This winter is already rife with uncertainty. Everything is still up in the air. Will ski resorts actually open? How hard will it be to get lift tickets? How long will they stay open? Are we doomed for another repeat of last season’s debacle? It’s impossible to answer any of those questions will any sort of certainty yet, and dwelling on them just leaves me feeling burnt out and depressed, over the ski season before it even starts.

So instead, in order to try to paint an accurate mental picture, I’ve focused on the things we do know for sure. The positives are simple: somehow, somewhere, we will make turns on snow. Or astroturf, or something. There will still be runs that leave me giggling. I will figure out a way to get snow into my face, at least a few times. But there are definitive negative aspects to anticipate as well. They usually are best stated in the form of: “If inbounds skiing does happen this year, we definitely won’t be able to…” These are the disappointments we can actually anticipate and prepare for. The rest might be up to fate, but there are a few things we know will be different this season.

And the biggest difference, the deepest bummer that I know, absolutely, 100% for sure is going to affect my ski experience is the “no chairlift rides with people outside your COVID bubble” rule. I know, it’s a small thing, truly minuscule in the grand scheme of problems as we wait for election results to be counted and pray that snow falls soon. But it’s a small but important aspect of the resort skiing experience that will disappear this year.

I love riding chairlifts with strangers. I don’t really know why, and I don’t always want to share the chair. There are plenty of days every season where I just want to roll with my crew or spin solo laps with my headphones in. But somehow hopping in the singles line and sliding out to that loading marker next to whoever the ski gods have determined will be my chairlift buddies.

Every lap is a crapshoot, totally random, who knows who I will ride with. Maybe I’ll be disgusted by them, maybe I’ll fall desperately in love with them, maybe we'll just share a beer, either way, nine minutes of conversation later we’ll unload and ski off into our separate lives. It’s like speed dating but without the pressure. Shuffle through the lift line, ask the obligatory “Mind if I ride with you?” and give some stranger a few minutes of your life. The groomed runs are still grassy at the resort but I miss it already.

You learn a lot about someone when you start heckling skiers from the chairlift. Some folks are embaressed, some use it as a prompt to start giving any skier they can see a hard time. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve ridden the lifts with a horde of interesting people. There was the hard boot snowboarder from the midwest who’d pulled his board out of a barn his brother was demolishing and driven west to learn a new sport. There was the couple who forced me to endure what I hope was the messiest portion of their breakup on the chair. There was the guy struggling through bunny hill laps on a pair of nordic skis mounted with tech bindings that he claimed were just for “skiing the Grand.” And there was the group from Florida who’d seen their first snow ever on the flight the night before, and couldn’t stop eating it and laughing.

This is just a study for a bigger commission that I'm excited about, but I figured it fit the bill.

Every once in a while I’ll get lucky enough to ride the chair with one of the kids I coach mountain biking in the summer. It’s hard to recognize each other with ski gear on, but helmet stickers give them away. We’ll chat, and I’ll marvel at how far the youth have progressed. Once I got to ride with three six-year-olds who had just learned what they thought was a dirty word. I reminded them that their instructor said they needed to ride with the bar down as they sang the Baby Shark song with every other lyric replaced with “CRAP!”

It’s only happened twice to me, but sometimes the liftline gods smile and I board with someone who’s rocking an NS sticker on a helmet or ski. It’s always a little hard to do the verbal maneuvering to throw out a callout, and once I was met by a completely blank stare and the explanation that he’d bought this helmet at a yard sale and had no idea who Chad was, or why I cared about his gap. But it’s always worth a shot, always worth trying to get to that awkward exchange of user names and forum history.

Occasionally you get the loners, the folks who just don’t want to talk, and simply turn up their headphones. And every once in a while I end up peppered with under-informed questions about why my skis have “the front part but on both ends” but the vast majority of my shared lift rides are just interesting glimpses into someone else's life. We get to share what makes us tick as skiers, why we’re here, and how we feel about it, and then ski off into a fog of anonymity. And that’s something that’s sorely lacking in day-to-day ski life. It’s really easy to live in a bubble of friends and partners, skiing with people who look like you, think like you, live like you every day. The deeper into those bubbles we get, the more we lose sight of the full spectrum of what this sport means to people. Skiing becomes more one-dimensional, and who isn’t going to get burnt out on a cold, expensive, one-dimensional activity.

So yes, I’ll miss the lodge beers and the apres tacos and the crammed bars. I’ll miss the hitchhiking and the always-available lift tickets and all the rest that COVID is taking away. But overall of that, I’ll ache a little bit every day on the hill, knowing that I won’t get to sidle into that single’s line, say hello to a stranger, and get to watch the world through a different set of eyes for a few minutes.