The Small Bright Spots of This Year’s Ski Season
Resort executives are warning customers that skiing will be different this season. I'm here to tell you that "different" means better.
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Covered parking, heated chairlifts, tissue boxes, rooftop spas, basement yoga, mid-mountain sushi, antler chandeliers, excessive grooming, free warm chocolate chip cookies with your $140 lift ticket, and ostentatious day lodges built from Canadian old-growth timber. When did skiing get so soft?
Slowly. In the 1960s, skiing was still discovering itself as 10th Mountain Division veterans built utilitarian lifts and lodges on the mountains they opened. The idea was to get people up the hill, let them figure out the descent, and house them at night in lodges akin to barracks. By the 1970s, counterculture hippies adopted those ski areas, skis got shorter, and skiing got sexy AF. Think ragers next to pond skims. Stretch pants, Moon Boots, bota bags, backscratchers, cheese pots, schnapps, sheepskin rugs, and those sensuous midcentury modern fireplaces in avocado green. The fashionable appeal spawned a skiing boom and, for a time, made glissé a national pastime.
Eventually, though, the national love of skiing died off as Americans got distracted by rival pursuits like golf and chalupas. Left in the economic lurch, resorts vied for the only fat wallets left: destination skiers who no longer cared to hook up and sleep in a hostel. Since the mid-1990s, luxury has been the winning play in the ski “resort” business—ski resorts being a breed apart from ski “areas.”
We probably shouldn’t knock pusillanimous lux skiing too hard. It pays the bills, keeps the lifts spinning, and, in much of the country, makes for cheap season passes. But the posh ski life ain’t my ski life. Beneath the glam and the scam, skiing is still a soulful, rootsy pursuit. Oddly enough, it might take the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing restrictions to remind us of that. New Mexico is limiting skier visits to 25 percent. Vermont is requiring quarantines from guests traveling from virus hot zones. Reservation systems everywhere will further limit crowding. Lodges will be off limits to most, and still more restrictions may be in store as mountain towns go into the infection rate red zone as winter approaches. COVID-19 is stripping skiing to its core, revealing that there’s still more to the sport than showy wealth and those hot river rocks on your back.
With amenities and lodging curtailed all over, we’ll all be spending a lot more time in muddy parking lots again, which have always been vital to the skiing experience. Beyond face shots, crashes, and watching my kids find their edges for the first time, almost every lasting memory I have of lift-serviced skiing is set in a dirt parking lot: There I am as a toddler, walking with my grandmother carrying an arm full of wood and leather ski gear. That’s me lunch-tray sledding at night with friends as our parents partied in the Shovel Handle Pub in New Hampshire. My folks never sniffed it out, but that was me and my first ski buddy skipping high school and driving to Vermont to boot up in his 1977 Lemans.
While sanctioned après festivities will be severely curtailed this year, with ski bars closed and beery events canceled, a lot of fun can be had in a parking lot. This year, we’ll just need to keep such tailgating to a handful of distanced friends, like the times the skiers on staff at Outside would grill wings and sip reposado each spring during the Don’t Close Brah gathering at Ski Santa Fe. I pity those poor lockjawed souls who only know skiing from slopeside mansions and martini bars.
It’s in the parking lot where I’m sure to grab another joy of the skiing un-posh—the brown bag lunch. This winter, we’ll all need to get creative with our fueling, but it shouldn’t be too hard. Skiing food in a sack predates the $16 Sysco cheeseburger. The sexy hot doggers and European expats used to ski to stunning viewpoints and lay out blankets for their leather wineskins, wursts, and cheeses. I favor thermoses of steaming gumbo and green chile stew with fresh-baked bread torn apart like King Henry. If it’s too cold to eat outdoors, find a warming hut. (Loveland Basin in Colorado has three.) Or bring a puffy coat in a pack and claim a deck like skiers do in the Alps.
