At Northwest ski areas amid a global pandemic, tailgating has become the new après-ski. After a day skiing at Mount Baker, Jessica Henson found herself in a parking lot surrounded by skiers and snowboarders grabbing lunch at their cars, some more elaborately than others. “[L]ots of people have insanely creative car setups,” she said. “From whole camping stoves and tables to simple PB&Js on the tailgate.”

Before the pandemic, skiers could pick up lunch or a hot beverage in base-area dining rooms. But with new restrictions in place at ski areas across Washington state, skiers and snowboarders are adapting; some are taking to heart resort guidance like the Summit at Snoqualmie’s recommendation to “use your vehicle as base camp.”

It’s just one of many changes ski areas have undergone in the past year, in an effort to reopen without becoming vectors for a virus that has killed over 273,000 Americans and more than 2,800 in Washington state. But is it really possible to ski safely in a pandemic?

Skiers at Crystal Mountain Dec. 2, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Skiers at Crystal Mountain Dec. 2, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“The bar of success is to open and stay open for the rest of the season,” said Marc Riddell, West Coast director of communications for Vail Resorts, the parent company of Stevens Pass.

Ski areas’ compliance with health directives — and visitors’ willingness to go along with them — will make the difference between a full ski season or one that, like last year’s, is cut short.

“We want to follow the rules”

Though outdoor activities generally present a low risk of COVID-19 transmission, ski resorts have been linked to outbreaks in Europe, and in a recent news briefing, the World Health Organization emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said that while skiing itself isn’t inherently high-risk, activities that often precede or immediately follow it can be. These include air travel, taking public transportation to or from ski areas, and socializing indoors after skiing.

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At Mission Ridge in Wenatchee, marketing director Tony Hickok echoed this framing, saying that resorts have largely been tasked with restructuring “non-ski experiences.” 

Skiers at Mission Ridge outside Wenatchee. (Courtesy of Mission Ridge)
Skiers at Mission Ridge outside Wenatchee. (Courtesy of Mission Ridge)

“The heart of the ski experience is skiing and the act of skiing or snowboarding is left unchanged,” he said. But points around it that present a risk for transmission have become areas of focus.

With this in mind, Crystal Mountain was the first ski area in the state to reopen at reduced capacity late last spring, proving it was possible to operate a ski area under physical distancing guidelines set by the state.

“Opening for spring skiing was definitely helpful in our planning process for this winter,” said Frank DeBerry, Crystal’s president and COO. “The main benefit was in helping us to understand our capacity to move people uphill on the lifts while allowing for appropriate spacing in the lines and on the chairs.” Information from resorts in Australia and New Zealand that had opened over the summer was also helpful in strategizing for winter, he said.

Now, Crystal is no longer an outlier, as many Washington ski areas reopen to the public. Several opened around Thanksgiving; others followed in the first week of December. All are operating under state-issued guidance specifically targeted toward gondola and chairlift operators, revised Nov. 16 to include procedures for loading and managing lines at ski lifts and gondolas. Ski resorts must also follow restaurant and retail guidance in base-area dining and equipment rental operations, and comply with the state’s face-covering order.

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Mike Faulk, deputy communications director for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state has no immediate new guidance to add to this list, but acknowledged that ski areas face a “dynamic” situation. According to the updated list of protocols, guidance for ski areas is subject to change, and “will be assessed, and potentially modified, on a weekly basis.”

So what will it take to keep ski areas open? Kathleen Goyette, director of marketing and public relations for White Pass, said it would require participation from visitors, and their compliance with physical distancing measures — or lack thereof. “We want to stay open,” she said. “We want to follow the rules. And we need the public to help us do that so we can operate all season.”

A skier hits a jump at Stevens Pass. (Courtesy of Stevens Pass)
A skier hits a jump at Stevens Pass. (Courtesy of Stevens Pass)

White Pass opened on a Friday, and while Goyette said “the first few hours of opening” required “a lot of education” from staff, “by Sunday we were seeing a lot of compliance.”

Yakima resident Addy Logsdon saw White Pass’ reopening firsthand, when she headed to the ski area with her family, including three kids, ages 7, 10 and 12. She said the staff’s enforcement of physical distancing measures made her feel safe. “We all have some work to do to meet the mask mandate at the base and on the lift, but I think a competent, friendly and assertive staff will ensure the season stays safe,” she said.

Logsdon said she didn’t even mind not being able to spend time indoors. “We sat under an umbrella heater on the deck in the waning afternoon sun and watched our kids come in from their last run, hooting and hollering,” she said.

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Making up for a lost season

The most common piece of advice from ski area staff? Wear your mask. Make sure it’s up in line and on lifts. And remember that it needs to meet basic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, said Karter Riach, director of marketing and sales at the Summit at Snoqualmie: “Jackets going above your nose and mouth, that’s not gonna cut it.”

On a trip to Crystal, Kirsten Fausko said she saw fellow visitors dutifully wearing face coverings. “One of the biggest takeaways was that people were masking 100%,” she said. “I didn’t run into a scenario where people didn’t have a mask on.”

Skiers and snowboarders wait in lift lines at Crystal Mountain Dec. 2, 2020.     (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Skiers and snowboarders wait in lift lines at Crystal Mountain Dec. 2, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

At Mount Baker, Henson observed similarly uniform mask use, but said she thought “a no-tolerance policy with consequences like pulling passes for noncompliance” might be worth implementing. A temperature change might also help. “I think as the weather gets colder, wearing a mask or balaclava will become a no-brainer as we will want to wear one anyways,” she said.

