CONWAY — They say for skiers, there are two seasons: ski season and waiting for snow.
But when snow does begin to fly, the rules might be different at ski areas not only in the Mount Washington Valley but across the country, due to the pandemic that shut everything down in March.
Gov. Chris Sununu (former CEO at Waterville Valley Ski Area in Campton) said last Thursday that with proper guidelines in place at alpine and cross country resorts, “it will be a good ski season. I promise.”
Sununu pointed out that skiing enjoys several advantages over other sports as it already involves mask wearing and social distancing, and takes place outdoors. But he acknowledged that the real risk is at the ski lodges and touring centers where people congregate indoors. But, he said, resorts are working out plans.
Jessyca Keeler, executive director of Ski NH, the consortium of 15 alpine and 15 cross-country areas across the Granite State, said her group’s representatives have been meeting regularly to share ideas and to get ready for the season.
Keeler said skiing is the official state sport, with alpine and cross-country having an annual economic impact of $500 million.
The rule for skiers on what to expect is, “Know before you go.”
“It will vary from area to area,” Keeler said. “They need to know before they go and not just hop in the car and expect things to be as they have always been.”
Likewise, Adrienne Isaac, director of marketing for the National Ski Areas Association of Dillon, Colo., said to be prepared for the new normal.
“There are 37 states with ski areas (and 470 alpine areas that operated last season), and every state and local government has its own set of guidelines and regulations specific to their local pandemic situation.
“It’s important for skiers and riders to know that while the sport remains the same, the operational reality at each will be a little different,” said Isaac.
For example, Vail Resorts, operator of 34 resorts, including Attitash and Wildcat Mountain in our area, last week announced it will require guests to wear face coverings to get on the mountain and in all parts of resort operations, including lift lines and riding in lifts and gondolas.
To maintain physical distancing on chairlifts and gondolas, they will be allowing related parties or two singles on opposite sides of a four-person lift; two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift; or two singles on opposite sides of larger gondola cabins.
Ski and ride school will be offered, and on-mountain dining will be open but with changes to keep guests safe.
Mountain access will be managed to ensure guests have the space they need. “As such, the company has announced a mountain access reservation system and limits on lift tickets to prioritize pass holders,” Vail stated in a release Sunday.
“We believe this approach will help ensure a safe experience for everyone, while prioritizing access for our pass holders,” said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.
King Pine’s Thomas Prindle said several options are being explored, including possible capacity limits on the mountain and within base lodge facilities.
“We will also be investing time and additional capital to develop increasingly touchless transactions, whether that be requiring all products (ticket, rental, ski school, tubing) to be purchased in advance online and possibly reservations required for our season passholders,” Prindle said.
“We’re also working to develop health-screening, wellness checks and employee training for our teams as well as cleaning and disinfection strategies for all areas of our operations,” he said.
“Overall, our outlook remains positive and as a smaller, independent ski area, I believe we’re in a good position to adjust as necessary.”
Ben Wilcox, Cranmore Mountain Resort president and general manager, told the Sun in a recent interview, “There are a lot of ideas being floated around on how to approach things, and we are getting a lot of inquiries from pass holders on how we will be handling things. I feel optimistic that the ski season will happen, as long as the state doesn’t have another outbreak and as long as we can maintain controls in place required by the state and we will be working with the state on those guidelines.”
On its website, Bretton Woods Ski Area posted a message, saying, “We’ve all learned a lot in a few short months, and we are optimistic that the 2020-21 season will provide opportunities to enjoy our favorite winter sports once again. Our current plan is to fire up our award-winning snowmaking in early November, with the goal of opening the alpine ski area for Thanksgiving.
“As we know, the Nordic Center is less predictable, and we will get the trail system open as soon as Mother Nature allows.”
It added: “We may be implementing pre-purchase policies for day tickets and rentals, and some of our services could be modified or not offered until we can safely do so. Be sure to stay informed by visiting brettonwoods.com prior to your visits.”
Finally, it said: “If you have any remaining pre-purchased 2019-20 tickets or vouchers, we will be happy to honor them from opening day of our 2020-21 season (estimated. mid-November) through Dec. 25, 2020. Simply bring your original ticket or voucher to any Bretton Woods ticket window to exchange for that day’s ticket.”
As for Nordic centers, Reese Brown of the National Cross Country Ski Areas Association of Woodstock, Vt., predictis that areas will see a 30 percent increase due to the sport’s built-in safe distancing. “I think people like we saw this spring and summer will want to get outside after being cooped up,” Brown said Monday. “I have spoken with cross-country ski shops, and people are coming in to look at equipment now, which is much earlier than normal.
He said many areas are thinking outside the box, such as having food trucks in parking lots and presenting tailgating with safe distancing, possibly with music.
Ellen Chandler, executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation of Jackson, said: “Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and other self-propelled sports such as backcountry skiing we think will be very big this season, just as we have seen in the valley with kayaking and hiking in summer.”
She said her board and staff have been working on safe social distancing, limited use of touring center areas and new protocols for group outings such as Friday Gliders and ski school.
Jackson Ski Touring is one of six local ski touring centers in Mount Washington Valley, with the others being Bear Notch Ski Touring, Bretton Woods Nordic Center, Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, King Pine Nordic Reserve and MWV Ski Touring and Snowshoe Center.
The valley’s diversity extends to alpine resorts as well, with local resorts including Atittash, Black Mountain, Bretton Woods, Cranmore Mountain Resort, King Pine, Shawnee Peak and Wildcat.
For more information, go to skinh.com.