The Winter That Was, the Winter That Will Be

Yes, we will be skiing and snowboarding again this season—but we can no longer pretend we live in the same world that we left behind last March. Here’s how we hope to find new perspectives, social distance, and, yes, joy out on our favorite mountains in 2020-21.

At the end of August, during the long blur of the pandemic summer and constant haze of wildfires, Vail Resorts announced its plan to open up again for the 20-21 winter season with strict COVID-19 precautions. At the same time, the news was still sinking in that a teenager shot protestors seeking justice for the murder of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The fabric of our country continued to rip further apart and expose the rot of racism at its core. The idea of skiing—which has to be the most privileged sport besides golf—fell flat for me. And, of course, there was nothing I wanted to do more than ski, to feel that freedom of gravity and grace. Skiing has saved me throughout my life, given me a respite in which nothing matters beyond the simplicity of being. It’s a self-indulgent activity, but it’s also one that makes us feel incredibly connected to our bodies, the secret anatomy of a mountain, and, quite often, the other like minded fools who get out there with us. There is no doubt, however, that mountain resorts are the province of the privileged. That must change.

Beyond the inequities in the sport, skiing and snowboarding still provide a lot of joy to a wide range of people. Sure, there are those rich stuffed shirts who come to drop cash on condos and never venture past the safe space of private lessons, but the heart of this sport will always be those of us who don’t exactly fit into the cubicials of normal careers–and that oddly seems like a good choice in these times of pandemic—but come alive when we fly down a mountain.

Being a ski bum in all the glory of that term is an experience that should not be limited by skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, body shape, or any other way in which some humans try to assert superiority over others.

But, just as it has doused so many other things that bring us together as people and friends, COVID-19 has made skiing and riding more difficult this year. But let’s put it into perspective, those difficulties pale in comparison to the suffering and death the disease is causing.

Getting deep in Breckenridge. Photo by Liam Doran

The last day I skied last season was an idyll. My 16-year-old daughter and I drove up to Mary Jane. We sang and drank coffee on the ride up so that we couldn’t care less about the traffic. Since we got up late, we found a spot right up front (early birds get the worm, but the early worm gets eaten, as the saying goes). And then spent a casual day making turns up in the bowl with the blue skies and the big breezes of March feeling clean amongst all the uncertainty of the pandemic beginning to erupt. We did stay out of the lodges, even for the bathroom, but otherwise it felt like just another day up on the hill and we were looking forward to so many more in this our favorite season of spring storms and lengthening light. And then it was over. The resorts were shuttered and we went into this quarantine that continues, even in modified form. Yes, A Basin opened up in May, but then it closed down again before we had the chance to make a reservation.

The summer has been miserable, full of angst, and protests, and murder, and political poll watching, and the endless haze and smell of wildfires eating up the West. There is no real end in sight when it comes to the pandemic. The winter could make things even worse. But we do have skiing again. 

This season will be different. We will need to make reservations to ski. We will need to wear masks. We will miss the simple pleasures of meeting up with friends spur of the moment to grab some turns and of conversations with strangers on the lifts. We won’t be able to laugh over beers. Resorts will be running tight to stay in business and so many who rely on them to make a living will be out of luck. There will be no parties on the A-Basin beach, no carpooling, no dancing. But there will be skiing.

Skinning at Arapaho Basin. Photo by Lauren Danilek

Embrace the joy of it. Look up the pandemic modifications at your favorite mountain. Buy that season pass. Wear your mask. Make your reservation.

It will all be worth it when you get up on the mountain, when you find that powder stash, when you do find ways to ski socially distant with friends. The modifications may mean a bit less traffic and fewer people snaking those fresh lines. And skiing and snowboarding beat the time that seems unending that we have all spent locked at home. Skiing and riding can shake us out of our collective funk.

Here is one more thing I ask you to do. Find a way to share this. Make skiing and riding more equitable. Donate or get involved with organizations like SOS Outreach that bring kids who might not have the chance up to the hill. I personally am going to become a Love Is King Guardian (see page 9) to speak up for people who have been marginalized. Or maybe just reach out to people you might have judged before, change your perspective. Most of all listen.

Then get out and feel it fully. When I was working  building trails for the Forest Service and helping lamb up in Montana’s Madison Valley, a cowboy once asked me what I was planning on doing for the winter. Feeling a little embarrassed, I told him I was going to ski bum at Big Sky and Bridger, worrying that he would scoff at me for not working harder in the off season. “Best thing you can do with your life,” he said. I agree. 

Cover photo: Airing it out in the Jackson backcountry. Photo by Sofia Jaramillo

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