Tom Kelly: There’s a new norm on the mountain — and it’s OK
Park Record columnist
It was a bluebird day punctuated with crisp mountain air as I clicked into my bindings in front of Red Pine Lodge on Thanksgiving weekend. Sliding into the corral at Saddleback Express, a yellow-coated host greeted me with a smile and a warm welcome. It was early morning at Canyons as a patroller staked a new “COVID Precautions” sign firmly into the snow.
“It’s the new norm,” laughed the host, in a very positive way.
Like many of us who had our seasons abruptly ended when the pandemic hit last March, we have had a lot of pent-up anxiety and desire to get back onto the snow. Last week I hit Alta for opening day — top-to-bottom groomer skiing on both the Collins and Sugarloaf side. A good ski buddy joined me for early morning Kokopelli laps on Saddleback Express at Canyons. And I did a few runs off Payday on Home Run on the Park City side of the mountain.
November skiing has never been the high point of any season. But it was a big highlight this year for me. I was back on snow!
Today we measure our daily experiences by our comfort level. How do we feel amidst others at the grocery? It is OK to eat inside this restaurant? Are those around us wearing masks? Ski areas now fall into that evaluative block.
I remember how we all joked last March when masking up first became a topic. “Hey, skiers are already wearing goggles, gloves and neck gaiters. We’re the ultimate in protection!” Well, now it’s required. And we better understand the implications with eight months of pandemic experience under our belt.
My first take at the new norm was positive. I felt pretty comfortable waiting in the opening day lift line at Alta. There was a lot of respect for the rules among the couple hundred of us gathered in the early morning cold.
I was anxious to learn about the new protocols and figure out how to maximize my experience as a local. It was nice, on one hand, to ride single every time. But it was sad not to meet and greet our out-of-town visitors on a six-minute lift ride. And it didn’t take me long to calculate the additional waiting time as empty chairlift seats headed up the mountain.
At Canyons and Park City bases I was greeted with a QR code to reserve dining times. “What’s with that?” I thought. So I stopped in to Red Pine Lodge to get the low down. Pretty cool system, actually — just sign up for a time slot to come in for a private table. Not a bad idea today. And to sweeten the deal, brown bag access is also permitted. And there’s a “hot laps” lane to pick up a quick beverage for the lift.
As the lift sped its way up the ridgeline at Canyons, I couldn’t help but recall those knee-deep powder days off Elk Ridge, busting through the aspens down to High Meadow. Not today, but that would come soon enough. As I squeezed GS turns down through the bottom of Home Run at Park City, I thought back to memories of America’s Opening as I glanced up to the terrifying steepness of Willy’s run, recalling skiers from 20-plus nations who used to gather here on Thanksgiving weekend.
While I may not be able to get my traditional morning donut at Cloud Dine, what the new rules have not impacted is the freedom and joy I feel riding the ridgelines of Park City on my Rossignols — wind whistling around me while my edges arc a perfect line into the snow. It’s a sensation no other sport can generate for me. So if it changes my routine this season but I can still experience the thrill, I’m fine with that.
As I reflected back on the Thanksgiving weekend I realized, “yes, there is a new norm.” But it isn’t all that bad. In the end, we’re skiing again. To me, that’s the most important thing. And, ultimately, we, as skiers, will be the ones to make the difference.
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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