Ski season has begun -- here's what it's like to hit the slopes in a pandemic
It's been a long, hard road from the time when ski resorts across Colorado and beyond shut down early for the season on March 14 until now. So much has changed, plenty has been learned, but also, much has blessedly stayed the same.
And after skiing opening day on Nov. 6 as a guest of Keystone in Colorado, the first of Vail's 34 mountain resorts to open this season, it's clear that the core, timeless, best parts of skiing remain wholly intact.
Yes, the ski resort operations have shifted, but just like you can still have fun at Disney World while wearing a mask and waiting in distanced lines, the feeling of leaning into a good turn, the smell of fresh mountain air and the rush you get from sailing down the Rocky Mountains is as good as it ever was.
But there are things you should know before you head on this year's ski trip. While the time on your skis or board is mostly the same as it was, there are key changes to know in advance. There are also a few things that may get tougher as the season goes on. Here's what it was like to ski opening day in a pandemic.
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Reservations required -- for skiing and lunch
This may not be the year to take a big, impromptu family ski trip. This is the year for planning before you go.
You need advance reservations for almost everything at some mountain resorts. While different mountain resorts are handling advance ski or parking reservations differently, at Vail's resorts in the Epic Pass program, you must make an advance reservation to access each of the mountains.
Mountain capacity at Keystone is being limited, although it's unclear what that new number looks like or by how much. Reservations for the entire season are open as of Nov. 6, and were sold out most of the first week already. Limited terrain likely means capacity is limited further at the moment.
But you also need advance reservations for everything else, such as for lessons and even to sit down and eat lunch on the mountain.
On opening day at Keystone, same-day reservations for the on-mountain Summit House became available starting at 7 a.m. local time.
If you want to come in for lunch that day, you need to make an online reservation using a QR code. Summit County, home to Keystone and many other wold-class ski resorts, currently has a 25% occupancy cap on restaurants. Bottom line: Don't forget to make that reservation if you want to sit inside at lunchtime.
This approach does require advance planning, but if you have ever tried to each lunch on a busy ski day in a previous season, you know how totally crammed the mountain lodges can get in our old-normal. Checking in for a lunch reservation and being given an assigned table to all to myself next to an open-air window was a refreshing breath of fresh air.
While the menu has been reduced down to the basics such as burgers, chili, chicken fingers and fries to keep things simple and streamlined in the kitchen, the cash-less and reservations-required approach was extremely calm and orderly on opening day.
Frankly, I'd cast my vote for keeping this approach to dining at mountain lodges even once we are passed the pandemic.
Related: How to plan a ski trip using points and miles
Masks required, except when skiing
Like in much of the rest of life, masks are required during several parts of the ski day. When you are in a lift line, in a building, skiing through a crowd, in a lesson, or otherwise close to other people, then you need to have your mask up. However, while you are out on the mountain skiing or riding, you can lower your mask if you wish.
Many skiers on opening day utilized their neck warmers pulled up higher to serve as a mask. And while that may work pretty well with a well-fitted neck gaiter or warmer, mine often slips down below my nose, so I opted for one of my Joah Love masks. The mask never fell off and worked pretty well even when actively skiing.
I imagine as the ski season gets going, some ski-specific types of face masks will become available. Keystone did have baskets of free single-use masks available for those who didn't bring one.
Related: 7 mistakes to avoid when planning a ski trip
No filling up the lift with strangers
Normally, the name of the game for ski lifts is to fill to the brim to upload skiers and boarders as efficiently as possible. Single skier lines existed to fill in the gaps left by parties that didn't fill the chair or gondola to capacity on their own.
But, just like how Disney is not filling rides to capacity or placing different parties directly next to each other, lifts will be going up partially empty, too. The rule at Keystone, and across the Vail resorts, is to only seat parties skiing together on the same chairlifts and gondolas for the most part. The exceptions are two singles from different parties on the opposite sides of a four-person lift or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift.
My ski instructor and I were able to ride up the larger open-air lift together as long as we wore masks and stayed on opposite sides. However, on a smaller two- or three-person lift, we would have needed to take separate lifts.
There were some lift lines with a few minutes of waiting during the morning hours at Keystone, but most of the time, the lines were brief or eventually non-existent. Luckily, whether you are wearing your skis in a traditional lift line, or holding them in a gondola line, the gear itself makes physical distancing from those in front or behind you a pretty automatic process.
But the lifts do underscore one of the reasons why capped capacity is essential this year -- if you can't fill up the lifts like normal, the lines could get long in a hurry if mountain capacity is not kept under control.
Big changes to lessons
Right now, only private ski and ride lessons are available at Keystone, though that is expected to change in the coming weeks. However, there won't be big classes of kids all skiing in a row or any group classes or nursery care available for the youngest skiers at many resorts.
