enormous.

Second, decisions to close or limit operations are tied to larger factors than whether the resort itself can limit capacity enough to operate safely – when Melbourne went into lockdown, Hotham and Falls Creek lost most of their potential customers. Similar urban shutdowns in the Northeast could cascade quite easily into the rural hinterlands where most of our ski resorts sit.

Third, and most important: Covid-19 in the United States is getting worse, not better. We are doing a bad job (see stats above). It seems as though we are collectively determined to make the outbreak, and all its attendant economic pain, last as long as possible.

Despite occupying a landmass nearly the size of the continental United States, Australia has a population just a bit higher than metropolitan New York City. The nation has recorded fewer than 10,000 Covid cases and just 108 deaths. And yet, their ski season is a raging bush fire. Like Italy in March, they are telegraphing the warning across oceans: your ski season is screwed. But like ourselves in March, we listen to no one, repeat not only the mistakes of others but our own as well, and insist, even as Houston in July mirrors New York City in April, that November in Colorado will look different than it did last spring.

Perhaps it will. I doubt it. I do think the 2020-21 ski season will happen in the United States, but I think it will be truncated, frustrating, erratic, and at times tense and aggravating. It will also likely be transformative, though not in a positive sense, as many already teetering hills go bankrupt and others opt to sit out the bizarre winter voluntarily, leaving the ski areas that remain to sort out the best way to operate in what is likely to be a constantly changing environment.

The only major Southern Hemisphere ski market that is functioning with any semblance of normalcy is New Zealand, a world leader in containing the virus that has suffered only 22 Covid deaths and had 24 active cases as of Saturday. [“Oh Sick Bro I’m going to ride my submarine-bike there and steal a kangaroo. That would be a wicked good prank.” “The border is closed, Rad Gear Bro. Also kangaroos don’t live in New Zealand.” “Oh I’ll steal a sheep then and a koala bear.” “OK, thanks Rad Gear Bro.”]

So the only thing you need to stave off rampant ongoing coronavirus infections is a capable government, a cooperative populace, and an easily-sealed-off island nation in the middle of the ocean. Cool, I’ll squeeze that into rearranging Earth’s tectonic structure to prevent all future earthquakes and constructing a sky civilization that lives far above the troubled planet below.

OFFENDED READER: Hey Pal, if you like New Zealand so much, why don’t you go live there?

Yeah because that’s what I’m saying here.

Alterra makes a statement on Squaw Valley

Following my last news update, in which I came down on the “yes” side of the burgeoning Rename-Squaw Valley campaign, I reached out to Alterra for comment. This is what they came back with:

There have been calls to change the name over the years with various opinions and perspectives on the meaning of the word, “squaw,” with many discussions and debate regarding whether the word was offensive. As the conversation has evolved, the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows team has increased thoughtful discussions within the resort and among Alterra Mountain Company leadership. Representatives from the resort community held discussions with businesses, residents, agencies, and the Washoe tribe over ten years ago, ultimately resulting in a decision to retain the name. Current resort leadership was not involved in those previous discussions. Current leadership is putting together a process for a renewed discussion and intends to reach out to the Washoe tribe, local businesses, community leaders, and agencies.

Which is reasonable. I understand the desire to be deliberate in making any big decisions. If changing the name of one of the largest ski resorts in the country was as easy as changing your pants, they would do it tomorrow. The fact that the mountain is looking to re-ignite discussions with Native American leaders and others is a good start.

Stop calling people “Jerry”

This essay in Ski gets at an issue that has bothered me for a while, and is behind my alienation from social media skiing communities and my decision to launch The Storm: the way skiers’ words form a Trump-sized border wall that makes outsiders feel unwelcome.

While this most often means underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, it is not exclusively so. When I showed up to skiing at age 17, it was in double-layered sweat pants and a discount store jacket. While endless streams of chairlift trolls did their best to drive me away, unhelpfully pointing out to me the fact that I was not very good at skiing, I persisted. Most would not have.

Trotting out the “Jerry” epithet over hyper-specific faux pas reveals a skiing-as-frat-house mentality that most people find repellent. In other words, it’s a shitty way to build a sport that desperately needs to be built, or at least continually renovated. Encounter this once because you’re wearing your goggles wrong or you derf coming off the chairlift and maybe that’s your last time skiing. So stop doing that.

Yeah the ski media is hopelessly fucked what else is new?

