Years ago, the ski season in our region was a Christmas-to-Easter proposition with area operators keeping their fingers crossed for a little head start on the front end. Now, with snowmaking near universal and increasingly sophisticated, everyone looks to start sliding sooner, in some instances before Thanksgiving.
The good news this time around is that, despite the loss this year of so many activities because of concerns and restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be a ski season this winter and it is starting. In Vermont, Killington is open, and so is Okemo. Just over the border in Massachusetts, Jiminy Peak lifts started spinning last weekend.
The skiing is limited so far, but it is the first sliding in our area since last March.
But forget about getting up in the morning and then deciding to hit the slopes. It is not that simple this season.
COVID-19 has changed all that.
Like public places of all sorts, there are new protocols in place at all areas, from the common face mask and social distancing requirements to special regulations for ski-specific operations like base lodge access, food service options, lift practices and gear storage.
No matter where you want to ski this winter, it will be important to check on area-specific rules and procedures.
Are reservations required? Do you purchase lift tickets online, or can you buy on arrival? Can you bring your gear into the lodge, or must you boot up in the parking lot?
Reserving in advance will be the safe way to go this winter. You don’t want to run afoul of reduced capacity requirements and be shut out after driving to the hill.
Complicating things under current rules is the matter of state lines. Drive to an area in Massachusetts and be prepared to prove you have tested negative for COVID-19 within the last three days. To go to Vermont for the weekend, be ready to quarantine for up to two weeks.
Fortunately, for those of us living here, there are more than a handful of ski areas within day-trip driving range that do not require travel out of state. These trips come in all shapes and sizes, from Oak, Gore and Whiteface in the Adirondacks to Hunter, Windham and Plattekill in the Catskills. Maple Ridge in Rotterdam and Willard Mountain in Easton have been the entry point for newcomers to the sport for more than 50 years, while Catamount outside Hillsdale, Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake and West Mountain in Queensbury offer resort-quality snow conditions in “everyone-knows-your-name” surroundings.
Hunter opened this week for its EPIC pass holders, but it is after-Thanksgiving openings for the rest. The same goes for cross country areas, including three of the best in the Northeast at Lapland Lake in Benson, The North Creek Ski Bowl and the Garnet Hill Lodge in North River.
If skiers have doubts about the coming season, it isn’t apparent by activity levels in area specialty shops. Jamie Georgelos, the ski division manager at Alpin Haus in Clifton Park and Amsterdam, has reported that this has been a very busy year not only for sales, but for seasonal equipment leasing, too.
And it has not been youngsters only. Adults, maybe new to the sport or returning because they have flexible work schedules, are leasing, too. Jack Hay, who is celebrating his 50th year at the Alpine Sports Shop outside Saratoga Spring, adds that sales of cross country ski and snowshoes have been exceptional. He is expecting an availability shortage by the end of the year. At the Sports Page in Queensbury, the surge in ski-tuning services has the process taking up to two weeks this fall.
A major reason for the appeal of skiing these days, all agree, is the opportunity to get outside this winter. Golf, biking and hiking saw spikes in participation last summer, and snowsports seem to be riding that wave as the seasons change. With other activities limited and many sports suspended or canceled, snowsports will be available. Skiing can be an expensive activity, but it appears to be benefiting from a reduction in household spending on other activities like travel and restaurant dining — and areas throughout the Northeast are reporting increases in the sale of season passes as people look to secure their spots on the slopes.
Areas are trying new arrangements to accommodate skiers and supplement reduced indoor occupancy limitations, features such as heated tents and additional outdoor seating. At Catamount, there will be 50 newly constructed heated cabanas with table seating for six that can be rented for the day or the season.
For years, local organizations have offered group activities and trips, both to regional areas and far afield. Not this winter. School programs have been canceled and ski clubs are having problems with bookings. The largest ski club in the region, the OCs, normally run a regular schedule of ski buses, often three day trips per week. This year, they have not been able to schedule any so far. The Alpine Sports Shop will not be organizing ski trips for the first time in 43 years.
We all know that snow is coming and skiing is an appealing way to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors. Just keep in mind that things will be different this year.
Call before you go and avoid surprises.
And be patient.
It will be a new experience for all of us this winter.
NEW OWNERSHIP AT ROYAL
Jim Blaise was just 19 years old when he bought Royal Mountain at auction in 1970. Since then, he has taken what was a struggling ski hill in Caroga Lake and made it into a popular area with efficient lifts, excellent snowmaking and trail grooming, and a welcoming base lodge.
Now, just shy of his 50th season as owner/operator, Blaise has sold Royal to lifetime-area residents Jake Tennis, a civil engineer in the Johnstown office of CT Male, and Brooke Tennis, a nurse at Nathan Littauer Hospital, a husband-and-wife pair who have worked part-time at the hill for more than a decade. Don’t expect to see much change this winter, according to the new owners, including the presence of Blaise who is still planning to greet skiers at the area he has built over the past half-century.
TUNING UPGRADE AT ALPIN HAUS
Experienced skiers know that buying new gear is exciting, but maintaining that equipment in top shape is essential.
That means keeping your skis tuned. Right now, the state of the art in that process is the computer-driven machine made by Wintersteiger in Austria that can create a base and edge on skis better than how they come new from the factory. The Sports Page in Glens Falls has had one for three years, and now Alpin Haus has added one at its Amsterdam shop.
Veteran ski tuning specialist Rick Hayden is a believer: “These machines are very precise and give us the ability to customize the tune to an individual skier. The result is a ski tuned much better than we could ever produce in the past.”
TURE, GRAVINK PASS AWAY
Two men who were instrumental in the growth of skiing in our area passed away in October.
Izzy Ture was the first ski school director at Gore, then director of the ski school at West Mountain and then with Karl Plattner Ski School at Hunter. A lifelong resident of Saratoga Springs, he was a long-time examiner and later official for the Professional Ski Instructors Association.
Phil Gravink, a co-founder of Peak’n Peak ski area near Buffalo, was general manager at Gore in the early 1970s and went on to a long career in the ski industry as CEO at Loon and at Attitash, and as director of skiing for the state of New Hampshire. Among his many leadership roles was a term as president of the National Ski Areas Association. He was inducted into the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2012.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].