And at least at the Vail properties, there also won't be any walk-up lessons available -- you have to book in advance.
I met my private instructor outdoors, and only went inside briefly at the start of the day to complete a form.
Expect as much of the ski school drop-off, learning and pick-up process to be done outdoors as is physically possible. While that was easy enough in early-November, when true winter weather arrives, kids (and adults) will need to be prepared to be out in it for the duration of their lesson.
Currently, Keystone states that when group classes start, there will be a max of four kids in the ski school classes for five- and six-year-old kids. Private lessons in one-hour increments will be available to three- and four-year-old skiers.
Those in ski or ride lessons of any type have to complete an online self-health screening before arriving to the mountain. This screening asks questions such as whether the learner has any potential COVID-19 symptoms and asks if the skier or rider's temperature is above 100.4. Adjustment to mountain altitude can cause shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness and even nausea, so that will be an overlap of symptoms that families will have to be very attuned to.
If you can afford a private lesson for the family, this is the year to go that route. My private instructor, Angela, wore a mask and maintained at least a six-foot distance at all times while helping me learn some skills to work on throughout the season.
My biggest concerns
After spending opening day on the mountain, my biggest concerns for the ski season are two-fold, and neither are things the resort can fully control.
The actual time on the mountain, and even in the lift lines, doesn't concern me with the accommodations in place. Not to continually make Disney World comparisons, but the two large-scale operations share many similarities. And if masks, plexiglass, sanitation and distancing can work for Disney, it will hopefully work for ski resorts that are even more spread out and open-air.
I'm more worried about groups of friends coming together to ski and ride as they always do, and then hanging out mask-free after the ski day. While Keystone, for example, is not operating any full-service bars this year and only has packaged beer and wine, it's going to be hard to kick the habit of hanging out or having drinks in close proximity with friends at the end of a ski day while rehashing the best runs.
Technically, right now in Colorado's Summit County, rules state that places that serve food or beverages are limited to parties of six or fewer from no more than two households. There's also a 10 p.m. curfew in place. Hopefully, those rules will be enough to limit the spread in an area that is already back in its second-highest COVID-19 risk tier.
The other looming reality is that it is going to get colder in the winter and sometimes you simply need a break from the frigid temperatures. Keystone's food and beverage director, Wolfgang Sterr, explained that the indoor mountain restaurants are being viewed as shelter and restroom facilities first -- and places to eat, second. On bitterly cold days, you will need to truly dress for the outdoor temperatures, or have a plan for warming breaks that may include lunch reservations, a ski-in hotel, etc. How a mountain full of people will be able to warm up while maintaining distancing wasn't immediately clear to me on this beautiful, warm November ski day.
Is skiing still worth it?
Yes. Final answer. If the highlight of your ski trips is the actual skiing, it's at least as good as it ever was.
Even though this was a very early season ski day with limited available terrain, it felt amazing to be back out there on the snow. If 2020 taught us anything, it is to appreciate what we have while we have it. Among those who made their reservations for a sold-out opening day at Keystone, there was a shared thrill to have this sport back in our lives.
There were even a few adults on the hill who decided this is the year to get bundled up, get outside and learn the sport for the very first time. For skiers and riders -- or those who want to learn -- skiing itself is as timeless as ever.
On the other hand, if you like to go on ski vacations for the nightlife and social scene (and apres-ski is indeed a scene), this may not be the best year to make the trip.
Further complicating some ski trips (in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19) may be newly imposed limitations on how many households can share ski lodging. Currently, the Summit County max on shared short-term rental lodging sits at ten people from a max of two households. We've had a ski house for 22 people from six households in Breckenridge before, so that's a major shift in how ski trips are planned and enjoyed.
If you are considering a ski trip, thoroughly research the rules for your mountain of choice. If it's a Vail mountain, you have to make advance reservations. If it is a mountain in the Ikon Pass program, such as Steamboat, it may or may not require a reservation, depending on the destination.
Lessons, meal reservations and gear rentals should be researched and locked in as far out as possible.
This year, there is an expansion of ski gear rental delivery options that can make your ski trip easier and aid with social distancing by keeping folks out of the rental shop.
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
My girls and I have Epic Passes and already have ski days reserved at many mountains for February and early March, including some right back at Keystone. And while of course there's plenty that can happen between now and then that could force us to alter our plans, everything I saw at Keystone on opening day only encouraged me that skiing can work in our current reality.
The mountain resorts have a plan, have made major adjustments to operations and are ready to help skiers and riders get back to the timeless basics of being out on the mountain making memories and chasing powder.
All photos by author