Eager to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors, more people than ever are hitting the slopes on skis and snowboards.
"Oh, yeah. I mean, we sold probably a thousand more season passes this year than we ever had," says John DeVivo, the General Manager of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. "We were up about 20% in pass sales."
Those passes let skiers or snowboarders ski all season and can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the resort. DeVivo says there's also strong demand for single-day lift tickets too. "Every lift ticket that we put out there does sell."
DeVivo says he'd love to sell more — but to keep things COVID-safe, he's cut off additional season pass sales and is limiting the number of daily lift tickets.
Looking out across a wide trail called Avalanche, between steep snowy mountainsides plunging down towards an alpine lake, Devivo says, "This is probably one of the best things you could be doing during the winter months. But at the same time you do want to limit the numbers because you want to have more room for everybody."
While there's usually plenty of space out on the mountain, in normal times people get jammed together in lift lines or inside lodges.
So this year, 'your car is your lodge' is the mantra. Skiers and snowboarders must put on their boots and gear in the parking lot at their vehicles. Lift tickets have to be purchased in advance online, cutting down on long lines at ticket windows.
And you have to wear a mask or a neck gaiter over your mouth and nose whenever you're near other people. So that means in the lodge or outside waiting in the lift lines. Attendants with little bull-horns will remind you if you forget — "pull your mask all the way up please, all the way up!"
Most skiers and snowboarders are happy to comply. But some ski areas have run into problems with people refusing to wear masks and verbally abusing lift line attendants. Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Idaho recently shut down night skiing for the holiday weekend and has suspended some customer ski passes because of that.
"The F-bomb is dropped quite a bit," says Tom Chasse, the president and CEO of Schweitzer Mountain. He says in Idaho there's been some strong resistance to mask mandates in general.
"It's very politicized here," he says. Still he says, the vocal and stubborn anti-maskers are in the minority at his ski area. Most people follow the rules.
"95% of the people here, they get it. They're totally on board," Chasse says. He says Schweitzer Mountain has had record season pass sales this year, too.
Ski areas want people to follow the rules, in part, because they want to be able to stay open. Many employ a lot of people in rural areas.
DeVivo at Cannon Mountain says he has upwards of 500 workers relying on him-- lift operators, restaurant workers, the drivers for the big trail grooming machines, the crews that set up the guns that fire man-made snow onto the trails.
"We run the budget, we run the infrastructure, we run the the vehicle and equipment fleet of really a mid-sized New Hampshire town," DeVivo says.
He says his first priority is keeping people safe, but right behind that is being a major employer in the area. "People need to eat," DeVivo says.
Outside the main base-lodge at Cannon, Alyssa Sherburn is just happy to have a lift ticket and be escaping her house and out in the fresh air.
"Oh, it's fantastic," she says. "The conditions are great and just the process of putting on your clothing and coming up to the mountain, you take a couple of runs, it makes for a good day."
Sherburn came here today with her parents, who are helping her 2 1/2 year old toddler waddle around in a snow suit nearby.
"My parents had a snack out here on the picnic table," she says. "They were more comfortable outside, plenty of space for them out here."
Sherburn says she ate inside the lodge — the first time she'd eaten indoors at a restaurant since the pandemic began. But she says she felt okay about that because there was almost nobody in the lodge.
"They took my name and they took the time of the day so that there could be contact tracing if anything happened," she says. "It felt very safe."
Still, at Cannon, most people are not eating inside. There's a lot of tailgating in the parking lot. People bring camping chairs and their own lunch or have an 'après-ski' beer outside their car or truck.
"We really would like to see revenue increase," DeVivo says about restaurant and ski school sales being way down this year. But he says, "we've got to play things safe."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Many are eager to get outdoor exercise this COVID winter, and ski areas are figuring out how to manage the demand. Many are open but with new rules. NPR's Chris Arnold hit the slopes to see how that's working.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: This past week I was out skiing with John DeVivo. He's the general manager of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKIS GLIDING)
JOHN DEVIVO: Nice.
DEVIVO: Got no problem with this one.
ARNOLD: There are steep Rocky Mountain sides around us, a frozen alpine lake down below. It's beautiful and kind of a workout, but that is not stopping a guy nearly twice our age who skis by.
DEVIVO: Look at this guy. All right. That blows my mind. The guy must be 80 years old, right?
ARNOLD: Yeah, at least. He was just cruising along.
DeVivo says there's a lot of demand from skiers and snowboarders young and old who want to get out of the house and up on a mountain.
DEVIVO: Oh, yeah. I mean, we sold probably a thousand more season passes this year than we ever had. We were up about 20, 21% in past sales. Every lift ticket that we put out there does sell.
ARNOLD: DeVivo says he'd love to sell more, but to keep things COVID-safe, they've cut off any more season pass sales, and they limit daily lift tickets.
DEVIVO: I mean, this is probably one of the best things you could be doing during the winter months. But at the same time, you do want to limit the numbers because you want to have more room for everybody.
ARNOLD: There's usually plenty of room out on the mountain, but in normal years, people get jammed together in lift lines or inside lodges. So this year you have to buy tickets online in advance. That stops big lines at the ticket windows. You have to put your ski boots and gear on at your car. Basically, your car is your lodge. You have to ride the chairlift with the people that you came with, and any time you're near other people - so in the lodge, waiting in a lift line - everyone has to wear a mask or a neck gaiter. And attendants with little bullhorns will remind you if you forget.
UNIDENTIFIED ATTENDANT: Pull your mask all the way up, please - all the way up.
ARNOLD: Some ski areas have run into problems with people refusing to wear masks and being verbally abusive to the lift line attendants. Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho just shut down night skiing for a weekend, and it suspended some people's ski passes because of that. But here at Cannon, that hasn't been such a problem.
DEVIVO: Yeah. I mean, I think we've seen two instances so far in more than five weeks where we have had to ask guys to leave.
ARNOLD: DeVivo wants the COVID rules enforced so that the mountain can safely stay open. He's got upwards of 500 workers relying on him - lift operators, the restaurant workers, the drivers with the big trail grooming machines, the crews that set up the guns that fire manmade snow onto the trails.
(SOUNDBITE OF SNOW MACHINE RUNNING)
DEVIVO: We run the budget. We run the infrastructure. We run the vehicle and equipment fleet of, really, a mid-sized New Hampshire town. I mean, priority 1, of course, is public safety, and priority 1A for me is our status as a North Country employer. You know, people need to eat. They need to send their kids to school and clothe them and whatnot.
ARNOLD: Back outside the base lodge, Alyssa Sherburn is just happy to have a lift ticket and to be escaping her house and out in the fresh air.
ALYSSA SHERBURN: Oh, it's fantastic. The conditions are great. Just the process of putting on your clothing and coming up to the mountain, you take a couple of runs - it makes for a good day.
ARNOLD: Sherburn came here today with her parents, who are helping her 2 1/2-year-old toddler waddle around in a snowsuit.
SHERBURN: My parents had a snack out here on the picnic table. They were more comfortable outside - plenty of space for them out here.
ARNOLD: So as I'm standing on the trail here up near the top of Cannon, it sounds like everybody here is just hoping they can keep this and other ski areas open so people can keep getting some exercise and enjoy the outdoors. So I'm going to keep skiing.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.