Nineteen days into 2021 and it looks like it’s never too early to call for a breather. Between the pandemic and insurrection, most travel is out the window and a staycation feels like an oxymoron. But, there is one local Covid-friendly option, and that’s to ski clear of it all. We spoke with operators at mountains nearby to learn all about what you need to know before going.
“Plan ahead and use your head.”
This is what Kenny Hess says of Massanutten, a 14-run mountain in Virginia. Like any seasoned manager, Hartley has a wealth of well-worn sayings like this one. “Cover your nose so we don’t close” is another. He’s been at Massanutten since 1986 and a few years before that working part-time.
Hess’ maxim applies to much of skiing in 2021, but first it applies to getting a spot on the mountain at all. Almost every mountain in the area this year, including Massanutten, has implemented day pass capacity limitations. If you don’t buy your pass in advance, there’s no guarantee you will get to ski, and mountains have been reaching their capacity limits quickly this year.
Snowshoe, a 60-run mountain in West Virginia, is already sold out every weekend through the end of February. Two other West Virginia mountains are not implementing day pass capacity limits this season. Timberline and Canaan Valley are both in Tucker County and are only imposing capacity limitations in the lodge and dining area. The two mountains are 41 runs and 34 runs, respectively.
“It’s as close as you can get to out west, without going out west.”
Tim Mealey, a Timberline terrain park manager, says that this is the draw of West Virginia mountains like Snowshoe, Timberline and Canaan Valley.
“The runs are structured so there’s not a lot of people merging, or runs on top of runs,” he says. “It’s not overdeveloped.”
But Mealey admits he has his reservations about working during the pandemic. He moved to West Virginia for work on the mountain after graduating from school in Vermont, and notes that mask adherence out here is sparse. For safety, he moved from being a snowboard instructor to working in the terrain park.
He says he wanted to “keep away from too many guests and people coming from out of town.” He makes up the pay difference working shifts as a liftie, where he says he also has to do some mask enforcement. Mostly, people will put a mask on when you ask them to, he says, but once or twice he’s had to call in a manager to help out.
As mentioned above, Timberline and Canaan Valley are both limiting indoor dining to 50% capacity. However, at Canaan, there was no apparent enforcement of that and little mask adherence. Some guests instead took their lunch in their cars.
“We can’t allow tailgate parties but people are digging it, bringing their camping chairs, propane stove and hanging out.”
At Blue Knob, Donna Himes says she also notices people turning their cars into their own lodges. Blue Knob is a 34-run mountain in Pennsylvania known for being the largest skiable mountain in Pennsylvania, and for its advanced terrain. Himes says they are following guidance around masks and indoor capacity limits, but, like Timberline and Canaan, they have no cap for day passes, and how a day goes on the mountain really depends on who comes.
“Employees have gone through a really tough time this year,” she says. “It’s been hard on them when guests are noncompliant.”
But, like other mountains, Blue Knob is doing well. Himes says there’s a lot of pent up demand for outdoor sports and guests no longer feel comfortable traveling further out of state. A lot of the guests this year are new, but in-state.
“It’s not like there will be someone waiting at the border for you, but people are mindful of travel restrictions this year.”
Blue Knob is also still holding group lessons. Every other mountain we reached is only doing private and private group, or “herd,” lessons. Because of this, lessons this year should be scheduled about a week in advance, or for a weekend.
“It’s the steepest slope in Pennsylvania, and you’ve got to be able to make a good hockey stop.”
A hockey stop is when a skier pivots on a dime to stop and spray a wash of snow on anyone nearby. Alex Moser says this about Laurel Mountain, a 20-run mountain in Pennsylvania. Laurel is a short ride from Seven Springs (33 runs) and Hidden Valley (27 runs), and the three share the same local owners. Moser says Hidden Valley is best for families, while Laurel is best for true skiers. The mountain recently reopened.
Moser has been at Seven Springs since 2009. More than anyone else, they’re striving for a contactless experience. They have outfitted booths at the front entrance where guests can redeem their lift tickets and moved rentals online, and new skiers and snowboarders now meet their instructors on the slopes.
Seven Springs is also the biggest employer in the area and because they are in a news desert, Moser says they have taken the initiative to educate employees about Covid-19 themselves.
“It’s a big, gigantic, weirdo family,” he says.
“Ski in a T-shirt and eat outside.”
Spring is Lori Zaloga of Wisp and Wintergreen’s favorite time to ski. The 34-run and 26-run mountains, in Maryland and Virginia respectively, are taking many of the same precautions as their neighbors. They haven’t moved rentals entirely online, but they’ve fitted the area with plexiglass screens and made it so the line flows one direction.
Like at Seven Springs, new skiers and snowboarders meet their instructors on the slopes. Zaloga notes they’ve had a strong start to the season, reporting a 35% increase in season pass sales, but she also notes that the season is longer than most people realize.
Moser from Seven Springs says the same, noting, “People forget there’s snow in the mountains even when there’s no snow in D.C.”
Caught between a pandemic and an insurrection place, there’s no snow on the roads and several mountains nearby where there is some powder. Not all mountains are adjusting to the new normal as well as others, but plan ahead and use your head. Pick the right mountain, get your passes in advance and be ready to use your car as a personal lodge.
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