Vermont Digs Moat, Blows Bridges

See you next year, Green Mountain State

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Vermont surveys rest of United States, says, “Yeah we’re good here”

Before I talk about Vermont’s 2020-21 ski area operating guidelines, let’s take a look at Vermont’s Covid-19 management record:

  • As of Nov. 7, Vermont has recorded 2,326 of the United States’ 9.8 million-plus documented Covid cases and 58 of the nation’s 236,554 Covid deaths.

  • As of Nov. 6, Vermont is 50th out of 50 U.S. states for cases per 100,000 residents.

  • The New York Times’ daily map displaying the severity of each U.S. state’s outbreak still paints Vermont in a healthy light-yellow hue, even as the Upper Midwest and Mountain West bleed blood red:

The state’s enormous success in fending off the coronavirus is due, as Vermont Department of Health Deputy Commissioner Tracy Dolan told The Washington Post, to “early stay-at-home orders, clear communication and science-informed policies.”

Imagine that. Vermont is a unique place. The second-least populous U.S. state, it’s the rare part of the country that is at once mostly rural and mostly liberal. It has sent Bernie Sanders, the most liberal U.S. senator, to Congress in 11 consecutive elections, but just re-elected Republican Governor Phil Scott to another term. It is a pragmatic place, where decisions appear to be more rooted in logic than passion, and that mindset enabled the policies that have so far minimized the impact of Covid-19.

The success, however, has come at an enormous cost to the state’s tourism industry, with the 14-day mandatory quarantine for most out-of-state visitors forcing drops in lodging and food service of 97 and 86 percent, respectively, over the summer.

Vermont has decided it’s OK with that. The quarantine restrictions appear likely to remain in place through the winter, and the ski area operating guidelines released last week are the most restrictive in the nation. Ski areas will not only have to collect contact information for everyone who visits the ski area, but will have to document when they visit a lodge and exactly where they sat. Skiers will have to testify that they followed Vermont’s quarantine rules when they buy a ticket or book a reservation. Lifts will be limited to 50 percent capacity for unrelated parties, and lodges will be limited to half capacity or 75 people. There are a lot more details that I’m not interested in rehashing, but you can read comprehensive write-ups in New England Ski Journal and Vermont Ski + Ride. View the full rules here.

The net of all this creates two distinct sets of problems, one for the skiers, and one for ski areas. The issue for out-of-state skiers is a straightforward moral dilemma: should they come? The structure of the quarantine protocols – 14 days of isolation upon arrival, or seven with a negative Covid test – mean that, practically speaking, you’re either moving to Vermont for the winter or you’re not coming at all. The point-of-sale promising that each skier has abided by quarantine protocols, however, appears to be strictly on the honor system, with no enforcement or penalty for violation.

We can take a righteous stance and pretend like this is an easy choice that will neatly divide the good and bad people among us. It is no such thing. For skiers, like me, who primarily day-trip to Vermont, the verdict is clear – we can and should avoid the state and ski elsewhere. For second homeowners, who collectively own nearly 20 percent of Vermont’s housing stock (the second highest rate in the nation), the decision is more emotionally complicated. If, say, someone from New York or Connecticut or Massachusetts has a slopeside condo that allows them to ski out their door and onto the lift, avoiding the lodge and moving, essentially, like a ghost across the landscape, do they upend their routine and eschew their investment for the season, or do they say screw it and ski? Or what about Vermont residents who work out of state, like the tugboat captain I shared a lift ride with at Killington a few years back, who told me he spends two weeks pushing barges up and down the Hudson and two weeks skiing all over New England? The rules say he should not be skiing. But probably he does anyway.  

The logic behind the spring shutdowns was that if no one could do anything, nothing bad could happen. It mostly worked, but collective impatience and exhaustion has led to premature re-openings and successive waves of viral spread. While Vermont has done a good job avoiding this, figuring out how to manage and live with the virus better than any other state, it cannot secede from a nation whose political and constitutional culture has proven incompatible with full shutdowns of business and civic life. The reality of existing in such a republic is that people will only submit to so much control, so while the quarantine protocols will keep many skiers out, many more will simply ignore them, as they’ve been doing all summer and fall, especially if there is no real penalty for violating them. People are dying to ski, and they will so long as the mountains are open.

For Vermont ski areas, the problems are twofold: surviving on lower volume and rapidly adopting reservation systems for everything from gear rentals to cafeteria tables. For the majority of Vermont ski areas, these should not be existential issues: Bromley, Mount Snow, Stratton, Okemo, Killington, Pico, Sugarbush, and Stowe are all owned or managed by out-of-state conglomerates that can theoretically shuffle money between operations as necessary; Jay Peak and Burke are basically wards of the state and will get the money they need to operate; Middlebury Snow Bowl is owned by Middlebury College and isn’t going anywhere; Mad River Glen’s cooperative ownership structure and hardcore loyalists somewhat shield it from the realities of the outside world. Magic and Bolton Valley would appear to be in the worst position of the remaining mountains (Vermont has several municipal and limited-lift operations – Northeast Slopes, Brattleboro – that primarily draw skiers from local communities), but both have built loyal followings by positioning themselves as independent alternatives to their detachable-lift-laced neighbors, and they can probably survive a season in the present circumstances.

