Mask Up, Ski Down

Opening week off to a smooth start at Whitefish Mountain Resort, with the ski area earning praise from ‘super seniors’ for its safety precautions

By Tristan Scott
Skiers line up at Chair #7 on opening day at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 10, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For 15 years, Umar Bell has been an opening-day devotee at Whitefish Mountain Resort, reasoning that if you don’t ski the first day on Big Mountain you can’t ski every day.

Last year, for example, Bell logged more than 1.5 million vertical feet riding the chairlifts, and he spent this pre-season earning his turns by taking advantage of the mountain’s uphill policy, using climbing skins to ascend 2,000 vertical feet to the summit before schussing back down. Even before the pre-season snow began accumulating, Bell’s exercise regimen included ski-specific conditioning exercises at The Wave, as well as an obscene amount of cycling.

Still, despite Bell’s preparation and physical fitness, his unparalleled enthusiasm for skiing belies a degree of apprehension entering the 2020-21 ski season, which he explained Dec. 10 while waiting for the S.N.O.W. Bus in downtown Whitefish on opening day.

“I’m someone who would be considered a member of the high-risk population given my age and medical history,” Bell, 76, said. “So long as everyone is respectful of one another I do believe we can have a safe and successful ski season, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But at this point I am reserving judgment.”

Bell is a member of the hard-charging contingent of senior skiers, or “super seniors,” who converge each winter on Big Mountain and rip groomers or seek out powder stashes all day long, defying age and gravity and pausing only to drink water and use the bathroom. A once-rarefied fleet of silver-surfers, for years the super seniors took advantage of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s free-ticket policy for anyone over the age of 70. Since then, the super seniors have grown in ranks, and last year Whitefish Mountain Resort began requiring a modest charge for their passes, although they still enjoy a steep discount, and grouse in jest about the strain on their retirement funds.

But as the coronavirus continues to spread, and in light of the evidence that older adults are at the highest risk for severe illness resulting from COVID-19, super seniors like Bell have more than just the mogul fields to navigate this winter.

“We’ll see what happens out there,” Bell said, boarding the free S.N.O.W. Bus to the ski area.

On opening day, more than 2,600 skiers and snowboarders greeted the season and its host of operational changes with open arms, even as they refrained from using those arms to slap high-fives or give hugs, apropos of the times but a departure from the spirited embraces that characterize former season-openers.

Although Whitefish Mountain Resort’s outdoor operations will run similar to pre-pandemic times, with lift line corrals set up roughly the same, a major difference is that skiers and riders are required to wear face coverings while waiting in line for the chair, as well as while loading and unloading.

That might seem like a straightforward requirement, particularly given that face coverings tend to be standard attire for skiers and snowboarders. But mask requirements during the pandemic have become the subject of a polarizing national debate, and Whitefish Mountain Resort, as well as the city of Whitefish, have gone to great lengths to educate the skiing community on the importance of heeding the requirement this winter.

“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.”

So far, a vast majority of skiers and riders have respectfully obliged, even as they negotiate new mask-related obstacles like goggle fog.

Jenny Cloutier, executive director of the Big Mountain Commercial Association that funds the S.N.O.W. Bus, a free shuttle service between Whitefish and its namesake resort, was on hand distributing complimentary masks emblazoned with the S.N.O.W. Bus (Shuttle Network of Whitefish) on opening day.

“The consensus seems to be that these masks are better for goggle fog, but we’re all adapting here,” Cloutier said.

Another major exception to the normal operations this year is the absence of a singles line, which allows individuals to bypass lines in order to be paired with a group, which leads to longer waits.

Perhaps the most noticeable changes are taking place indoors, as bars, restaurants and lodges follow state mandates with spaced-out tables and diminished capacities, including requiring customers be seated by a host in order to properly socially distance.

At the Bierstube, a beloved privately owned establishment on Big Mountain normally bustling with après-ski revelers, the scene on opening day was peaceful, with a host on hand to ensure that it only filled to one-third of the normal capacity — a far cry from the boot-stomping, sweat-drenched bacchanalias of erstwhile opening days.

“It’s different this year, that’s for sure,” Mike Nania, a bartender at the ‘Stube, said. “But people are being nice about it. At this point, everyone is kind of used to it.”

Fred Frost, a super senior who regularly logs more than 4.5 million vertical feet in a given winter, said he hasn’t gone inside any of the eating or drinking establishments, but applauds the mountain for taking the steps to guard the public’s health.

“As someone with asthma in my upper-70s they are doing a very good job,” Frost said.

At the end of the day on Dec. 10, Bell waited for the S.N.O.W. Bus in the waning light, tired but happy, listening to a podcast on his earbuds, and satisfied that if opening day served as any indication, Whitefish might just have what it takes to ski through a pandemic.

“I’m a little more relaxed now after observing people and seeing how respectful they are,” he said.

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