Last year I wrote about how magical having a “home hill” can be, how special it is to feel like you have a stake in your ski resort, to be invested in its soul. And then last March all the ski hills, from the mom-and-pops to the blown-out mega-resorts shut down. When they reopened this winter, everything was different. Sure, the masks and the hand sanitizer, and more spread-out lift lines were the most obvious changes, but for many ski areas, something more fundamental shifted as well.
In a few years, I’m sure there will be conclusive research with concrete data and colorful graphics, but for now, it can be summed up by simply stating that “the vibe is different.” Going skiing feels different at most ski resorts than it used to. And a different crowd of people is experiencing skiing in a different way than they used to. A lot of that comes down to scarcity-- more resorts are requiring reservations for lift tickets and parking spots than ever before, fewer people are carpooling or taking public transport up to the hill, and the lift lines are longer since we aren’t filling chairs to capacity.
But beyond that, more people are trying skiing for the first time, or are committing to skiing more often. There’s not much to do during this winter of COVID so more Christmas-break-ski-trip type folks are becoming weekend warriors, often purchasing the season passes or mega-passes that facilitate more regular skiing. And that’s a good thing, I’m all for more people falling in love with skiing.
Plenty of those people are also fleeing cities due to the pandemic. This new ability to work remotely has them taking extended vacations in ski towns. So many people idly dream of “moving to a ski town” during their wildly expensive week-long ski vacation every year, and this season provided plenty of them with the means and motivation to do that, or at least, pretend to. Anecdotally, in my area, medium-term (3+ months) rentals are up. And season pass purchases at my home hill are also up. For a lot of people there’s a strong financial and quality-of-life argument to be made by taking an extended work-from-home vacation somewhere that’s actually worth spending time during the winter months. Like your small mountain town.
That brings us to an interesting conundrum. Typically there’s been a pretty clear-cut economic and social divide between year-round locals, and rich second homeowners in mountain towns. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the treaties we broke to acquire this land. But now, there’s a third group, sitting nebulously somewhere in the middle. Folks who can afford to pay rent for a winter and buy a season pass, but aren’t planning on putting down roots. Season pass holders who will be gone as soon as the lifts stop turning. There have always been skiers like this existing in our ecosystem, but this year there are a lot more taking these extended vacations than usual.
I think most of us ski differently when we’re on vacation. We approach the entire experience with a different attitude than we would at our home hills. Rules feel more like suggestions, we drink more, party harder, and stagger home to wake up and do it all again. No parents, no rules! Spring Break baby!
Maybe it’s just part of growing up, but I don’t let loose on ski trips anymore, I try to respect everyone I meet and treat the resort I’m skiing at like it’s my home hill, my hometown, full of regular folks trying to chase their passion in a challenging environment and a terrible economy.
Mountain towns will always have takers, the immature tourists who show up, make a mess of the place, annoy everyone who’s scraping by here. We’ve learned to deal with them, bartenders get good at rebuffing bros who “totally did a backflip today”, lifties tune out folks who complain when conditions are less than “ALL-TIME” and we just continue living our lives in these fucked up places we love too much.
But this new group of skiers poses a more pernicious threat. They’re not here to get rad, puke in the streets, and keep you up all night with their partying. Instead, they play dress-up as “locals”, without having to deal with any of the bullshit that comes with making a life in a mountain town, and more importantly without investing themselves in these places. Especially if you’re working from home, participating less in community culture because of the pandemic, it can become very easy to slide into a selfish, one-dimensional relationship with the place you’re spending the winter, to lose sight of the experiences of everyone around you.
Please, please don’t let that happen. Even if you’re just here for the winter, enjoy its delights, but invest a little of yourself back into our communities. Find a non-profit to volunteer with, subscribe to your local paper, listen to city council meetings, be cool to service industry folks. Treat this place like you wish visitors would treat your neighborhood at home. Learn about what makes it incredible, and find a way to contribute to that. It can take a while to develop this attitude, to understand the value of bettering a place for everyone instead of just exploiting it for yourself, but the soul of any great place is people who invest themselves into it.
More people skiing more days won’t kill the core skiing experience. Fuller parking lots and longer lift lines don’t really endanger the soul of the resorts we love. But selfish skiers, regardless of how long they’ve lived here or how long they’re planning on staying here, suck the life out of skiing.
I don’t care if there’s a run named after your family, or you’re just here to escape the pandemic for a winter. Ski like you own the place. Treat it like you love it, like you want to preserve this experience. Ski towns aren’t great because they’re full of people trying to suck every last drop of pleasure out of them. Ski towns are great because they’re full of people working to make them better.