It is mid-winter and there is a general sense of relief in the area ski community right about now.
Not many months ago, some feared the upcoming snowsports season would be a disaster. Instead, reports from most corners are upbeat these days, certainly better than what many believed would be the impact of COVID-19 on outdoor recreation. In our area, there seems to be general optimism for what comes next, traditionally the best sliding months of the season.
It hasn’t been an easy run. On top of all the usual challenges of getting a ski season underway, the slow rollout of pandemic-era regulations last fall presented new concerns: how many tickets can an area sell, mask wearing, social distancing, lodge capacity, food service limits, lessons availability, equipment rental.
But skiers have turned out to be a resilient bunch.
“The activity of skiing is booming right now,” said Drew Higley of the Sports Page in Glens Fall last week. “It is about the only thing people can do these days. We are seeing a great resurgence in interest, especially at the entry level with newcomers and people who are returning to the sport after years away.”
Paul Zahary reports the same thing at his Lapland Lake Nordic Ski area in the town of Benson.
“Even with operating restrictions, like requiring people to use their cars as the lodge, people have been very patient this winter; 90% of our skiers have adjusted to buying tickets online and we are seeing more new people this winter,” Zahary said.
Chick Wilson at Willard Mountain in Greenwich is also pleased with the season so far.
“It is going better than I could have hoped for,” he said. “People have been wonderful in dealing with the new circumstances. Everyone just seems to be happy that there is something they can do.”
Jake Tennis, with wife Brooke, is in his first year as owner of Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake. He likes what he is seeing.
“People are still buying season passes,” he said.
In past years, season-pass sales would mostly be done by Thanksgiving. But, this year, with capacity limits at ski areas, pass-holders have guaranteed access, so if you know where you are likely to ski, it is a way to be sure that you can get on the hill. If you are a weekend skier, it can mean the difference between lift access and being shut out.
From a ski-area perspective, having season-pass revenue in hand before the first snowflakes fall makes financial sense. But with capacity limits in place, it can close out those who don’t know their winter plans or simply don’t want to shell out cash months in advance.
There is also another downside, warns long time Catamount executive Rich Edwards: “We have to be careful to have day tickets available for a balance of business that includes items like lessons and equipment rentals that are not usually pass-holder needs. It is a balancing act.”
SOME POSITIVE SIGNS
There are other factors that have been helping ski areas in our region this winter.
First of all, there has been good skiing weather in recent weeks with moderate seasonal temperatures during the day and cold overnight for snowmaking. And there has been a series of modest snowfalls lately, which have added to both the base and the ski surface. Conditions on the trails have been excellent recently. Most areas will be fully open going into February, and that should add to capacity limits.
Also helping local areas is the challenge of out-of-state ski travel this winter. Vermont ski areas have long been an easy ride for those in our area. But this winter, Vermont has tough quarantine rules of up to 14 days if you want to spend time in the state. Enforcement of those rules seems to be mainly an honor system, but the possibility of up to two weeks in quarantine when New Yorkers can come and go as they choose if they stay in-state has dulled the appeal of crossing the border to ski.
For years, one of the best ways to ski in a variety of areas has been with one of the local ski clubs that usually offer an array of appealing trips. There are some this year, but officials with both the OC Ski Club and the Schenectady Winter Sports report sign-ups down at least 50% on multi-day trips and no one-day bus trips. Ski travel to Canada and to Europe are out this winter. There are a handful of trips to the Western United States being offered, but fewer people have signed up and all are subject to travel restrictions in the host states and on return to New York.
There is some good news for those willing to go west to ski. There is some great incentive pricing on ski-travel-and-lodging packages, and the slopes are not crowded.
At New York’s three state-operated areas, skier visits are down due at least in part to capacity limitations that ORDA President Mike Pratt acknowledges have been “conservative.” Day tickets on weekends have largely been unavailable as a record number of season-pass holders and those who reserved well in advance have grabbed up all the supply. Tickets have been available mid-week and Monday-to-Friday crowds, while still modest, are up this winter, according to ORDA.
Overall, at the midpoint of the ski season, the results seem to be much better than what many feared last fall. The pandemic has changed operations and certain elements like restaurants, and overnight accommodations, have taken a hit. Seasonal employment is off, too. But the chance to get outdoors and enjoy activities that are plentiful in our area seems to be appealing and people are taking advantage.
If you haven’t been out yet, the good news is that there should be at least a couple of months of good sliding ahead.
ROYAL MOUNTAIN PATROLLER HONORED
Long-time Royal Mountain ski patroller Bob Sullivan of Caroga Lake was honored recently with a National Appointment to the National Ski Patrol. Sullivan, who has been a part of the patrol at Royal for more than 25 years, has been active as a training instructor for patrol candidates and as an officer with the Eastern New York section of the National Ski Patrol, including a term as Section Chief.
Sullivan is an EMT and has served as president of the Caroga Lake Volunteer Fire Department for 15 years. He is also a former town councilman and a member of the Wheelerville Union Free School Board.
One of the earliest of the multi-area season ski passes is the very popular Epic Pass offered by Vail Resorts, which allows access to their ski areas in North America and abroad. Hunter Mountain is the only Vail area in New York, but Vermont has three: Stowe, Okemo, and Mount Snow.
Since it was introduced in 2008, the Epic pass has been very popular with ski regulars.
Some of those regulars are not happy this winter. With a variety of restrictions in place, the appeal of out-of-state travel to ski is sharply reduced. And those who were hoping for a refund on their season passes so far have been disappointed. Vail’s position is that the ski areas are there and operating, so the passes are doing what was promised. Many of those who bought passes, but have decided not to travel, disagree.
With more than a million passes up for renewal this summer, will the company reconsider?
SKI BOWL OPEN
The Hudson chairlift at Gore’s North Creek Ski Bowl is expected to be open this weekend. That is usually the last of ski pods at Gore to open each winter and when that lift spins, it is always a sign that the season is fully underway.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].
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