One of my goals for this site is to have mountain guides for all the ski resorts we visit. This season is so different I feel like it merits its own posts. Here are my takeaways from a day at Hunter Mountain, NY.
TL;DR – Lift lines and bathrooms were the riskiest parts of the day, but once on a chair, the capacity restrictions really made a difference. It was actually one of the nicest days on mountain given the limited number of people. However, if I were at high-risk for a bad infection or lived with someone who was, I would NOT risk it for a day of skiing. It did not feel safe enough for that.
My husband and I are big skiers, and after pregnancy disrupted ski season 2020 (worth it), we were willing to figure out a way to overcome the challenges presented by COVID to make sure we got in some turns in 2021. After a LOT of deliberation and debate, and review of quarantine rules by state, we opted for the Epic Northeast Value Pass. It cost $599. Epic Coverage insurances, which after the season where my husband blew out his ACL is something we will always get, was included for free this year due to COVID closure potential (a covered situation).
The pass gets us unlimited skiing at 14 mountains,10 days at Stowe, and unlimited skiing with blackout days at 4 more including Hunter Mountain, our closest “big” mountain. This is key for us this year because we need to day trip it so that we can get a babysitter and keep our daughter at home. This also solves our “what to do with baby because there are no lodges open” dilemma as well.
This also got us early access to make 7 reservations during core ski season, guaranteeing us time on the mountain. I’m not going to go through the details of the reservation system (Vail has an overview on their site), but overall it’s been relatively easy to navigate, once you remember where its hidden in your Epic Pass account. We threw reservations into the system for a few random weekends at Hunter, because we knew they would book up (as I write this, the next 2 weekends are booked out). But, my husband has been checking the day before in case we need some buddy passes and it seems like things do in fact open up because of cancellations. So for day tripping, this is fine for us. It would be harder if we needed to book accommodations because there’s no guarantee tickets would be available.
We woke up at 6:30 am, fed the baby, and loaded up. My (vaccinated) parents came up to babysit so we handed her off and headed out by 7:15 am. We parked around 10 am and began to navigate the new world. Everyone had to enter the mountain through ticket sales (I assume to confirm they have reservations). This was a bit confusing because the ways we would usually walk onto the mountain were blocked. Once we sorted that out, we made a quick stop at the bathrooms and headed to the epic lift line at the Kaatskill flyer. Once we were finally on a chair, the day improved dramatically. We skied until about 1:30 pm, took a break in the parking lot, went back out, and packed it in around 3:00 pm. That allowed us to get home by 6:00 pm, relieve my parents, and take care of bedtime. In total, we had about 5 hours in the car for 13 runs worth 16,000 feet of vertical. For us, it was worth it!
Side note: Apparently Vail instituted a no-backpack rule on chair lifts for 2021. This includes the slim Camelback pack I’ve skied with all across the country. Given we couldn’t store anything in the lodge, this was fairly annoying.
Non-Scientific COVID Safety Grading
I’m not going to go through the details of normal skiing at Hunter (I’ll save it for another post). Instead, I want to focus on the measures they’ve put in place to mitigate risks of getting COVID-19 while skiing. It was certainly a mixed bag. In no particular order with an A+ to F grading scale:
Mask wearing: B-
In theory, everyone was supposed to be wearing a mask unless actively skiing downhill. In reality, most people wore masks, but there was plenty of under nose, talking on cell phone mask less, and removing masks to eat/drink in the lift lines. Also, the quality of masks varied. Most people seemed to just be wearing whatever buff or gaiter they would otherwise wear on a 12 degree day. People were also taking off masks while inside using bathrooms. Overall, I felt there were not enough staff around to monitor mask usage. We personally wore Buff Filter Tubes with 3 layer filters in, which were easy to ski in all day and were surprisingly warm (given the weather, I feel like it was a good testing temperature for this statement). I also skied part of the day in an Under Armour mask and it worked well. I changed out masks at lunchtime because they got fairly wet during the day and a wet mask is not a safe or comfortable mask.
Social Distancing: F
I understand you can’t control people, but man people sucked at maintaining 6 feet of space. And staff were not enforcing it whatsoever. Funneling everyone through ticket sales led to some crowding, especially since there was one staff member gunning lift tickets to exit, but it wasn’t terrible. The bathrooms had every other sink and stall blocked to encourage physical distancing, which helped, but I also had a situation where a woman and a kid parked themselves in from of the in/out doors and wouldn’t move, so I had to get within 6 feet of them to leave the bathroom. It also led to lines for the bathrooms since it limited the number of stalls available.
Lift lines were hands down the most crowded place and the scariest part of the day. For safety reasons, they are limiting riders on the lifts, meaning you will be waiting in the line for 20 minutes for the main lifts. There was no avoiding the massive pile up at the Kaatskill flyer to start the day. The F chair also got really bad. To Hunter’s credit, they had built the lift mazes so that there was 6 feet of distance BETWEEN the chutes. However, within the chute, most people just lined up like it was a normal day on the mountain. Skis naturally introduce some distance, but I’d say the vast majority of people were 3-4 feet apart in the lines, even if you reminded them to back up. And getting into the chutes was an absolute free-for-all with everyone crowded in. On the chairs, it felt safe. There was enough space between you and anyone else on the lift due to the restrictions (2 and 2 on 6-pack, only your party or 1 and 1 on a quad, etc.). Once we were on the mountain, we were able to hit up lifts that were a LOT less crowded and lower our risk, but it certainly changed where we were skiing.
Most facilities on the mountain are closed. Hunter is taking reservations to go in and grab food, but we opted to tailgate in the parking lot. Since we took a later lunch, we headed to the truck, moved it to a closer parking lot, then cracked some beers and ate our sammies. I also took the opportunity to pump. All in all it worked out, but I can’t wait for slightly warmer days to go full on tailgate versus huddled in truck sandwich eating. What bugged me most about the lack of facilities was that the only bathrooms they have open on the main mountain are in the main lodge. The summit lodge bathrooms are not open. Combined with needing to block every other stall, we felt like this led to more crowding at the main lodge bathrooms.
On mountain: A
This is where the reservation system truly paid dividends. If it weren’t so icy and cold, I’d have given this an A+. It was hands down one of the best on mountain ski days at Hunter. No crowds, no newbies on the diamonds. Just wide open runs and no lift lines on Hunter West, Hunter North, and eventually at the F chair. All the stress and headaches were worth it to me for those glorious moments.
I love skiing, and given my household’s risk level for a bad case of COVID, we felt that the safety measures in place were sufficient for our risk tolerance. However, this was absolute not a no-risk environment. For us, it was worth it. Hopefully, being outdoors helps decrease the risks of people stacking up in the lift lines and not keeping their masks on. It was also super windy, so that helps. But hopefully is a scary thing, and I know that there’s probably slightly more risk here than the risks we encounter driving in the car to get there. My husband and I debated it and decided it felt less risky then indoor dining (still haven’t done this yet, hence tailgating) but more risky than hiking. We aren’t epidemiologists. In the end, you have to make the choices you are comfortable with. I hope this post helps you to understand the reality on the ground to help you make that choice.