“Last year, we were able to open ski and snowboard resorts because the pandemic protocols that were put in place were science-based and were implemented methodically,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications director for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “It was an all-hands-on deck effort, and the front-line employees kept us open every day.”
Now, with widespread vaccinations among guests and many resort companies mandating employee vaccinations, Isaac anticipates that the upcoming season will “be much more of what people saw in the past. Because of what we know now in terms of covid transmission and the decreased risk of transmission outdoors, most ski areas will be loading lifts to capacity, there will be a return to group lessons, and we’ll be encouraging visitors to follow Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] recommendations.”
In anticipation of meeting pent-up demand from skiers and snowboarders who sat out last winter, many resorts are unveiling new terrain, massive capital improvement projects, new hotels and restaurants, and packed event calendars to celebrate milestone anniversaries, holidays and the sheer joy of gathering with like-minded people who love to bundle up, ride to the top of a mountain and glide down. Many of us have already booked our ski trip (or trips).
But many skiers may also be facing entropy when it comes to unearthing the gear from the depths of the garage, deciding where to go and planning a trip. This could be particularly true if they sat out last season and discovered that the world did not end, even if they didn’t head to the mountains. Why, they might now be thinking, go to the effort of planning and paying for a ski vacation when they could stay home and bake sourdough bread?
To me, this makes perfect sense. As the mother of two skiers who has spent the latter decade schlepping gear and warming cold toes in the name of raising die-hards, I am no stranger to the effort required to get to the top of a chairlift. The truth is, it is easier not to ski or snowboard.
But we don’t ski because it’s easy. Personally, I ski because the sport has given me so much of what is important in my life: deeply forged friendships, a husband I met on the slopes, quality family time outside and away from screens for hours, adrenaline rushes, athletic accomplishment, healthy exhaustion at the end of the day, and hours spent among some of the starkest, most beautiful landscapes I can imagine.
And, most recently, skiing offered me a refuge from the chaos and unpredictability of the pandemic. Because I live in Colorado and can drive a relatively short distance to the mountains, I logged more days last season than I had in any season prior. Looking back, my gratitude for that outlet is immeasurable. With tragedy affecting so many people around the world, and with the coronavirus obliterating the words “normal daily life” from our vocabulary, I was unsteady, at best, and completely terrified on my worst days. Heading to the mountains — often with my kids in tow, thanks to their newfound flexibility (otherwise known as online school) — offered a physical release and immersion in a world greater than ourselves.
Which is to say: whether your ski bases even touched snow last year, once a skier (or snowboarder), always a skier. Muscle memory will kick in as soon as you breathe that fresh mountain air. And if you’re a newbie who has always been curious about the sport, this is possibly the best season to learn. With so many resorts eager to attract newcomers, you’ll probably find good deals on lessons, gear rentals and even lodging. So, pull out your calendar and find time between late November and late May. Then pray for snow. Here’s how to get ready for an incredible season.
Pick a destination
Do you want to stay within a day’s driving distance, book a flight and rent a car, or take the Winter Park Express from Denver’s Union Station to the resort? Is this the year you travel to your dream resort and cross it off your bucket list, or will you stay more local and low-key? Many North American ski resorts have spent the past year and a half adding new terrain and lifts, enhancing snow-making and opening new restaurants and hotels. In Canada, for instance, Lake Louise’s new West Bowl has 480 acres of steep trees and powder stashes; Colorado’s Beaver Creek is opening 250 acres of new beginner and intermediate terrain; Utah’s Sundance Mountain Resort will have new beginner terrain; and Idaho’s Sun Valley opened 380 new acres of intermediate and expert terrain in February.
