What it’s really like to ski during a pandemic: A trip to Vermont


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Dover, Vermont (CNN) — Cold feet: This was my biggest concern.

“So you’ll wear toe warmers. Or we’ll buy you heated boots. Or you’ll go to the car to warm up when you need a break.”

That comment was from my husband, Steve, who’d been obsessing about getting (back) on the mountain since approximately March when a trip to Zermatt, Switzerland, was cut short amid frightening news of a raging pandemic.
Eager to log as many days snowboarding as possible, Steve remained undeterred by the ski resorts’ mounting coronavirus protocols. Safety measures vary by resort, but may include a reservation requirement, mandated mask wearing, social distancing rules and limited use of any and all indoor facilities.

Chris Linsmayer with Colorado Ski says some resorts in Colorado “are encouraging using the car as a home base.” He says it’s potentially a good place to eat lunch.

This concept of vehicle as home base added to my reservations around skiing during coronavirus.

Motivated by a nor’easter

The first big snow of the season found us tucked away in southern Vermont with a plethora of ski regions within mere miles of our new winter abode.

Okemo Mountain is one of the Vail-owned Vermont resorts on the Epic pass.

Stacey Lastoe/CNN

As luck would have it, I’d reserved a spot on Mount Snow (part of the Epic pass), in Dover, the day of the major snowstorm. As we made our way toward the mountain’s base that morning, I checked online to see whether latecomers could still get a spot on the mountain on what was sure to be an incredible day as far as East Coast conditions go.

But no dice. The best option for anyone who woke up on that recent blizzardy Thursday morning in December to over two feet of snow and an itch to scratch via board or skis was a spot opening up in the online waiting room.

“We are managing access to our mountains with a reservations system that was designed to prioritize our pass holders,” said Margo Van Ness, director of communications of Vail Resorts for the East.

“Our plan is consistent across all of our resorts so our pass holders won’t have to track down different access per resort,” Van Ness added.

The online reservation system that Epic set up is not exactly intuitive, and pass holders may be penalized for canceling reservations. But it is nice to have all of the Epic’s resorts displayed in one place.

At the mountain

A reason to try to get to the mountain as early as possible is to beat the crowds. This was true pre-Covid and even more true now.

Since one of the big changes at resorts around the country and in the world is how chairlifts are operated, the scramble to arrive when lifts open has perhaps never been greater.

Long lines at the mountain's base and elsewhere did not go unnoticed, a change resulting from social distancing requirements.

Long lines at the mountain’s base and elsewhere did not go unnoticed, a change resulting from social distancing requirements.

Stacey Lastoe/CNN

But remember that snowstorm? That set us back a couple of hours, and by the time we arrived at Mount Snow, the Bluebird Express, the main chairlift, already had a daunting line. We lined up with the rest of the pack though, our respective skis and snowboard making social distancing easy.

Typically, it’s standard to fill the chairs to capacity to help move the line, but that wasn’t happening now. Instead, solo skiers and riders hopped on a lift and rode it all the way up by themselves.

This new loading process slowed things down significantly.

A few days later at Okemo, another Vail-owned resort in Vermont, we opted to ride up a four-person chair lift with a single skier, all of us masked and not quite six-feet from each other but at least outside.

At Mount Snow, the snow kept falling and windy conditions made mask-wearing especially appealing. Several days later at Okemo, temperatures were warmer, and at times, I found myself wishing I could yank my mask down off my nose and mouth. Respect for the rules and concern for my fellow snow lovers left my mask intact at all times.

On both days, I noticed a few people here or there not wearing masks, but then I also overheard staff issue instructions to these rule breakers. And in spite of a few bad players, spirits among staff and guests seemed high — everyone simply happy to be outside enjoying the elements.

Downhill from here

On the mountain, social distancing wasn’t a problem. Out West and in Canada and much of Europe, I imagine it’s even less of a concern, given the vastness of those mountainous regions as compared with the Green Mountain State.

In terms of actual on-mountain capacity, however, the resorts CNN Travel spoke to seemed reluctant to provide hard numbers.
The Bluebird Express is a six-person chair lift at Mount Snow.

The Bluebird Express is a six-person chair lift at Mount Snow.

Stacey Lastoe/CNN

“There are a variety of factors that we are using to determine capacity across our 34 resorts and they will continue to evolve over time based on available terrain and guidance from local and state health authorities,” said Van Ness.

Andrew Kimiecik, a marketing communications specialist at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain Resort (which is on the Ikon pass),”day ticket sales are being limited on select days for increased social distancing around the resort.”

Adhering to social distancing may be straightforward outdoors, but it is less so indoors, which is why so many resorts are encouraging alternative arrangements, such as bringing your own snacks and water.

“We are managing capacity at all of our dining facilities in accordance to local and state regulations,” Van Ness explained, adding that the resorts are asking guests to plan ahead.

Plan B

Steve and I failed to plan ahead on our recent visit to Okemo, more than an hour’s drive from our home base. Although I’d packed a bag of trail mix, after nearly a dozen or so runs, we were famished.

We stopped in at reception at the restaurant the Sitting Bull, but were politely informed that without a reservation, we could not be seated. The space was empty, unrecognizable on any other pre-Covid ski day, where you could expect four deep at the bar and guests milling about waiting to place a drink order.

Borderline hangry, we tried a second option at Okemo, the grab-and-go cafeteria-format Pete & Earl’s. The menu looked great, but it was just an illusion as it turned out they were sold out of all salads and sandwiches at 11:52 a.m. on a Monday, no less.

Not in the mood for anything from the fryer (fries, chicken tenders) or grill (burger, hot dog), we left the resort to find food elsewhere.

In the grand scheme of things, this really wasn’t a big deal, just a minor annoyance. Still, if I was able to forget about Covid’s relentless grasp briefly up on the mountain, I was quickly brought back down to Earth upon trying to fuel for the second half of the day.

We might’ve had better luck at Stratton, where I plan to visit next.

Kimiecik says they’ve added another outdoor dining food truck, Base Plate, for hot grab and go food that’s easy to eat outdoors. “We are also excited to announce a new snowcat grill, a mobile dining option serving hot food at different locations around the resort with a varying location depending on the day,” Kimiecik added.

Takeaway

The writer and her husband in Zermatt, Switzerland, last year before they rushed back to the US amid the raging pandemic.

The writer and her husband in Zermatt, Switzerland, last year before they rushed back to the US amid the raging pandemic.

Stacey Lastoe/CNN

The on-mountain experience, in this part of the United States at least, closely resembles pre-Covid times. The resorts are taking the situation seriously while also doing their best to show visitors a good time, evidenced by the enthusiasm by lift attendants and other staff I encountered.

Fans of aprés ski, however, will want to manage their expectations or risk being sorely disappointed. The rowdy, post-drinking party part and parcel of many a ski trip before coronavirus just doesn’t exist this year. It can’t.

With good planning, however, you can eat well on the mountain if you like — or at your car. At Mount Snow, a few tailgaters had a setup so impressive, I was inspired for a future trip. I never did appreciate the sticker shock accompanying any on-mountain food and beverage purchases.

Of course, this outdoor winter activity is not about the food. (Not in Vermont, anyway — for that, I believe one must venture abroad where skiing and dining seem to be of equal importance.)

I’m delighted to report that achieving the zen feeling as your skis glide across inches of fresh, virgin powder is not only possible, it’s inevitable, cold feet and all.

Read more at CNN.com