There are other positives to take from the upcoming winter, but it will involve managing expectations. Once upon a time, getting 10,000 vertical feet of skiing in a day was an accomplishment. You had to rip hard, bell to bell for that. Now, with high-speed lifts strung up like Christmas lights, you can rack that much vertical before noon. But this season, with the likelihood of mountains running enclosed cabins half full and spacing out chair loads, resort operators won’t be maxing out lift capacity. You’ll survive, I promise. In Montana, I ride ancient double chairlifts that date to my wooden skis and leather boots childhood. In Taos, they used to shut down the chairlift for lunch and nobody cared. It’s a chairlift, not the subway. Besides, lift lines can be fun places to hang out. Nobody looks sexy in a helmet, and stretch pants are long gone, but at least there’s trash-talking. When I was a kid, they sold hot dogs and coffee from carts because lift lines could last an hour. Maybe they’ll bring that back. My oldest ski buddy loves the single’s line. “Single!?” A woman will call out. “Divorced 25 years,” is his reply. Think of his increased odds when the single’s line takes 30 minutes.
The other upside of less lift capacity and limited ticket sales will be fewer skiers on the cut runs, bowls, and faces, preserving powder and decreasing the odds that you’ll get taken out by that marauding never-ever in the Cowboys jacket. The biggest gripe skiers have had in recent years is overcrowding. Fewer skiers on trails and in lodges might remind the industry that the experience was originally conceived to take place in nature with elbow room. Maybe after all of this, some mountains besides Deer Valley will be convinced that limiting ticket sales is always a good idea. Protecting the experience from overcrowding is the equivalent of limiting permits to run the Grand Canyon. This winter, as part of this grand experiment, even Coloradans might be able to snake a few linked powder turns together in untracked snow after the third run.
Boots in the dirt. Food in your pack. Powder on the hill. And après beers in the snowbank at the truck. Boom. For the winter of 20/21, even if you ski in furry-collared parkas, a Rolex, and bejeweled skis, you’re a soul skier. At least by the shallower definition. But let’s not forget that there are deeper forces at play in the world that also affect the soul.
This winter is a good time for such perspective. Americans are dying alone in ICUs. Systemic racism is an open wound. Partisans are killing each other in the streets. The collapse of the leisure and entertainment economy is destroying lives. And even small hurts like the postponement of a wedding or a missed graduation are contributing to a toxic national malaise. Skiing, as flawed as it is in terms of equity and acceptance—some resorts are using COVID-19 as an excuse to increase their season pass pricing—offers a respite from some of that hurt. But it’s just skiing. Now would be a good year not to let the powder panic turn you into an aggressive asshole. I’m going to try to live by that standard, too.
“The other perspective of 2020 is that we gained more quiet time, more time to reflect on what matters,” says Mike Kaplan, CEO of Aspen Snowmass. “Suddenly you’re not seeing the ‘I was here’ social feeds. We won’t be skiing on Olin Mark IVs again, but skiing will feel old school this year. All this quantitative stuff that’s been added to the core skiing experience, like the 100-day clubs, vertical-foot clubs, and the track-your-friends technology, becomes less meaningful. We’re all going to be more present in our ski experience, more connected to our close friends and family, a little more immersive than consumptive.”
At least that’s the hope. Or it’s my hope anyway. Skiing isn’t about luxury. Skiing is a luxury. Ideally it will be a classless luxury someday, like it still is in parts of Montana where the ranch kids ski in overalls. There are even reports that because of the travel and visa bans blocking foreign workers and so many U.S. college students taking the year off, American kids will again get a taste for the ski bum life. One year of skiing is enough to learn that you’re more than grist for the economic mill. Yes, sliding around on planks is ripping fun. And there’s nothing wrong with dedicating one’s life to it—I have. But having interviewed many octogenarian skiers over the years, when they look back on their lives, it’s the time spent in the mountains with people they love that they treasure. I, for one, will be glad for that chance this winter.