Myriad resorts are celebrating milestone anniversaries with a range of celebrations and deals. Aspen Snowmass and Pop-Up Magazine, known for mixed-media live performances, will co-host three consecutive days of events Jan. 9-11 to kick off the resort’s 75th anniversary. In Utah, Snowbasin, which rang in its 80th anniversary last season, will replace an old three-person lift with a high-speed six-person and also launch a base area revitalization that includes new hotels and restaurants. Breckenridge in Colorado will debut a new chairlift on the north side of Peak 7 — the Freedom SuperChair — in honor of its 60th anniversary.
It would be impossible to name all of the upcoming anniversaries, but chances are that a resort you love might be having a special birthday and has created lift ticket and lodging deals or is linking special parties or new amenities to the occasion; check individual websites for fresh details. Discoversnow.org is a resource for all U.S. resorts, school passport programs, individual resort protocols and more.
Pick your pass
If you plan to ride more than a handful of days, consider purchasing a multi-resort or season pass. The two dominant passes are Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass. The full Epic Pass ($819) allows unlimited access to 37 resorts as well as select days at a range of partner resorts. An unlimited Ikon Pass ($1,149) offers access to 15 resorts and up to seven days at 31 destinations. Both passes also come in more restricted configurations at lower prices, and discounted rates are available for military personnel and students. (Pass prices increase Oct. 14 and Oct. 15, respectively. The increased prices are listed.) The $589 Mountain Collective Pass provides two days at 23 locations, and the $299 Indy Pass two days at 80 independent resorts. Even if you plan to purchase day tickets, buy them online and in advance for the best price. According to NSAA’s Isaac, resorts now rely on advanced sales for operations planning and staffing projections. If you have an elementary school student, there’s a good chance your state offers special student passes — popularly known as “passport programs” — either free or at significantly discounted rates.
Renting ski equipment is now almost as streamlined as ordering a meal online, and your rentals can either be picked up curbside or delivered. Many resorts own gear shops and offer discounted gear rental packages in conjunction with purchasing lift tickets online. There are also private companies such as Black Tie Ski Rentals that will deliver gear directly to your hotel or vacation rental. Now in its 20th year, Black Tie has digitalized and streamlined its process, and customers have a range of gear to choose from, from entry-level packages to expert equipment. Renting snowsports apparel has also grown in popularity, with companies like Kit Lender and Mountain Threads providing items such as long underwear, parkas, bibs, goggles, gloves and ski socks.
Know protocols before you go
Before departing for your vacation, look up the resort’s coronavirus protocols and requirements. According to Isaac, five resorts and one holding company — Vail Resorts — will mandate vaccines for employees. Some resorts may mandate vaccines for indoor fast dining, she said, and there may be more requirements as vaccines become available to children ages 5 and up. “As an association, we are encouraging people to learn about the benefits of vaccination,” Isaac said, adding that many mountain communities are small towns with limited health-care facilities that risk being overrun should a massive coronavirus outbreak occur. Expect indoor mask mandates, and have a mask handy.
Set your expectations
If you did ski or snowboard last year, you might have been pleasantly surprised by the lack of crowds, despite the fact that American resorts saw 59 million visitor days — visits by individual skiers — making it the fifth-best season on record. According to Isaac, a record 10.5 million people, roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population, participated in resort-based winter sports during the 2020-2021 season, which underscores exactly how popular outdoor recreation was while the country was in the midst of pandemic shutdowns. Nonetheless, the lift lines probably felt shorter, in part because of reservation systems that limited people on the mountain to allow for social distancing. More people were also able to ski during the week, as my family did, taking advantage of flexibility from working and going to school from home. This season, most schools are in person Monday through Friday, and fewer workers may have the freedom to take laps on a Wednesday. The return of the “weekend warrior” could mean more crowds, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
This part is easy. Look around and take in the scenery. Find your favorite run. Laugh. Stay warm. Be as silly or as serious as you want, and enjoy the cool air and the wind as you fly downhill. Take a lesson if you’re feeling rusty or are new to the sport. Be gentle on yourself. Reach out to your ski buddy and make that trip happen — something I do with my girlfriends every year, one of my favorite traditions.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus