Skiing Deep Powder

A skier enjoys light fluffy powder snow, on a sunny winter morning at Grand Targhee Resort.

Idaho skiers and snowboarders can expect some major differences when they arrive at their favorite resort to strap on boots and ride the lifts. The main reason is the pandemic.

Differences such as limited indoor seating, longer lift lines to allow spacing, fewer people on lifts and trams, and limits on total numbers at the resort will be in place this winter to help contain the spread of COVID-19. But resorts are hopeful that the naturally distanced activities of skiing and snowboarding — with a few extra precautions — will bring success this season. Most resorts closed early in March this past winter because of the pandemic causing many to lose money despite good snow depths.

“It would be tough to find a safer outdoor space than on a chairlift,” said Brad Wilson president of the Idaho Ski Areas Association and general manager of Bogus Basin resort. “Skis are about 6 feet long, so it’s easy to social distance in the lift line. There’s good directional airflow when you’re riding the lift and the chairs are spaced 50 feet apart. Skiers and boarders are already used to wearing gear like masks and gloves and goggles and helmets. And if there’s any place to social distance, it’s here in Idaho.”

Ski resorts are focusing on keeping people away from each other as much as possible and mandating masks or face coverings. For example, putting strangers together on chairlifts will be taboo.

“We definitely put some protocols in place to keep everyone safe,” said Jennie White, director of marketing at Grand Targhee Resort. “The big change this year is that we’re limiting access and capacity inside our buildings.”

White said they plan to have a host monitoring how many people enter its restaurant for grab-and-go meals. Capacity inside will be trimmed to 50%. To help feed hungry skiers and snowboarders, Targhee bought a food truck to be parked outside.

“We did buy a food truck so we’ll have another outdoor grab-and-go option,” White said. “It will be out near the Trap (Bar & Grill) deck. It will be a food truck that serves tacos, fries. That’s kind of a fun new thing.”

Wilson said skiers’ cars may become a safe, warm option to the lack of indoor seating. Grand Targhee is installing new outdoor seating options.

“We’ve purchased some more outdoor heaters and fire pits,” White said. “It is winter, and it will be cold. So dress appropriately, and be prepared to be outside and not be able to warm up inside because that’s the place where we have to limit time spent inside.”

Other area ski resorts, such as Kelly Canyon Ski Resort and Pebble Creek Ski Resort are also making adjustments to food distribution and lift-line operations.

“Food and beverages are probably the biggest area we have to deal with,” said Dave Stoddard, Kelly Canyon Ski Resort co-owner. “We’re making adjustments to spread things out. We’ll make some more space available. We’ll come up with a way to order food in advance and be able to come in and pick it up, like the grab-and-go arrangements we’ve seen with other food and beverage facilities in the area.”

To help thin lines down, several resorts plan to offer phone ordering for food and lift tickets as well as information on mountain conditions, parking, shuttles and signing waivers.

“They can sign up for text messages to know what’s happening in real time,” White said of Grand Targhee’s new system. “We did have a text message in recent years but it was just to tell people if we had 6 inches of new snow. This year we went with a different company, and it’s a more robust program. We’re making more lists for people to sign up to know what’s happening.”

White said Grand Targhee’s parking is its main limiter of how many people are on the mountain. To help the situation, the resort plans to post electronic signs north of Driggs and south of Driggs and two more on Ski Hill Road announcing up-to-minute parking availability. The resort also bought three larger shuttle buses for hauling customers.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has implemented new protocols for chairlifts, gondolas and its aerial tram starting with “maze configuration” to maximize physical distancing in its lines.

“Guests should expect longer wait times, especially on weekends and holiday periods,” the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort said on its website. “Gondola cabins will be loaded according to groups traveling together, households or individuals.”

Stoddard said Kelly Canyon won’t face those types of issues.

“The chairlifts at Kelly Canyon are double chairlifts, so unlike some of the other resorts that have triples or quads or even bigger, we don’t have quite the same problem as far as getting people spread out and going up the mountain,” Stoddard said. “We’ll have them a little more spread out in the lift lines.”

Sun Valley general manager Tim Silva said on his resort webpage that they will “manage peak day access for both Bald Mountain or Dollar Mountain through day-ticket restrictions” if guest numbers make distancing difficult.

Most resorts also plan to limit the size of ski classes and guest services mostly by using a reservation-only system. Snowcat operations at Grand Targhee, for example, will be limited to private bookings. Resorts recommend checking online for specific resort situations.

“The main message is that everyone has to be responsible and know that they need to take part in knowing that they need to maintain their 6-foot distance,” White said. “I don’t think any resort is putting a distance police on anything. ... I just hope everyone respects everyone else. We’re all here to have fun and enjoy the outdoors. I think we’ll get through and have a successful winter.”

“Happily, snow skiing and mountain biking are activities that lend themselves naturally to be socially distanced,” Stoddard said.