Sugarbush: Skiing During the Pandemic
By David McKay Wilson
Skiing, like life, is all about managing your risks.
In pre-COVID days, I’d check my skis’ safety bindings annually to prevent leg injury, and make sure the ski brakes work so as not to hurt another skier if they released. I wear a helmet to prevent head injury. I ski under control – to protect myself and my fellow skiers.
So in my first ski trip to Vermont during the COVID-laced season of 2020-21, I did my utmost to manage my risks on a weekend of surprisingly good skiing in mid-December.
COVID brings all sorts of new protocols to ward off the deadly contagion while still enjoying the alpine regions on skis or snowboards.
Vermont’s guidelines are strict, but make it possible for cross-state visits, especially if you work from home, as I do.
We quarantined for seven days and received negative COVID tests before leaving New York. We masked up to ski and any other time we were in public. We socially-distanced while waiting for the lift. We sat on our tailgate in the parking lot to eat our homemade ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch. And I didn’t touch the cash in my wallet because all you can use at Sugarbush these days is plastic.
When our ski day was done as the sun set in the late autumn sky, we did apres-ski, COVID-style. Using the Sugarbush website off our phones, we ordered a couple of pints of Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine IPA, walked into the Castlerock Pub at Lincoln Peak to retrieve them, then downed the hoppy suds outside under an overhang with heating lamps.
While you could reserve a table inside from your phone, we opted to remain outside, where several steel fire pits were blazing.
We were there for the opening weekend day, joined by hundreds of out-of-staters, based on the license plates from Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut we saw in the parking lot. Everyone bought their tickets online, and you could access them on kiosks around the base area. A crew of helpful Sugarbush representatives in red jackets stood at the ready to help customers become accustomed to the new normal on the snow.
Sugarbush was bought in early 2020 by Alterra, the international ski company that also owns Stratton, Squaw Valley, and Steamboat, which means it’s on the IKON pass.
The biggest innovation at Sugarbush is the four ski cabanas at the Lincoln Peak base, equipped with a wooden table, a bench and chairs, a heater, and USB port to charge your phone. Paneled in wood, they have the look of a sauna outside a Norwegian hytte.
Up to eight in your party can be in the cabin at anyone time. The cost? $400 a day on weekdays, $550 on weekends.
“We expect these will be popular,” said Sugarbush spokesman John Bleh.
In snow-starved December, there were just three lifts open, including the Heaven’s Gate Triple, which takes you to Lincoln Peak, at 3,975 elevation. It was the only way to the top, which made the lines longer than usual, with early afternoon waits as long as 20 minutes.
When the skies finally cleared Sunday afternoon, you could look east into the sun-drenched Mad River Valley, and west, to Lake Champlain and the snow-capped High Peaks of the Adirondacks.
At the lift, we waited in five lines, six feet apart, that backed up the hill. Everybody was wearing a mask, and if yours slips under your nose, which mine did once, you’ll be reminded by a fellow skier to mask up.
The wait was worth it. The Sugarbush snow guns had created a solid base on Organgrinder and Sigi’s Ripcord, where it seemed like we’d explored every mogul by the end of Sunday. By Sunday afternoon, the snow was silky soft, and oh so skiable. The crowds had vanished, so it was up and down, up and down, getting some vertical into our ski legs.
We stayed at the White Plains Ski Club, a co-operative lodge at the base of Mad River Glen where I’m a member. Among the six clubs at the base, two are closed while the remaining four are operating at reduced capacity. Though hotels and motels in Vermont can operate at full capacity, we’ve cut the capacity in half, with only four households allowed at a time in our lodge, which in the olden days, slept 32.
For dinner, we opted for take-out and a selection of premium IPAs from the cooler at the Valero gas station at the intersection of Routes 100 and 17 in Waitsfield.
We ordered both nights at American Flatbread at Lareau’s Farm, just off Route 100, where you can also stay at Lareau’s Inn, and come summer, jump off the rocks into the Mad River at Lareau’s swimming hole across the street. With no inside dining, take-out was the only alternative.
Flatbread uses locally sourced meats and vegetables for its flatbreads, which are baked in wood-fired ovens. One night we shared a Vermont sausage pizza, with the home-made fennel sausage complemented by caramelized onions, cheeses, and herbs.
The next night was the Winter Garden Bread, with fresh kale, Lareau Farm-raised cured bacon, and roasted potatoes.
You place the order, park, approach the door to tell them you are there, and if the flatbread is still in the oven you return to your car to wait for your name to be called, or stroll the grounds, which are lit up with five-pointed stars. These pentagrams are ubiquitous throughout the valley, the enduring symbol of good luck from agrarian colonial days, and symbol today of unity in the Mad River Valley.
In COVID times, these stars offer a glimmer of hope that the pandemic may recede in 2021 and that the vaccine will be one more way to manage of risks while traveling.
David McKay Wilson, a veteran journalist who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an avid cyclist, skier, and swing dancer. His travel writing has taken him around the world, with his work appearing in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, and several Gannett daily newspapers.