By David Schissler – In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended online meetings with the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), Snowsports Industries of America (SIA) and the Professions Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI), to try and get a handle on what the coming season may look like. The truth is that right now no one really knows exactly what the operational parameters may be. The single biggest unknown is at what capacity areas will be allowed to open? 25%? 50%? More? There’s no doubt areas will follow whatever restrictions the local authorities dictate but knowing how many riders each resort will be able to have on the hill will dictate operational plans.

Based on these conversations, here’s what a typical day on the mountain may look like in November and December and perhaps until a vaccine is available.

These could be harder to come by next season.

Your day on the mountain will actually begin several days earlier. It’s unlikely tickets will be sold on the mountain. You’ll have to reserve your ticket in advance online. Even then there is no guarantee you’ll get a ticket. Given limited capacity resorts are likely to serve season pass holders first. When Arapahoe Basin reopened this Spring it limited tickets to 600 sold through a lottery. What A-Basin found out is a large percentage of lottery winners never made it to the mountain. This quickly taught them to overbook like an airline. Be warned. The system is not perfect. There were complaints that some riders won the lottery two and three times while other hopefuls never gained access to the hill. 

OK. You have your ticket. Now what? 

When you arrive at the mountain you may be subject to a temperature check before you even park. If you pass that hurdle you’ll be waived through to the lot where every other parking space will be closed. A mask will be required. You will have to “boot up” at your car since the lodge probably won’t be open. When you head to the lift, you’ll find masked riders social distancing in line. You’ll have a choice regarding who you ride up with. You’ll only ride full chairs with the people that came with you in your car. If you want to ride with one other person each of you will sit at the opposite ends of the chair. If you want to ride single you can. Since skiers are generally spread all over the mountain the trails may be the safest place at the resort. Social distancing is kind of natural to the sport. 

Need rentals? That also has to be done in advance, online. Mountains will be implementing a “no touch” rental program. The only interaction with the rental staff will be for boot fitting which will occur behind a plexiglass shield with only your feet accessible to the boot fitter.

Forget a piece of gear and need to visit the ski shop? Chances are that will be possible with “metered access” or restricting the number allowed into the shop at one time. Social distancing will apply and masks will be required. Don’t have your mask? The shop will be happy to sell you a neck gaiter to be sure you’re covered.

It’s unlikely you’ll see group lesson such as this next season.

Ski School Directors are also making plans to address the safety of their clients and instructors. On the subject of instructors, many of the larger destination resorts utilize instructors from Europe and South America. That option will not be available to the Directors this year. The Trump administration has restricted J1 workers from entering the country until the end of this year (J1 status means non-immigrant foreign worker). There will be no lessons for kids 3 to 5 years old. There’s too much risk for them on the lift and resorts will not provide lunch for them as is the custom. Adult lessons will be capped at 3 or 4 to a group, preferably the people you came with. There will be no full day lessons for anyone. Lessons may be by appointment. Ski schools may initiate “rolling start times” meaning the lesson begins when you show up. You can forget the traditional morning or afternoon classes. Pricing may also change with ski schools moving to “dynamic pricing” which means charging more for lessons during the peak times of 10:00 am to 12:00 pm and less for other times of day. The idea is to move people to less busy times and to spread lessons out. There’s even discussion about contact tracing instructors just in case.

So now you’ve spent your morning logging some vertical and it’s time for lunch. Forget the lodge or any on-mountain restaurants. It’s back to the car to brown bag it. Your afternoon will largely be a repeat of your morning experience. Apres ski? Probably not. Bars are not very conducive to social distancing. 

You can see resorts are putting a lot of thought into their new operating parameters. Sure, they need to make money but it’s clear they realize the best way to do that is by keeping us safe. Virtually every resort manager says they intend to start slowly and get it right the first time so the season will start on time and stay open. It’s still unclear how the loss of revenue from late last season and early this summer will affect early season operations next fall. Certainly each resort’s situation is different but there is concern about how the losses will impact fall snowmaking and grooming budgets. Will some resorts make less snow on fewer trails? Will fewer lifts turn?  No one knows for certain.

No matter how long you’ve been skiing, the 20/21 season will be like nothing you’ve ever known. That’s not to say it won’t be possible to have fun. Fortunately, the only part of the experience that will remain pretty much unchanged is the actual skiing you get in. We’ll all need to learn the new rules and adapt.