CONWAY — First, the good news: North Conway was named by readers of USA Today as the “No. 1 Ski Town in North America” (and the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation was ranked fifth in a list of the top 10 cross-country ski resorts).
But the question remains in this "new normal" of pandemic times: What will COVID-19 do to the joy of skiing?
After shutting down last spring, New Hampshire's ski areas are taking the governor's new safety guidelines to heart.
The big message from Ski NH, ski resorts and touring centers is knowledge is key.
“You need to know before you go what policies and procedures are in place," said Shannon Dunfey-Ball, business manager for Ski NH of Conway.
"New Hampshire has its ski area guidelines in place, and all New Hampshire ski areas will be abiding by those — but exactly how each ski area abides by those totally depends on the makeup of their ski area and their own operations," she said. There’s no one-size fits all policies for the specifics.
She said Ski NH is asking everyone to consult the web pages for the ski resort or lodging establishment they intend to utilize. She added that most customers should expect to buy their lift tickets and passes online before leaving home.
“There are going to be some small ski areas that don’t have the ability to allow people to buy passes online — in those cases, people should make sure they go online to the ski area website to find out what the ski area ticketing policy is," said Dunfey-Ball. "Or pick up the phone to learn the ski area's various policies.
“At the larger areas, you are going to have to buy your pass or ticket online in advance, and at some of them, you will not even have the opportunity to buy a day ticket. It might not just be an everyday thing,” she added. “It might be for those weekends and holiday periods due to capacity.
"So, again, it’s best for everyone to assume they need to buy a ticket online well before their arrival or do their research online to see if they ought to buy a ticket prior to their arrival," she said.
As for using the parking lot as your base of operations, Dunfey-Ball said that is being encouraged, too.
"We’re asking people to 'boot up' in their cars and not expect to be able to spend a lot of time in the lodges," she said.
"Nor should guests leave their boot bags in the lodges because the indoor facilities are going to be very much monitored for capacity,” said Dunfey-Ball.
What about bathrooms? “There are going to be facilities for use indoors, and some will be porta-potties outside, to make sure there enough opportunities for that,” she replied.
In terms of refueling, Gunstock and Cranmore, to name a few, are planning on having outside food trucks as an alternative to the traditional indoor dining options.
“Food trucks are going to be something that people are going to see, just because indoor dining options will be offered, but limited," Dunfey-Ball said.
"Some may just offer grab-and-go for basic items like a bag of chips, a cookie and a cup of coffee. Others, like Cranmore with Zip’s Pub, will offer sit-down dining experiences.
"But to be able to go to that indoor dining experience, you’re going to have to go online and book a reservation for a time slot to be able to go to the restaurant. So that whole ‘know before you go’ and book online is not just true for lift tickets — it’s also for rentals and dining,” said Dunfey-Ball.
Some ski areas may locate the food trucks in their parking areas; others, such as Cranmore, may have them in the general base area for a ski-in, ski-out type of food delivery, she said.
If alcohol is being served, the state requires a space for people to sit down, so there will be areas where one can get a drink, but customers will not be able to walk around with open containers — nor will people be able to drink in their parking lot vehicle base stations.
"Nor will patrons be able to overnight park their RVs or to have open fires in the lots," Dunfey-Ball said.
Base lodges like restaurants will offer cleaning stations. And face masks are now mandated by Gov. Chris Sununu to be worn everywhere in public, including at ski areas.
On the lifts? Social distancing, masks — and riding with your group only.
“Basically, when you are in the queue to ride the lift, everyone will be wearing masks and maintaining safe social distance," Dunfey-Ball said. "We will have ‘ghost lanes,’ with some empty space in between so there is space in front of you and behind you and also 6 feet to the left and right of you.”
On the chairlifts, people will be asked to stick with their “pod” — the family-friends group with whom they traveled to the resort.
“Right now, the guidance is no lift riding with strangers. We are working on that guidance, and there may be some edits to that,” Dunfey Ball added. "For updates, follow the SkiNH.com website.”
Ski schools and programs will vary from area to area, so it’s best to check their websites. As Bretton Woods Director of Marketing Craig Clemmer noted, “It’s an evolving world, but to start out with, anyway, we are limiting lessons to individuals rather than groups.”
Added Cranmore General Manager and President Ben Wilcox, “We will have private and semi-private lessons to ‘like’ parties who came to the mountain together, but no group lessons. So that is a change this year.”
As for apres-ski live entertainment, it may have to wait until outdoor venues in the spring due to social distancing concerns, officials note.
Dunfey-Ball said the industry is expecting a strong season, with increased demand, based on what the outdoor recreation sector saw throughout New England this past summer.
People who own second homes or are able to rent vacation homes in the mountains to work remotely may spend the entire ski season here, skiing midweek, thus helping ski areas.
Local ski shops have noticed such trends for parents from "away" renting ski packages for their kids this season, noting they are staying in the valley at rented or second homes, working and studying remotely.
Some have predicted that sports such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing may see as much as a 30 percent increase, given what was seen this past summer for hiking and cycling.
Similarly, Tyler Ray of Granite Backcountry Alliance is predicting a substantial increase in the number of backcountry skiers testing the snow beyond the boundaries of resorts this season.
"What we are seeing are increases in backcountry equipment sales. That indicates that we will see a substantial volume in skiers in GBA backcountry zones," he said.
"Toward promoting ethical backcountry use, we have developed and are promoting a backcountry code of conduct to help mitigate any backcountry harm — we encourage everyone to check out 'skikind.org,'" said Ray.
Ski NH’s COVID-19 guidelines site says the two-week self-quarantine has been lifted for those traveling to New Hampshire from surrounding New England states (Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island).
People coming for an extended period from outside New England are still asked to quarantine for a two-week period.
Paula Tracy of InDepthNH.org recently wrote that neighboring Vermont has essentially shut down all out-of-state skiing for now, due to the fact that it has lower coronavirus numbers than the rest of the country.
Vermont has twice the annual skier visits as New Hampshire.
Dunfey-Ball said Massachusetts changed its rules for residents heading out of state Nov. 20, requiring them to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon their return.
“I think New Hampshire will see some stronger numbers this year and maybe some new skiers that traditionally would have gone to Vermont," she said. "However, as these guidelines are being adapted on a state-to-state level, what we will end up seeing is still not known.”
The summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington is snow-covered, always a harbinger of the season, and snow guns are out, starting to lay down the base at local areas.
“As for opening dates for ski areas this year, it is definitely a little more fluid," said Dunfey-Ball.
"Ski areas are trying very hard to get open, and we want to stay open. So make sure you know before you go — and mask up,” she advised.