Still, this is likely to be the roughest collective winter for Vermont ski areas since the oil crisis of the 1970s. For skiers on the right side of the moat, however, it could be glorious. Vermont has the best skiing in the Northeast. It gets the most snow and has the most thrilling collection of big, diverse ski areas. But because of that and because the state sits in the orbit of tens of millions of people, it draws crowds that make shopping on Black Friday look like a reasonably enjoyable activity. With the Canadian border sealed and the surrounding states face-palmed, the 2020-21 ski season could offer a ripple in the space-time continuum, a ride on Vermont’s big, modern, lift-bursting mountains in the less-peopled landscape of another decade.

If you’re up there, enjoy it. I’ll see you next season.

But you can still go to Massachusetts

Massachusetts is no substitute for Vermont, but it has better skiing than you think, especially at the fairly wild and uncrowded Berkshire East, where a wide-open freeride policy and bountiful drops and glades deliver a hell of a powder day experience. The Red Sox State (or whatever it’s called), dropped its ski area operating guidelines this week. They are fairly standard: 50 percent lift capacity unless riding with members of your party, 50 percent lodge capacity, etc. Massachusetts does not appear to be requiring the kind of data gathering that Vermont is, ostensibly for contact tracing.

Also helpfully included in this document is the fact that “motorsports venue operators must ensure that pit areas, tents and race trailers are spaced no less than 12 feet apart.” Good to know.

If you’re subscribed to The Storm on Gmail, do this

So one of the big issues with Gmail is that The Storm Skiing Journal emails drop directly into the promo box alongside the emails from CVS that you haven’t opened in nine years. To put this right, just drag-and-drop your next two or three Storm Skiing Journal emails from the Promotions folder to the Primary folder, as so:

Eventually, Gmail will correct itself and automatically drop these emails into your Primary folder. Since I am technologically stupid, I’ll thank Avant Ski here for this awesome tip. Subscribe to their free newsletter here.

The section of the newsletter where people decide I’m an idiot

One of the most remarkable features of old-timey ski photos is the complete absence of specialized gear. Long lines of people, bare-headed and smiling and wearing dorky sweaters over collared shirts, stand gleaming in the sun, the ever-unchanged mountains soaring behind them. It’s as disconcerting as the backdrop of spectators in suits and bowler hats at a 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers game.

While I don’t envy their office-casual approach to ski-wear, I find myself nostalgic for the complete lack of pretension. They were just there to ski, damn it. Wear a helmet? What am I, Evil Knieval? Skiing is just a transport mechanism from my photo shoot to the martini bar, Son. Follow me if you can keep up with my sweet reverse-shoulder turns. Then they’d drink five Manhattans and drive home through the snow in their rear-wheel-drive Buick.

What got me thinking about this was a thoughtful essay in New York Ski Blog about whether to wear a helmet while skiing. I do mostly wear one now, but I haven’t always, and I still don’t on the T-shirt skiing days of corny spring. Still, You’re-Stupid-If-You-Don’t-Wear-A-Helmet Guy annoys me as much as Snow Tires Guy (these are usually the same guy). While both are correct in their core arguments that these things make you safer, they ignore the equally true fact that life is complex and filled with calculated risks and tradeoffs.

Back in the ‘90s, when I started skiing and when helmets were as common on the ski slopes as flip-flops, I took a series of long cross-country road trips on a Harley. I decided about 90 miles into these that wearing a helmet, frankly, sucked. They were itchy and hot and heavy and awkward. So I never wore one again when we crossed into a state that didn’t have a helmet law, which there are more of than you probably think. Was this stupid? I don’t know. I didn’t die, and I got this awesome picture out of the deal:

There is just one ski area in the Northeast that I’m aware of that requires helmets: Powder Ridge, Connecticut. I am grateful that an industry that has mostly arranged the laws of its states to excuse it from liability in the event of a skier’s gross injury or death on its slopes has mostly left the decision of whether to bucket up to the individual. I’ll usually wear one, and every once in a while I won’t, and you’re going to have to find a way to deal with that.

Subscribe to this if you like skiing

As the meteor formerly known as the ski media slowly disintegrates on its fall from the cosmos, an era of experimentation is arising. The Storm Skiing Journal is my own beaker, a playing-around with the email newsletter as the primary delivery vehicle for skiing-related content. It doesn’t replace any of what we’ve lost, but it does attempt to complement what’s already there.

Since I launched the newsletter last October on the rapidly growing Substack platform, it has been the only skiing-based publication hosted there. No more. The Groomer’s Report, a weekly collection of updates and industry takes, launched last month. It’s a breezy read and a nice overview of that’s happening in U.S. skiing. Check out the latest here – you can subscribe for free at click-through.

Elsewhere

A terrific history of the Freedom Pass from SlopeFillers. Lift Blog reporting that Big Boulder yanked its Black Forest double chair. I figured Vail would retire this lift after noticing the line hanging off the towers last winter. I didn’t grow up in a ski family, but this essay in Powder made me glad that I’m raising one.

Epic Pass reservations began Friday – so far long wait times but no meltdowns reported. Ikon Pass reservations begin Monday for the select mountains that require them – in the Northeast, that’s Windham and Loon.

This week in not skiing

If you grew up or were otherwise living in Michigan in the 1980s, you’ll remember this awesome song. If you didn’t grow up in or ever live in Michigan, you should listen to this song anyway. Because this song is great:


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