Photo: Marko Ristic Leo/Shutterstock

Skiing Is the Most Normal You’ll Feel During COVID, Here’s How to Go

Ski and Snow
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Feb 5, 2021

In late December, Jennifer Ozanne was skiing at Utah’s Park City resort with her son and husband. She recalls sitting on the chairlift and having a realization, “I said to John it was the first time I felt normal.”

In a world turned upside down by COVID-19, Ozanne says her family’s winter ski trip felt unexpectedly ordinary. She acknowledges that many of the details were unusual. Rather than flying from their home in San Francisco, as they’d done the previous year, they drove the nearly 12 hours to Park City. They’d reserved lift tickets in advance. And, of course, they couldn’t crowd in the lift lines.

Yet wearing face coverings while skiing is pretty common, and in most resorts you can pull the mask down when you’re actually skiing or riding. So when Ozanne looked at the scene on the mountain, the sensation of normalcy hit her.

“Because we’d been there the year before, the experience of skiing and being on the mountain felt the same,” she says. “It just kind of struck us. I mean if we examined it, there were differences. It was more of an emotional feeling; relief that some things can feel normal in the midst of all the craziness.”

“When you’re skiing and you look around, it looks the same,” Ozanne explains. She contrasts that to life in her city. “Looking around San Francisco, there’s not the normal number of people, the people you see are in masks, everything is boarded up.”

Even relative to the outdoor settings that she and her family, like so many of us, have sought out during the pandemic, Ozanne says skiing felt more normal. “Probably people were wearing masks on days when it wasn’t so cold,” she says of skiing in Park City. But she says that is far different than hiking near their home and constantly pulling their masks up every time they pass someone. It’s a strange and unpleasant way to greet other people who are sharing a trail with you.

Moreover, with bars and restaurants shuttered in cities and towns, skiing has also felt like one of the few ways they can safely socialize in a way that feels familiar. And because resorts clearly mandate masks and distancing in common areas and lift lines, you don’t have to worry about that awkward feeling when you and those around you may have different takes on what’s necessary to stay safe.

“It was a contrast in normalcy at a time of very not normal. It made me feel like not everything will be strange forever, which is good,” Ozanne says.

Of course, from driving 12 hours instead of flying 90 minutes to eating every lunch outdoors, many things were different. For some, even accessing this opportunity could be challenging. The pandemic has left many people struggling financially, and skiing is expensive.

In other cases, there may be restrictions on traveling to mountain resorts. Vermont, for example, wants out-of-staters to quarantine when they arrive. Meanwhile, California is urging residents to stay within 120 miles of home. (Conveniently, Sacramento, the state capital where that arbitrary number was decided, is a mere 110 miles from top resorts like Squaw Alpine.)

But if you can get out there and enjoy a respite from the dystopian breakdown of life as we once knew it, please do. We all need reminders that there will be an end to the restrictions and social distance. The mountain air and exercise is not just good for your physical health. A glimpse of life beyond the pandemic will also be good for your mental well-being. Here are some tips for going skiing in these very unusual times.

Make advance reservations

Bigger resorts will require reservations and limit the number of daily tickets sold. In some places, even season pass holders will need to reserve for the days they intend to ski. The good news is that a quick check found that even top resorts like Vail, Park City, and Stowe still had tickets available for Presidents’ Day weekend — a weekend that is normally crowded but this year, due to those lift ticket caps, won’t be.

The California resorts all have availability for Presidents’ Day weekend, but unless you’ve been spending the pandemic in Lake Tahoe — or live in Sacramento — you may be discouraged from traveling there. Likewise, if you’re on the East Coast and don’t have a week to quarantine in Vermont, you could check out New Hampshire resorts like Bretton Woods, which at the moment is not requiring ski reservations at all.

However, if you are near to a resort and do want to make a last-minute ski plan, many mountains open additional availability for reservations the day beforehand. That’s because even season pass holders have to make reservations to ski at many bigger resorts and they get penalized for no-shows — encouraging them to cancel so you can come ski.

Also, places like Winter Park in Colorado don’t require reservations to ski after 2:00 PM. That’s late in the day but it’s better than no skiing at all. Or look for smaller ski areas that, like Bretton Woods, don’t require advance reservations.

Prepare to eat outside

Throughout North America, resorts are open for grab n’ go dining — usually cashless, to further minimize contact. Depending on the state, some indoor dining may be available — often partitioned and at reduced capacity. If you can’t or don’t want to eat indoors, you can still grab a beer and take-away food and enjoy it in the sunshine. Even with the sun out, though, you’re in the mountains and spending the entire day outdoors — so dress warmly.

In places where it gets really cold, there are some lunch workarounds. If you want to ski in Stowe, say, Vermont’s quarantine obligation may explain why they feel comfortable keeping some indoor dining open. If you don’t manage to get a table inside or you just don’t feel comfortable taking off your mask indoors, you can always get your food to go and eat it at a chair like Stowe’s Four-Runner, which has a bubble you can bring down over you to protect against frigid temperatures or even snow. Likewise, gondolas are another protected spot to eat your lunch. With windows left open, gondolas get ventilated on their way down, so you can feel pretty comfortable about lowering your mask to eat your take-away lunch.

Stuff your pockets

No matter what, you should have some extra snacks in your pocket, in case the eating situation feels uncomfortable or it’s too cold to bother sitting down to lunch. Also, be sure to toss in extra masks in your pocket, since once a mask gets wet it’s less effective.

Some resorts have even advised being sure you bring an extra layer and possibly water, as multiple hours outside can be dehydrating. This might even be a good year to ski with a small backpack.

Make a ski date with friends

If friends aren’t in your pod, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen them indoors in months. You’ve done the hikes with masks on, chatted outside in your backyard until you are all shivering, or maybe only connected via Zoom.

If you can, try and meet them on the mountain. Riding up the chairlift, properly masked, will let you guys catch up in person, in real-time, not in a rush. This year you actually can’t ride chairlifts with people you don’t know — which is a bummer for those who like to share local know-how with newcomers, or who like to be the ones asking about it. But you are allowed to ride with people you know, and it’s probably been a while.

Being social with friends in a safe and actually acceptable setting has been a major upside of skiing for some of the folks Matador spoke to. At the end of the day, though, après may be out of the question. It depends where you are.

While Ozanne and her family didn’t hang out with other people while in Park City, they did appreciate all the other, wonderfully unexceptional parts of their stay. Their New Year’s Eve was spent, as were many peoples’, in front of a screen.

“We had a new year’s party on Zoom with our friends… which was totally fun but totally weird,” says Ozanne. “So surrounding the trip were all these strange things. It was like, ‘Oh we can make it through, and this time next year it will be really normal.’”

Let’s certainly hope so.

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