Where do you want to ski this weekend?
In a normal winter, a question like that would raise a lot of possibilities. By my count, there are at least 22 ski areas within a reasonable day trip by car — less than a two=hour drive. These include the biggest areas in the East like Killington, Okemo and Whiteface, down to small, mainy teaching slopes like Maple Ski Ridge and Willard.
But this isn’t a normal ski year. The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed lots of new rules governing where and when you can go, from quarantine regulations on out-of-state travel to often mysterious capacity limitations just about everywhere.
These days it is important to make plans and reserve lift tickets well in advance to be sure of a spot on the hill. The spontaneous ski trip is almost a thing of the past.
It turns out this hasn’t been an altogether bad thing, especially for some medium-sized ski areas in our neighborhood like West Mountain in Queensbury, Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake, Oak Mountain in Speculator and Plattekill in Roxbury. All are in New York, so travel restrictions don’t apply and, while lacking nosebleed vertical, all offer enough variety of terrain to keep skiers of all skill levels entertained.
You don’t have to tell Mark Pavlus about this. The Scotia resident is a regular at West Mountain, where he and wife Deborah volunteer with the race program, and a frequent visitor at Royal Mountain, where the Gloversville native learned to ski 50 years ago with his mother and father.
On a skills level, he could slide anywhere. He is an advanced skier, certainly capable of handling any terrain at any area in our region. But these days he stays mainly local.
Does he feel limited?
Not at all, he said recently.
“I think every turn I make on every run is a thrill,” Pavlus said. “I ski until my legs get tired and then I quit for the day.”
WHY STAY LOCAL?
So,why stay local?
“Travel is easy. I find the people always friendly. Costs are moderate. And the areas do a great job of managing conditions,” said Pavlus.
That has been my experience, too. There is a certain “Cheers-like” quality to skiing these areas. That always makes a day on the hill more enjoyable, especially this winter when so many activities have been curtailed, or cancelled. And nature has been kind so far with mostly moderate temperatures and Goldilocks snow: Not too much, not too little — just right.
And the people are coming.
“We had a couple of days at capacity in December but with more snow and terrain open now, we have been able to offer more access,” said Sara Montgomery, partner and general manager at West Mountain. “It has been a great season so far. People want to get outside.”
Jake Tennis is a 15-year Royal Mountain veteran and, with wife Brooke, is in his first year of ownership of the area. He echoes the enthusiasm for the season so far.
“We are seeing a lot of new faces this winter, many of them people who haven’t skied in years but who want to try again,” Tennis said.
At Oak Mountain, owner Matt O’Brien likes what he has been seeing.
“It has been amazing,” he said last week. “We were at capacity the entire Presidents’ week. There were no lift lines and plenty of room on the slopes. It was enjoyable for everyone on the mountain. People were happy. We may consider limiting ticket sales in the future.”
Plattekill, too, has been at capacity regularly for its Friday through Sunday operations. The demand is clearly there.
“We sold out of season passes this winter and we expect a rush when we open sales for next year later this month,” said marketing manager Shannon Chojnowski.
The trend toward season pass purchases is expected to grow. These passes, which come in several forms, are typically bought months in advance and generally include guaranteed access to the slopes. In contrast, those buying day tickets this winter have had to rely on availability in an environment where advance reservations have become the norm.and availability on weekends and holidays has often been hard to find.
For a host of reasons, people have discovered — or re-discovered — that skiing close to home in the winter is a lot of fun at a fraction of the cost, and without a long road trip. If laying out cash in advance for a season pass is not appealing, there are a host of special deals for those who keep up with their favorite areas online. Even at full adult mid-season single day weekend rates, these mid-size areas can be considerably less expensive options for a day of sliding.
The pandemic has changed our winter and in some cases our behavior too. One lesson that should carry over is that, in skiing, you don’t have to go big to have fun.
The New York Capital District Ski Council held its one scheduled race of the season Saturday at West Mountain.
The top finishers were Kaleigh Bigwarfe of the OC Ski Club followed by Kyla McCauley of the Albany Ski Club in the junior female division; Sharon Way of the Albany Ski Club followed by teammate Deb Scuderi of ASC in the senior female division; Kalob Carney of ASC ahead of Julian Delfavero of the Nubian Ski Club in the male juniors; and, in the closest competition of the day, Russell Merchant edged his dad Alfie Merchant in the male senior competition.
There were a total of 48 racers from four area ski clubs in the competition.
CROSS COUNTRY SALES
Shops that specialize in cross country gear are reporting substantial increases in sales this winter with 96% reporting gains over last year through mid-February, according to the Cross Country Ski Areas Association. No shop reported losses, while many reported that there would have been even more sales if they could have restocked their inventory. Snowshoe sales were up as well.
Two girls dominated high school ski racing this winter. Both are now set for college and competition next year. But, neither will on a ski roster. Mayfield’s Nordic racing star Madison Relyea will compete in cross country and track at the University of Connecticut, while Saratoga Springs Alpine standout Avery Waters will play women’s lacrosse for Butler University in Indiana.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected]
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