While the state’s mask mandate presents its own learning curve in the outdoors, skiers may be most impacted by chairlift and gondola regulations. Because household-mixing is not allowed on ski lifts, skiers who’ve already been on the slopes this season reported that loading took longer, a situation possibly catalyzed by pent-up demand for skiing after a season cut short.

“The main bummer was the long lift lines, but the reasoning is very understandable,” Fausko said. “The gondola and all lifts were limited to people in your party only, so with one or two [people] per gondola, it took a long time to get up the mountain.”

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The lag time isn’t unexpected given the latest guidance from the state, presenting ski lift operations in granular, almost baroque detail. Customers must “self-group” and ride only alongside those they arrived with, and lift attendants cannot “require guests to ride a chairlift with people they do not know”; the only exceptions are for high-capacity lifts and closed-cabin carriers, and even then, specific seating guidelines must be followed. Gondolas must be loaded with physical distancing, and open windows, while not mandatory, are “strongly recommended.” Lift lines should also allow for 6 feet of physical distancing between patrons. Creating lift mazes to accommodate all of this has been “a bit of an art form,” said Stevens Pass’ Riddell.

The high-speed Brooks Express chairlift at Stevens Pass ski area. (Courtesy of Stevens Pass)
The high-speed Brooks Express chairlift at Stevens Pass ski area. (Courtesy of Stevens Pass)

Other changes visitors are likely to see include cashless payments, regular sanitation of high-traffic areas and frequently touched surfaces, hand-cleaning stations, and signage and staff reminders enforcing physical distancing.

Hickok also said that visitors should be prepared and check ski area websites in advance of heading out, “because things change often in this atmosphere.” Planning ahead beats spontaneity. Waking up on a Saturday morning and heading to the mountain because there’s fresh snow, he said, “may not be as easy of a win as it has been in the past.”

Riddell repeated this advice. Stevens is using a reservation system as a key to keeping down capacity, which means an off-the-cuff Saturday morning trip to the ticket window won’t be a realistic option. “This year, that’s not happening,” he said.

Instead, ski areas are encouraging visitors to buy tickets online in advance, and to familiarize themselves with individual areas’ policies regarding reservations. Not all require them.

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Instead of a reservation system, White Pass is keeping capacity down through advance online sales and prioritizing season passholders. The different policies in play at different ski areas had “been a little confusing” to skiers, said Goyette. She encouraged visitors to check out ticketing policies “long before you go.” “We want everyone to be successful and not be disappointed,” she said.

But some disappointments are inevitable. Tickets will likely sell out some days, as ski area staff anticipate (and in some cases have experienced) pent-up demand.

Riach said that Snoqualmie, which manages four base areas, had temporarily halted pass sales, which were back online four days ahead of Snoqualmie’s opening day, Dec. 4. He said that because pass sales are limited, “people are going for it,” and, following a season disappointingly truncated by the pandemic, “so many skiers and snowboarders … are super excited to get out.”

Runs on passes are also understandable given ski areas’ reduced capacity. While date-specific single-day lift tickets are also available online, Riach said Snoqualmie was cutting capacity by at least 30% — and possibly even more. Passholders don’t have to make reservations.

Tyler Gustafson takes a break while skiing at Crystal Mountain in early December. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Tyler Gustafson takes a break while skiing at Crystal Mountain in early December. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

In practice, increased demand could mean more delays for skiers, like the 2-mile backup Fausko encountered on her way to Crystal on Thanksgiving morning. DeBerry said this backup occurred on a particularly challenging day for the resort, which experienced five times the usual demand for November the week it reopened. It was “one day that showed us what ‘too many’ looks like,” he said. Skiers deluged Crystal that day, but so did “Christmas tree harvesters, backcountry hikers and others who have historically used our parking lot for access to the mountains, and did so in unexpectedly huge numbers.”

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DeBerry maintains it was a one-time thing. “We’re now two weeks into the season and have learned so much more about how to make this all work,” he said.

But even with that and other disruptions to her usual Crystal routine, Fausko said she was glad to be on the mountain. “[I]t felt so great to feel seminormal and to be able to experience the beautiful ski runs in a safe way,” she said.

“Be the reason we have a season”

Like “use your vehicle as base camp,” there’s another refrain you may encounter while skiing this year, Christmassy and Mister Rogers-adjacent in its rhyming wholesomeness: “Be the reason we have a season.”

It’s something that was originally coined by the National Ski Areas Association, Mission Ridge’s Hickok said. The NSAA, a trade organization, released a set of best practices for ski areas operating during the pandemic. Called “Ski Well, Be Well,” it was crafted with input from ski area operators, organizations and trade groups. Thirty-three have signed off on it, including the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

It’s a set of guidelines built on preparation going back to March, said Hickok. The goal was to “reopen ski areas safely and stay open for the entire season,” with Northwest ski areas working together on ways to operate safely.

This is why you may encounter uniform signage across some ski areas, with clear do-your-part messaging.

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“The social contract of skiing and snowboarding requires that you take precautions to protect yourself and others, both on and off the slopes,” reads the section of the Ski Well, Be Well website geared toward visitors.

Skiers and snowboarders wait for the chairlift at Crystal Mountain Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Skiers and snowboarders wait for the chairlift at Crystal Mountain Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

And it may take something like a social contract to keep ski areas open. Because even if ski resorts follow all the rules, if visitors don’t, it could mean facing the possibility of closing yet again. The stakes are high, and ski area staff are hopeful that with a communal effort, they won’t see a repeat of last year.

“We need everyone to participate and really make it so that we can have a long and fun and safe season,” said Riach, because if ski area staff are exposed to COVID-19, it “impacts our ability to run the resort.”

“We’re a community —  our staff, our guests, skiers and snowboarders in the region — and we all need to help each other,” he said.