Blog Updates

Happy People

Forecast to be partly cloudy, the day turns partly sunny instead. On the short lift line, people congratulate a tuxedo-clad skier when riffs of The Beatles’ “They say it’s your birthday” play on the ticket scanner. People chat about where to find powder stashes (it had snowed for a week). Everyone is happy. Everyone wears a mask.

I’m at Stevens Pass Ski Area, about 80 miles from Seattle, Washington. As I plunk onto the high-speed quad, I realize that this is the first time during This Year of Covid when (1) I’m surrounded by people; (2) without fear I’d be assaulted by a lurking virus; and (3) everyone is in a good mood. 

Although I’m not a misanthrope, I had adjusted easier than many others to the social-distancing exigencies of Covid-19. I’m neither a party animal nor an après-ski beer guzzler. But the good cheer of my comrades on the lift line reminds me of the joy of being among people who are having fun. 

Peter Schroeder

In the Before Covid days, we could experience that exhilaration at concerts, restaurants, and sporting events. On this semi-sunny day in the mountains, I’m grateful to rekindle group gladness for a few hours.

During late December/early January, I skied three times at Stevens Pass. I admit to trepidation on my first pandemic ski outing. How bizarre was it going to be? Everything else certainly was.

But as I carry skis through the base area, everything feels blissfully ordinary. Kids trundle to ski school. Buddies schuss to the lifts. Couples sip lattes on decks. A novice snowboarder wearing a turtle-shaped butt cushion inspires thumbs-up from bystanders.

Risa Wyatt

My friend James had similar upbeat experiences at Crystal Mountain, another day ski area near Seattle. “It feels great being with people who are having a good time. Everyone’s wearing masks and goggles. It’s all safe,” says James. He’s a doctor, so he knows. “My kids love being outdoors and doing something normal.”

“The ski industry has been working on this season since the day we closed on March 16, 2020,” says Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah, which promotes the state’s 15 mountain resorts. “We have an exhaustive list of new protocols.” 

I’ve been impressed by the thoughtful thoroughness of health-safety precautions at Stevens Pass, which has been owned by Vail Resorts since 2018. To prevent crowds, lift ticket reservations are required. Passes are RFID, so lifties monitor you at a distance and don’t get in your face to scan your ticket. Food is grab-and-go, with outdoors seating only. The chair-less, table-less cafeteria has been transformed into a warming hut where you can thaw fingers and toes. There’s even a “potty monitor” to prevent crowding in restrooms.

“What about lunch?” you ask, since this is a food-focused blog. 

Honestly: I don’t think 2020/21 will be the season for on-mountain gourmet extravaganzas: the seafood salad bars, communal fondue pots, cozy chalets where valets swap your ski boots for shearling slippers.

But the ski areas are feeding us, safely. Deer Valley—always a class act—has advance mobile ordering for take-out, including their signature turkey chili. Steamboat has converted two snow cats into roving food trucks for al fresco lunching.

At the Stevens Pass grab-and-go, I pick up a cheeseburger. Know this about me: I’m the person who always cross-examines restaurant waitstaff about their burgers: from cut of beef to whether I can get it rare enough to satisfy my blood-thirsty desires. I do everything but ask for the name of the cow.

The pre-packed burger at Stevens Pass is cooked medium, not my preferred rare. But meat quality is high and it’s juicy, with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. Crisp fries carry hints of spice. The first day, I eat outdoors on the deck, but my fingers freeze into blue popsicles. For subsequent lunches, I opt for the front seat of my car, seat heaters on, ketchup dripping, with views blocked by parking-lot snowbanks six inches from my front bumper.

I love it.

So even if 2021 is the half-full-glass year of medium cheeseburgers, don’t take the season off. Go to the mountain. Get happy. With people.

— Risa Wyatt

Crystal Ball Gazing: What to expect at ski area restaurants for 2020-21

The good old days: Pre-Pandemic in January 2020, people gather at the Bavarian Restaurant at Taos Ski Valley. / Peter Schroeder

This won’t be the year that you’ll wake up and say, “Let’s go skiing today.” Or, once on the slopes, “I’m hungry—let’s go have lunch.”

That’s one of the only certainties about the upcoming snowsports season during the ongoing (and long-going) COVID-19 pandemic. Under the new normal, ski industry professionals foresee a “skiing by advance reservation” system similar to that used by Arapahoe Basin and Mt. Bachelor during their limited reopenings in May 2020. Sign-ups might be required for lunching at restaurants and even cafeterias.

