Ski writer Patrick Thorne shares some of his very first thoughts on how ski resorts might deal with the ‘new reality’. Skiing is not a ‘dangerous sport’ and at Ski Safely we believe Covid-19 doesn’t have to make it any more so than before.
We’re still a long way from the start of winter 2020-21 – in fact, it is further away for most resorts than the first cases of COVID-19 reported in China on the final days of last year – so we all now know how quickly things can change.
But some ski areas that either have glaciers or just have a lot of snow lying from last winter, are starting to reopen their slopes in May and June. So we can get some idea of how things might look next winter.
True, they are mostly small ski hills, at some bigger resorts have reopened too, most offering mountain-biking, hiking and the like, but using the same lifts and mountain restaurants they’ll be using next winter.
So what has changed?
Lots Of Social Distancing
As with supermarkets, social distancing (along with mask and glove-wearing and hand-sanitising) is the ‘new normal’ in re-opened ski resorts. Los of tape and paint making two-metre gaps indoor and out, including between restaurant tables in mountain cafes. This may well still be the norm by next winter unless we have a big breakthrough with a vaccine before then.
Fewer People Allowed On The Slopes
The capacity at ski areas that have re-opened this spring have in most cases (but not all), been limited at a much lower number than what was allowed prior to the pandemic.
The upside to this is more space on the slopes and shorter queues for lifts …although that latter bonus might be offset by fewer people being allowed in each cabin or sat on each chair, making the flow-through slower.
The downside – as has been demonstrated by some re-opened ski areas in Norway and the USA with relatively low numbers of people allowed on the slopes – is that ski tickets for a particular day can sell out in advance.
Fewer People On Individual Lifts
Re-opened resorts are tending to allow only one or two people in a gondolas cabin or on a 4, 6 or 8 seat chairlift; and cable cars have marked spots on the cabin floor where small numbers of people can stand, and lift queues to board have social distancing spacing marked. The upside here is a much more civilised lift queue experience – the downside clearly that it might take longer.
So far there are small numbers even in the bigger resorts but as things get busier again there are plans by some resorts to open lifts earlier and stagger things like ski lesson start times more.
Lots Of Cleaning
One resort that re-opened in Oregon last month noted it needed to hire lots of extra staff whilst being able to allow fewer guests on the slopes. Some of these staff were to help police social distancing, others simply to repeatedly clean public areas including lifts and toilets with virus-killing disinfectants.
It’s very early days and a lot of borders remain closed or are only just re-opening but some ski nations like Austria are requiring everyone arriving from certain countries perceived as high risk for COVID-19 (currently including the UK) to provide health certification and/or spend time in quarantine on arrival. Hopefully that situation will have changed by next winter or ski holidays (and indeed all foreign travel) won’t be viable for most people.
What It All Means For Our 20-21 Ski Holiday
- In peak periods around Christmas/New Year, in February and at Easter it’s possible some resorts may have issues with too many people wanting to stay and to get on the slopes …if things haven’t reverted to something more like the ‘old normal’ by then, if, for example, a vaccine has been developed. It’s also possible there’ll be fewer people in the resort anyway.
- It will be wise (and probably in some cases a requirement) to pre-book things like lift-passes to ensure you have access to the mountain.
- Self-drive, apartment-style ski holidays are likely to be in higher demand as skiing families who are the most concerned about trying to minimise their likelihood of exposure to the virus try to manage their own space and avoid public transport – be it plane or rail.
- If limited capacity in restaurants continues for social distancing reasons as at present, the lunchtime mountain restaurant meal may be even harder to get a table than it normally is! But against that, of course, resorts are looking to increase things like takeaway services to cope with demand and ensure they make enough money to stay in business.
- A little ironically following the trend of recent decades to install bigger, better lifts by the richer resorts; some of those bigger, more successful ski areas that have invested in gondolas and big chairlifts to get thousands of people up the slopes may have more operational issues to contend with than smaller resorts with older, open air lifts for one or two people, and usually smaller numbers of people visiting. In those smaller places with older lifts, social distancing may be a lot easier.
- We’ll probably still be wearing face masks and gloves throughout our ski holidays when we’re in public areas, not just when we’re skiing down the slopes!
Still Wanting to Ski But Wanting to Socially Isolate?
Every skier has a different level of concern about their safety on a ski holiday, and adding COVID-19 just adds to the existing mix of possible dangers.
For some, fear of the virus will not be a high priority, for others, perhaps a greater concern.
So what can you do if you’re in the latter camp but still want to go skiing?
Well, there is a way to go skiing in which you hardly need to interact with anyone!
It involves driving to the slopes – probably via Eurostar so you can stay in your car as you go through the Chunnel. Book an apartment and take your food with you and take your own gear if you can, buying your lift pass in advance online.
Fill up en-route at card-payment pumps and you can – more or less – go from home to your first lift without meeting anyone.
It might be worth choosing a smaller resort, perhaps linked to one of the big-name ones, so you can get on the slopes via a smaller lift in a less busy location. It looks like there could be longer peak-time queues at the big resorts that allow on queue-gobbling big lifts to get people up the mountain fast …but which may have to severely limited how many people can jump on a chair or in a cabin next winter if social isolation remains the norm by then.
The final tip would be to book a slope-side apartment so you can pop back for lunch, a toilet-break or a snack without needing to visit a mountain restaurant.
Patrick Thorne, also known as The SnowHunter, has been a full-time, year-round, ski travel writer for all of his adult life – now more than 30 years. He has built the world’s largest database of ski resort information, holding data on more than 6,000 ski areas in 80 countries; become the world’s most published ski travel author; written more than 20,000 ski news stories; set up SaveOurSnow.com – an organisation dedicated to fighting climate change in ski resorts and done much, much more besides. Patrick is the editor on InTheSnow magazine, the UK’s most read ski publication in print and online. His past client list includes everyone from the BBC and Microsoft through to the International Ski Federation and he has previous been named, “One of 20 people to know in ski,” by The Sunday Times.