Mountains of Uncertainty: Skiing and Snowboarding Are Back, But It Won't Look the Same


It almost felt like a normal winter on the slopes at White Pass during a cold, windy Monday with a limited crowd and snow blowing hard into the covered faces of skiers and snowboarders.

Sunny skies like those seen during opening weekend make it much more obvious something's amiss this season. Masks still covered the faces of large crowds leaving empty spaces in the lift chairs, and both High Camp and the base lodge sat devoid of their typical vibrant community gatherings.

Industry officials at White Pass and elsewhere throughout the country spent countless hours working together to devise safety plans for operating during the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, even going so far as to reach out to South American operations that were able to open during North America's summer. Those efforts and compromises with government officials culminated in the long-awaited start to a season that will rely on cooperation from everyone.

"Every aspect of what we're talking about really can be solved with people understanding what our plan is and being patient," Mt. Hood Meadows vice president Dave Tragethon said. "This really is a privilege to be able to do something like this."

Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association president Jordan Elliott worked with peers across the country to develop the National Ski Areas Association's "Ski Well, Be Well" guidelines. That framework helped him discuss reopening plans with state officials, including Washington governor Jay Inslee and Oregon governor Kate Brown.

Last winter's mid-March closures cost ski areas in Washington, Oregon and Alaska an estimated $87 million, according to Elliott. He knows this season's restrictions will bring lower revenues and expects a significant challenge for employees as well as customers.

Staying safe

Most of the protocols and rules in place at ski and snowboard areas will be familiar to anyone who's ventured out to public spaces in Washington and Oregon over the last eight months.

Masks must be worn at all times except when riding down the mountains, you're advised to stay home if feeling sick, and everyone should try to keep their distance whenever possible. That means using caution in lines and no shared lifts, unless it's with your travel partners.

"I don't believe this is the season for carpooling with strangers or carpooling with people who are not in your quaranteam," Elliott said, using one of 2020's many new terms to define those outside what is for most people a shrinking social circle. "That would not be a good thing to see."

White Pass, like almost everyone else, eliminated the option to buy day tickets at the mountain, requiring customers to make their purchase online for a specific day. Some larger resorts, such as Mt. Hood Meadows and Crystal Mountain, opened their lifts to season passholders only before day tickets went on sale to keep numbers low.

Elliott recommended planning ahead for every aspect of a trip, from buying the lift ticket to packing lunch to parking. Retail and rental spaces will follow the state rules for limiting capacity, and White Pass began utilizing a text-based queue system to prevent long lines from forming.

Grab and go items will be more plentiful than ever and White Pass joined others in creating more outdoor seating if a car's not easily accessible. Many places opened up new vendors, such as #3 Wood Fired Pizza at White Pass, the Outback Snack Shack at Mission Ridge and the Slopeside Express at Meadows.

Peak times will strain new capacity limits, so areas are encouraging people to come at different times, which may be more possible with new work-from-home schedules. Meadows offers four different start times on days with night skiing, and Mission Ridge added more night skiing to give people more options, although others, including White Pass, eliminated night skiing to reduce gatherings.

Uncertainty abounds

At a news briefing on Monday, the World Health Organization said skiers and snowboarders face minimal risk of catching COVID-19 while out moving on the mountain.

It's all the other social places around ski areas that could be dangerous, which is a big reason why Germany, France and Italy shut down their seasons until at least January and are encouraging all other European countries to do the same. Austria saw large outbreaks in some of its resorts last winter, and even in Colorado, ski resort towns saw far more cases than the average community.

Elliott said this evidence might provide an advantage to the Pacific Northwest, where lodging and restaurants aren't so closely tied into mountain operations. Crystal Mountain and 49 degrees North explicitly discouraged gathering in parking lots this winter, and Elliott acknowledged nearby breweries such as Dru Bru at Snoqualmie Pass or Bron Yr Aur in Naches often see significant business from skiers and snowboarders.

New restrictions issued in Washington and Oregon last month changed the plans of many areas that had initially hoped to offer limited indoor dining. Perhaps that option will become available later in what's expected to be a snowy winter, so White Pass and others expect to make more modifications as the season goes along.

"Really, we feel like we have to be ninjas and be prepared for all individualities," White Pass marketing director Kathleen Goyette said. "Things will likely change frequently and our goal is to be as adaptable as possible.

Reach Luke Thompson at and on Twitter: @luketscribe


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