One of the most visible signs of the pandemic’s arrival in the Flathead Valley came last March, when Whitefish Mountain Resort shut down its winter operations a month early, ending the season abruptly even before a single case of COVID-19 was confirmed locally.
“It is with a heavy heart that we have reached this decision,” Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves said at the time. “However, we feel at this time this is the best thing to do for the health of our employees, guests, and our community.”
In the months since, there’s been no evidence to suggest the decision was premature, particularly as outdoor recreation continues to play an outsized role for residents chafing under the constraints that COVID-19 has brought to bear.
But as the coronavirus continues to spread, and with opening day on Big Mountain set for Thursday, Dec. 10, skiers and snowboarders can expect some substantial changes to the mountain’s operations. And if they expect the ski area’s operations to run interrupted during the long winter ahead, much of the onus is going to be on how skiers and snowboarders conduct themselves.
Whitefish Mountain Resort’s outdoor operations will run similar to pre-pandemic times, with lift line corrals set up roughly the same. The major exception will be the absence of a singles line, which allows individuals to bypass lines in order to be paired with a group, and the new requirement that everyone standing in line for the chairlift must wear a facemask or cloth face covering.
“It will be just like other requirements that we all accept, like displaying your season pass or lift ticket when riding the chairlift,” said Elyse Knudsen, Whitefish Mountain Resort’s risk control manager. “Your face mask is your ticket to ride.”
Even though lifties won’t be pairing skiers and boarders outside of “household groups,” folks can still group up with others in line based on their personal comfort level, Knudsen said.
For Knudsen, who was also on staff during the 2019/20 season that was curtailed due to the public health crisis, said it feels like a lifetime ago that ski managers were tasked with crafting a plan to ensure a safe winter for the 2020/21 season.
In October, Knudsen met with managers from more than a dozen other resorts to conduct scenario planning and discuss operational changes, some of which, like the face-covering requirement, were adopted universally.
“That’s when we agreed that all Montana ski areas partnered with the National Ski Area Association will require face coverings in lift lines while loading and unloading,” Knudsen said.
“I never in my life thought I would be a risk control manager during a global pandemic but I have learned a lot in the last eight months,” she continued. “And what I think the guiding light for our resort has been, and what has allowed me to put one foot in front of the other, is our role in allowing people to get outside, to see the valley from a really cool perspective, to give back to the community, and to do so in a safe and managed way.”
WMR Director of Marketing and Sales Nick Polumbus says the ski area observed a 100-day guarantee policy for season pass holders and allowed a no-questions-asked season pass refund up until opening day. The ticket window for daily pass sales will also remain in operation despite other resorts transitioning to online-only sales.
It’s impossible to predict just how busy the winter ski season will be, but even with the U.S.-Canada border closure set to remain in effect indefinitely, Polumbus says it could be another one for the record books if pre-season pass sales serve as any indication.
In October, resort officials announced the ski area had set a new record with more than 12,500 winter season passes sold, 10% ahead of the previous season, which also set a new record. Adult season pass sales saw the biggest surge compared to the previous winter, rising by 15% and marking the fifth consecutive year of record season pass sales.
“Frankly, we’re not shocked that the Whitefish Mountain Resort ski community has said louder and clearer than ever that we’re going to ski this winter even given the pandemic,” Polumbus said. “That said, in order to ensure we all get to ski our cares away, if only temporarily, we’re going to need to come together in a respectful way and adhere to some impactful changes to the way we operate. Employees and guests alike will have to be more patient with each other than ever knowing that honoring our changes to operations is the best way to be sure we all get to ski for this full La Niña season.”
The ski area’s ongoing efforts to open up new terrain within the resort’s boundary continue this year with completion of the initial phase of the Hellroaring Basin Improvement Project, which began last spring and included clearing timber for new runs and the future lift line, as well as glading areas adjacent to the new runs. The timber-clearing project improved two existing runs, Glory Hole and Connie’s Coulee, and added five new runs — Chet’s ‘Stache, Short But Sweet, Dog Leg Left, Lacy Lane, and Rad Jack.
The second phase work includes relocating Chair 8 in the summer of 2021, allowing the resort to open Hellroaring Basin earlier in the season in the future.
While outdoor operations will be slightly different this season, Polumbus says the most noticeable changes will be indoors. Bars, restaurants and lodges will follow state mandates with spaced-out tables and a smaller capacity.
“We can expect things to be different for sure, mostly inside our facilities,” Polumbus said.
The Summit House Restaurant and Bar and Ed and Mully’s will have a “host-type situation” where people must be seated by a host in order to properly socially distance.
Although the base lodge has too many entrances to accommodate the host method, staff will limit the table capacity and people will have a time limit at tables. Brown bag lunches will also be prohibited in order to save space.
“We’ll certainly welcome tailgating in the parking lots and provide increased dumpsters just knowing we will be saying no to people,” Polumbus said.
Tents will also be set up on the base lodge patio, where brown bag lunches can be taken. A temporary outside structure equipped with heaters will also be set up outside Ed and Mully’s and the base lodge for overflow.
Both Polumbus and Knudsen expect a pitched learning curve, but are hopeful that the community’s appreciation for the ski area and the opportunity to be outdoors will temper any resentment to the new policy.
“That has kind of been my beacon,” Knudsen said. “Nothing is going to be perfect, and we really want people to do their own self-risk assessment and determine for themselves what they need to do in order to safely participate. But I promise that we have done everything in our power and run through every scenario to ensure that people can get outside in the snow and share space with the community this winter. That’s been the guiding light.”
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