Food for thought about on-mountain and base-area dining came from a media briefing that featured Patricia A. Campbell, (President, Vail Resorts, Mountain Division); Kelly Pawlak (President/CEO, National Ski Areas Association / NSAA); Nick Sargent (President, Snowsports Industries America / SIA); and Rick Kahl (Editor, Ski Area Management / SAM). NASJA (North American Snowsports Journalists Association) hosted the Zoom meeting on June 25.

Nothing is definite yet about the winter season. “The typical ski area is looking at five different scenarios,” states Kahl. But here’s how food services at the resorts might operate:

Advance reservations required. In the same way that resorts will likely limit the number of skiers/boarders on the slopes, even prosaic burger-and-hot-dog cafeterias might insist on pre-booked reservations for seating and ordering meals.

Outdoors venues reduce chances of virus transmission. / Peter Schroeder

Thinking outside the box may literally mean “outside.” Resorts want to encourage people to eat outdoors by expanding seating on decks. They also are creating new al fresco lunch locales with windbreaks on the slopes. “[Resorts are] ordering plexiglass by the boatload,” says Kahl. “If you could invest in a plexiglass company, I encourage you to do it.”

“Contactless” transactions. Ski areas are trying to figure out how to get people to pay in advance to avoid bottlenecks at the resort, whether it’s renting gear or buying a bowl of chili. Food-service venues will be doing more with credit cards, QR codes, and grab-and-go (as opposed to cooked-to-order) meals.

Avoid peak times. Think of lunch like planning your forays to Costco or Trader Joe’s. Steer clear of those hours when hangry crowds rummage and forage.

Check how Southern Hemisphere ski resorts are operating. Their winter is now—six months ahead of ours in North America—and provides a preview of how things may play out, states Campbell. At Perisher in Australia (which is owned by Vail), food and beverage operations and indoor seating are limited. Visitors are encouraged to pack their own snacks and lunch. On the really down side: Major ski areas like Portillo and Valle Nevado (Chile) are closed indefinitely; Las Leñas (Argentina) will not open at all.

Speaking of brown bagging… You might be lunching at your own personal drive-in, according to one approach described by Pawlak. BYO types might have to chow down in the cramped comfort of their cars (just hope you’re not parked in the icy boondocks of Lower Lot Z).

Does this mean you’ll even need a reservation to go to the bathroom? Unknown at this time—but you’ll assuredly see those little markers every six feet on the floor to assure social distancing.

— Risa Wyatt

Pandemic Ponderings

“Wait ‘til next year!” is the Plan B for baseball fans when their team doesn’t make the playoffs.

In 2020, it has become the preoccupation of the world’s population in various stages of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. We wonder: When will I get a haircut? Hug my grandma (or grandkids)?

… Or go skiing and snowboarding again?

First, I hope all of you are as OK as possible in these anxious times. I’m fortunate to be sheltered in a beautiful place—Sonoma Wine Country—with considerate neighbors and plenty of wide-open spaces for running, hiking, and bicycling. Flourishing grapevines remind me that life, like wine vintages, goes on.

Nonetheless, I brood about the ski season that wasn’t. Skiing is as ephemeral as the snowflakes that pile on the pistes. The sport compresses into a five-month window of opportunity, late November through late April. In 2020, we lost two months—40% of our joyfully anticipated season—because of coronavirus closures. My planned-and-booked trips to Whistler, Sun Valley, and Tahoe—gone.

It recalls the old paradox about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one is there to hear it.

Is it really a powder day if there’s no one to ski it?

Look upon this website as my lemonade-from-lemons escapade. For many years, I’ve wanted to launch a Peak Eats forum, celebrating the best restaurants at the top ski areas in the world. Shelter-In-Place has given me time to learn the basics of WordPress and create these pages. I look forward to sharing my favorite on-mountain places and meals with you, and hearing about yours.

Skiers and boarders are by nature preppers. We carry both goggles and sunglasses, own powder skis and carvers, have base layers to add and air vents to unzip. In an odd way, the ever-changing heavens above and slippy snow below readies us for the upheavals of a global pandemic. On the slopes, there’s a new normal every time we make a turn.

Snowsports lovers are also optimists, believing that the sucker hole will turn to bluebird skies and a projected powder dump will blow in as scheduled… or a COVID-19 vaccine will soon prove reality.

Meanwhile, I’m buoyed by news that A-Basin (Arapahoe Basin) in Colorado reopened in late May for skiing and boarding; Oregon’s Timberline and Mt. Bachelor also operated. Even though things were a little weird (you had to make an advance reservation and lift lines were properly distanced), these glimmers of snowy life bring hope that things will get better.

I can’t wait for the 2020/2021 ski season to begin. May all its surprises be happy ones.

— Risa Wyatt