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Ski resorts experiencing both outdoor enthusiasm and challenges

Mount Baker Ski Area from the "Mitzi's" run. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

The coronavirus has impacted nearly every type of business in both direct and indirect ways this past year, and local ski resorts are no exception.

Mount Baker Ski Area, Stevens Pass, and Crystal Mountain all report that getting outside into the fresh air of the mountains has been a lifeline for people during quarantine. The fact that skiing and snowboarding are individual sports done on a mountain slope make them an ideal socially distanced activity for many in the Pacific Northwest with quarantine fatigue.

“It’s been very, very important for people to get outside — so the mountains have really provided a lot of solace for people to get up into the big, open areas,” said Mount Baker Ski Area CEO Gwyn Howat. “One thing that’s always been appealing about the mountains to a lot of people, I think, is the sense of freedom that they experience in the mountains.”

And, as Stevens Pass General Manager Tom Pettigrew pointed out, skiing and snowboarding are favorite winter activities that haven’t been canceled this year — giving people the chance to feel “normal” for a while.

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“There’s been a lot of interest in outdoor recreation this year. People have tried to find things they can do that are allowed during the pandemic,” he said. “Skiing is one of those.”

In response to the snow sport enthusiasm, some of the ski areas have decided to lift people’s spirits by extending their seasons.

Mount Baker is even extending the season to Cinco de Mayo and going all seven days a week in April. Crystal Mountain is extending weekends into May and hopes to go to Memorial Day.

“We feel incredibly fortunate because we employ over 450 people, … and we’re looking at potentially doing additional hiring coming into spring,” Howat said. “It’s working and it’s helping keep people employed.”

Unfortunately, while it brings business to ski resorts that had to prematurely end their 2020 season due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this wanderlust for the outdoors can create a slippery slope of other challenges.

People desperate to get outdoors are heading to the mountains in droves for other free sports like snowshoeing and sledding — which sometimes means taking parking spaces from paying customers.

“There is [probably] a 500% increase in the number of people who are accessing the area, not inside the ski area — coming up snowshoeing, and snow-playing, and backcountry skiing, and things like that,” Howat said, adding, “More of the parking is being taken up by non-ski-area users, and we’re filling up.”

She said this means even their busiest days this season have not been able to top last year’s biggest days.

Crystal Mountain President and COO Frank DeBerry said they have experienced this same issue.

“It’s definitely been more of a problem than it usually is,” he said. “We had to turn away people who had reservations this past Saturday because we ran out of parking.”

He said they’ve been exploring other options for the future, such as incentivizing people to carpool or possibly charging for parking.

Ski resorts have also had to make changes for the COVID protocols this year. Governor Jay Inslee’s ski area protocols require that each lift seat is only occupied by members of the same household, which can sometimes create long lines. Lines are made even longer by people having to stand 6 feet apart — though wearing skis or a snowboard does already create a natural distance between people.

However, both Howat and DeBerry said that skiers and snowboarders are being great about following the rules in line for the lifts.

“In general, the flow works well, and when you’re up on the mountain, it feels very spacious,” Howat said.

She said Mount Baker’s longest line during the Christmas season was 20 minutes, but lines have in general been much faster.

DeBerry said Crystal Mountain has implemented a reservation system, limiting attendance to about “35% less than normal.”

“Our approach is, if we’re meeting those criteria, then we’re comfortable with the operation,” DeBerry said. “There are a lot of skiers out there who want to get out on the mountain, so we want to find that balance.”

All three ski areas have hired people to monitor for masking and social distancing.

“We’re very appreciative and pleased with the efforts that people are making,” Howat said.

DeBerry has a message for the small percentage of people who have caused a fuss over masks.

“We’re all going through a really tough time — our frontline employees have been really working extra hard, … and when someone shows up and decides to debate the constitutionality of a mask, we don’t have time for that,” DeBerry said. “We’re here to ski and ride, and we just want to make sure that everybody can do that safely.”

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