The ski media, like all media, has had a rough transition to Planet Digital. While print magazines keep appearing in my mailbox and at least one formerly defunct one is returning, no one really seems to have figured out what a sustainable business model for ski media looks like in the digital age.

The latest casualty is Mountain News Corporation and its On The Snow website, a Vail Resorts-backed information source that I found clunky and hard to use but was, when Vail bought it in 2010, the “most-visited snowsports website in the world.” While this is likely part of larger cost-cutting at a company that lost more than $140 million to Covid shutdowns, it proves the difficulty of finding a sustainable way to run a ski media publication even when backed by a moneybags benefactor and anchored in a well-known brand.

Meanwhile, Active Interest Media (AIM) sold Ski magazine, Warren Miller Entertainment, and SNEWS – plus, incidentally, NASTAR – to Pocket Outdoor Media. From SAM:

The winter sports-related properties are part of a much larger package of three divisions of AIM—fitness, outdoor, and healthy living—purchased by POM. Both AIM and POM are based in Boulder. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.SKIPOM

Included in the acquisition are: Yoga Journal, SKI, Climbing, BACKPACKER, Warren Miller Entertainment, Oxygen, IDEA Health and Fitness Association, Clean Eating, Vegetarian Times, Better Nutrition, NatuRx, Muscle & Performance, Nastar, Fly Fishing Film Tour, National Park Trips, and SNEWS.

The AIM brands will join POM’s existing stable of endurance sports brands: VeloNews, Women’s Running, Triathlete, PodiumRunner, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News, VeloPress, VeloSwap, and Roll Massif, a recently acquired event production company that produces a series of eight iconic Colorado cycling events.

This is not so much bad news as it is indicative of the turbulent state of media in general. Powder also changed owners last year. These and other publications are likely to continue to be packaged together, shuffled around, rebranded, and relaunched until someone finds a sustainable business model or kills them altogether.  

In the meantime, you can count on The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast, already operating on a zero dollar budget and equaling that sum in revenue, to continue publishing for as long as the one-man staff has the energy and desire to keep doing it.

Elsewhere

How to open as much of their mountains as safely as possible are all-consuming topics at Vail and Alterra. Vail Resorts nears its goal of using 100 percent renewable electricity to power its resorts by 2030.

New England Ski Journal interviews Sunday River’s new GM, Brian Heon. Work on the new lift at Saddleback and Magic’s transplanted (from Stratton) Black Chair continues.

Ski profiles outdoor diversity advocate Judith Kasiama and honors the late John Fry, one of the most important ski journalists of all time.

No room for a season pass update this week – look for that some time over the next couple of days.

Check out this 94-year-old setting the Guinness World Record as the oldest heli-skier:

This week in not skiing

The city, right now, is ours. Last week my friend and I rode our bikes over the East River and met in Manhattan’s Financial District, normally a kinetic mosh of tourists and white collar business folks swarming the narrow lanes and monuments to capitalism and America. But in the plaza before the Wall Street Stock Exchange with its football-field-sized American flag just a dozen bystanders milled about and half of them were security. It was the same in normally throttled Battery Park and Times Square and up by the Intrepid, which as a World War II aircraft carrier anchored in the Hudson and rippling with fighter planes is unequivocally the coolest museum building on the planet. No one anywhere, the city just for people who live in the city and the people who live in the city do not go to these places because they are forever swarmed by the people who do not live there. But those people are not welcome right now. The Wall Street Bull is wrapped in tarps and the 9/11 Memorial is cordoned off and the Statue of Liberty is closed.

Times Square on a Friday afternoon in July, transformed from Tourist Ground Zero to a plaza where locals hang out.

And in this strange interlude the city feels as perhaps a normal city would, a place for the people who live in it rather than an over-touristed festival zone for selfie sticks and fanny packs. I have nothing against tourists mind you and of course as someone who writes about skiing and doesn’t live in a ski town I am a tourist everywhere I go, and New York City with its size and diversity and sheer chaotic groundlife can absorb tourists better than just about anyplace in America, but it is interesting nonetheless to see the city without them, for a reprieve from a crush of visitors that was never well-considered by the city that’s hosting them. Like Venice, we now have a lull to determine what a better tourism experience would look like, both for visitors and for those of us who live here. In a New York with bigger things to worry about, I don’t expect any such reckoning, so I will just do what I can to absorb this moment while it’s here.

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The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

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