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OPINION | How to plan for a pandemic winter on the slopes

If you're a skier or a slider, you probably have a lot of questions about planning your winter during a pandemic. Ryan Stuart has some answers for you.

Everything you need to know about skiing and sliding in the time of COVID-19

A beautiful day at Mount Norquay in Banff National Park, with Mount Rundle seen in the background. This is the time of year when skiers make plans for the season, and this year COVID-19 has complicated that. (Ryan Stuart)

This column is an opinion from freelance writer Ryan Stuart.

Every fall, skiers and boarders lean into the unknowns of the winter ahead for answers to a few questions.

Will it be worth it to buy a season pass? When will it snow? Where should I book a ski vacation?

This year, of course, there's an even bigger unknown: the impact of COVID-19.

Just like the weather, no one knows what's to come from the virus. And that's one of the reasons ski resorts are more prepared for the uncertainty of a pandemic winter than most businesses.

"The ski industry has built-in resilience because we're used to adapting to Mother Nature," said Christopher Nicolson, CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, an industry group representing resorts mostly in B.C. and Alberta.

"We're good at finding creative solutions. And ski areas are well set up for social distancing."

Plus, they had many months to prepare.

"We learned a lot by looking south and with summer operations," said Nicolson. 

With lockdowns in place, South American resorts never opened. A resurgence of the virus in June forced some Australian ski hills to close just days into their season, while others operated at 50 per cent capacity.

New Zealand resorts fared the best, operating mostly as normal with some restrictions and extra social distancing measures. 

Resorts see solid numbers

Back on this side of the equator, resorts used scenic chairlift rides and lift-accessed mountain biking as a warm-up to winter.

An increased interest in being outside and active throughout the pandemic meant most resorts recorded solid numbers — and the longest lift lines locals had ever seen. That is likely a sign of things to come.

"In winter, there are less options for being outdoors," said Matt Mosteller, senior vice-president of marketing for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, a private company that owns six hills in Canada including Nakiska, Fernie Alpine Resort and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. "We're expecting a big uptick in participation."

Kicking Horse and Fernie have already sold more season passes than in recent years, both to returning pass holders and to people who have never bought one before, says Mosteller. 

A skier kicks up some fresh powder at Apex Mountain Resort in the Okanagan. According to Ryan Stuart, everything other than the skiing itself is going to feel very different this year. (Ryan Stuart)

Anticipating the competing demands of more people wanting to ski and the need for more space between them, some resorts are considering capping skier numbers.

Vail Resorts, which owns 38 hills, including Whistler-Blackcomb, announced all skiers will need to reserve ski days at least a week ahead, allowing them to cut off numbers.

Big White, a ski resort in the Okanagan, says reservations will apply only to day tickets and will help with contact tracing.

The resorts closer to Calgary don't think they'll need reservations, but don't rule it out, either. Most say they will regulate numbers by restricting day tickets, not by denying season passes, discount card holders or skiers on holiday.

Expect lots of changes

Other changes are more consistent. Expect less food ordering and group lessons and more grab-and-go options and private lessons.

Purchases, including lift passes, will go contactless and mostly online; some resorts won't sell tickets at the hill at all.

Lockers, boot and pack storage and brown bag lunch seating will shrink or totally disappear.

To compensate, Lake Louise is adding outdoor tents with propane heaters and bringing in portable toilets. But expect to get dressed at your car and eat lunch outside.

"We're really trying to reduce the number of contact points," said Dan Markham, marketing director at the Lake Louise Ski Resort. "The focus will be on going straight from the car to lift."

On the way, in line and on the lift, face coverings will be mandatory. But not when actually sliding. Standard neck warmers should suffice.

("How much better are cloth masks versus a typical skier's neck warmer?" wonders Dr. John Foote, a skier and ER physician at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. "No one knows for sure.") 

Skis help create social distancing in chairlift lines, but the mazes will likely have a little more room between rows. And automated ticket checking will replace employees, freeing them up to sanitize lifts between rides.

Right now, most resorts plan to fill chairs and gondolas by mixing groups together, but don't be surprised to see this change if infection rates increase.

In Australia, only groups skiing together were loaded into the same lift. That meant singles rode solo on four person chairs. Regardless, resorts won't make strangers ride together.

"If anyone is uncomfortable, they can request to ride alone," said Markham. 

A skier carves a new path at Big White Ski Resort in the Okanagan. Sometimes, says Ryan Stuart, the anticipation of a fresh powder day is almost as good as actually enjoying one. (Ryan Stuart)

A very different experience

At the top, the skiing or sliding down the mountain part will be just as awesome as always, but since standing in lines, riding lifts and eating lunch consumes most of a day, the ski experience will feel very different. Keeping the day fun will take patience and planning. 

I recommend you book ski vacations now — deals over the coming weeks will disappear — at more remote, destination-focused resorts, rather than regional ones that rely on locals. (Silver Star, Apex and Kimberly come to mind.)

And upgrade your gear soon. If bikes are any indication, skis and boots and, yes, mandatory neck warmers, will go fast. 

Once lifts start spinning, check out resort websites to find out what to expect.

Arrive early, especially at places like Sunshine and Kicking Horse, with gondolas out of the base.

Make reservations for on-hill eating. Or, even better, bring your own food and invest in boot heaters that plug into your car, both for toasty feet first thing and for a warm-up during tailgate lunches.

If you can, push home office hours to include Saturday and Sunday. With no international tourists, Monday to Thursday should be quieter than usual, while weekends will be busier. 

COVID-19 will hang over the season, threatening further restrictions and even full shutdowns. And then there's all those Australians who normally keep ski country running. None of them are coming, leaving ski hills scrambling to recruit young Canadians. A lack of employees could turn out to be the biggest choke point of all. 

Despite so many unknowns, it's worthwhile considering a season's pass or a ski holiday.

It's the right move because, in these challenging and uncertain times, the anticipation of a bluebird, powder day is almost as good for your mental health as actually enjoying one.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

As a full-time freelance writer, Ryan Stuart has covered everything from Greenland’s emergence as the next adventure tourism destination to why humans love looking at fire. His work regularly appears in Men’s Journal and Outside and he’s a contributing editor to Explore and Ski Canada Magazine.

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