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.
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.
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