We skiers are a resilient lot.
One year ago, give or take a day or two, the ski world shut down. Inns, restaurants, shops and lifts – all that makes a ski destination a resort – might as well have been condemned. While this may sound insignificant in the grand scheme of things – the ultra-rich lost access to their precious playgrounds, the poor dears – that dismisses the pain that rank-and-file skiers felt when they could no longer feed their collective addiction.
But while all obvious manifestations of the sport ground to a halt overnight, the mandated inactivity wasn’t about to keep ski designers from practicing their craft. (See The Ripple Effect.) Ski product managers found hidden snowfields where they could discretely evaluate their prototypes, returning to town only when it was dark enough to evade those charged with enforcing the local quarantine. Just to be sure their latest refinements would make it to American ski shops on time.
The obstacles wouldn’t end there, of course. Even if you could make 100,00 new skis, how could you ship them? And if you could ship them, by some miracle, what would you do if all the orders you were so urgently filling were cancelled? Even if some of those annulled orders were restored – as some in the U.S. would later be – you would still have to take drastic action to stay afloat in the interim.
Budget cuts followed budget cuts, as inexorably as waves lapping the shore. Jobs were lost and furloughs extended beyond the breaking point. Good friends had to say goodbye and good luck. The ski season – if there would ever be one – was still months away.
The world outside the ski biz – otherwise known as “the real world” – was a roiling rollercoaster that made less sense with each passing day. Skiers never needed skiing more, if only to hold onto the last shred of sanity in a world gone mad.
Still, what remained of the shrinking ski universe tried to imagine how to go forward. If we can still have ski lessons, for example, what would they look like? How much uphill capacity will be allowed? On the gear front, skis can be sold while observing social distancing, but boot sales are intimate affairs. What protocols can be put in place to protect both consumers and bootfitters while still maintaining best practices? (See The Brave New World of Bootfitting.)
Gradually, suppliers and shops were able to find a way forward. The crux of the crisis became how the ski areas would react to the spreading pandemic. If in-resort skiing were allowed, would the rules be so restrictive that skiers would find something else to do in the winter?
I believe it was Einstein who said, “Ha! That’s a good one!” Skiers indicated well before the snow flew that they intended to ski. If resorts weren’t going to open, or institute draconian rules that made skiing as much fun as a root canal, then lift-assisted skiing couldn’t be depended on. So, anything that looked like a piece of backcountry equipment was sold on arrival on these shores. If climbing skins were still made of some poor animal’s hide, that beast would now be extinct.
It took a little while for the new normal to be accepted as the price of participation. Lift lines were longer, in some cases, a lot longer. You might not be able to get a bootfit appointment when you’d like. A convivial après-ski quaff at the usual watering hole was off the list of options. Everything, from the number of cars in the parking areas to the number of fannies on a ski lift, was restricted.
And yet we came. We came even when early season conditions were only so-so. Sure, we still would dream of powder, but a morning spent gobbling g forces would have to serve in its stead. It turns out, cruising at a coruscating clip stimulates whichever corner of the cranium that secretes intense pleasure.
Some skiing is better than no skiing. We came even when it meant we couldn’t stay. With travel severely discouraged, we turned our attention to our nearest hill, however humble it may be. We learned gratitude on the local level.
By the time next season arrives, less than six months from now, most of this season’s disruptions will have abated. Our sport’s most serious challenges remain: climate change threatens its natural foundations, while crushing expense limits its attraction to the middle class families that form its social foundation.
But this season proved that skiers will find ways to overcome the obstacles in their path. Where skiers could ski, not only did they do so, their ranks actually grew, swelled by a surge of returnees who re-committed to a sport some had left two decades ago. And the much anticipated groundswell in backcountry activity has indeed come to pass, perhaps contributing to what looks to be a record year for avalanche fatalities.
On my beat, the equipment front, from the American consumer’s standpoint it will be hard to detect any damage in the pandemic’s wake. While every brand in Christendom had to curb their ambitions and the loss of business in Europe was crippling, new product will still emerge from the R&D pipeline and I expect demand next fall to be strong. Under the strangest of circumstances, we somehow managed to mint new skiers this year. Imagine how much more they’ll take to skiing when all of its many-splendored social charms are restored.
Personally, a measure of normalcy was resurrected last week by my annual visit to Snowbird and Little Cottonwood Canyon, my spiritual homeland. The wild terrain, the snow, the people, the heli-skiing and of course the mountains themselves restore and nourish every nook and cranny of my being. I’m grateful down to my toes for this life I’ve been blessed to lead. For all its miseries, of which the Covid pandemic provided a plethora, life – and in particular a skiing life – is still the greatest wonder of all.