Assessing the state of skiing at three slopes

  • In this December 2017 file photo, skiers make their way down one of the eight groomed trails open at Ragged Mountain in Danbury as the sun streaks through the trees. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 1/18/2021 6:14:21 PM

Many things are different at New Hampshire ski areas this year, but the feel and sound of carved turns, the breathtaking view and the fresh mountain air are as good as ever.

This month, I skied at Gunstock, Ragged Mountain and Waterville Valley to get a sense of what COVID-19 has done to an industry with more than $1 billion in economic impact for the state.

Spring skiing was excellent last March when resorts had to close prematurely to prevent transmission of a disease health officials were just beginning to understand.

Over the summer, ski area managers and state officials drew up guidelines to allow people to enjoy the slopes while observing protocols to prevent disease transmission.

Lift lines

Open areas have been set up between lift lines so people do not get too close to one another. The chairs themselves are also not filled to capacity.

Lift tickets and ski lessons are purchased online, cutting down on the need for personal contact and allowing ski areas to cut off sales to ensure crowds do not get too large.

Food and beverage sales have changed, too. Some indoor dining remains, but this has also been limited to allow social distancing, and people are encouraged to get back out on the trails after they eat. Cars are the new locker room, base camp and gathering spot.

Ski boots

In the parking lot at Gunstock Mountain Resort on Friday, people were booting up at their cars. Some brought little camp chairs and carpet squares to make it easier.

This season, resorts are asking people not to bring boot bags, lunches and other gear into the base lodge.

Masks are required when not skiing, seated or eating.

Despite the changes, many skiers are simply delighted to be able to practice a favorite sport when the pandemic has disrupted so many other social activities, Tom Day, president and general manager of Gunstock, said on a busy Friday morning when 31 of 48 trails were open and all seven lifts were operating.

“The season has gone surprisingly well,” he said after taking a few runs under sunny skies and Lake Winnipesaukee in the background. “We’ve had to limit ticket sales and we’ve been selling out to the limits we choose.

“People seem to be happy.”

Skiing regular

Gretchen Gandini is a satisfied customer.

“They’ve done a great job of making it work at Gunstock,” she said. “As a local, I tended to boot up at the car anyway. The difference for us is we bring things to apres at our car. We have new thermoses for hot chocolate and there are food trucks and different options.”

She and her friends used to meet at 10 at the Pan Pub.

“Now, instead we meet at our car. You get creative and plan ahead.”

Income down

Day said food and beverage sales are off this season, not only because capacity has been reduced, but because of customer behavior. Not everybody is comfortable going inside to eat.

While strong midweek business has helped this season, overall ticket sales will likely be lower this year than last, given the need to keep crowd sizes down.

Some of the changes implemented this year will likely carry into the future, particularly utilization of online sales.

“We know when you’re coming, we know what size you need, what lesson you want,” Day said. “All that stuff makes it a more pleasant experience.”

Walking in

Gunstock has a relatively short walk from the main parking lot to the main lift, which is handy because walking in ski boots is not comfortable.

Ragged Mountain, 36 miles to the west, offers an even shorter walk to the slopes. Twenty of its 55 trails and four of its six lifts were open on Thursday morning.

The slopes weren’t crowded and the snow was groomed to a perfect corduroy consistency.

Marketing coordinator Kyle Matzke said a number of bluebird days this season have attracted good business.

“There’s pretty good demand, lesser than last year, but better than originally thought,” he said. “We’ve noticed a shift in skiing patterns. Instead of getting walloped on Saturday, we’re seeing more business Monday through Friday.”

Polite guests

He said people have been polite, kind and patient about the new rules and regulations.

“We’ve been receiving accolades from the guests and staff, both for COVID precautions and the excellent conditions,” he said.

Getting off a chairlift with his snowboard, Matzke pointed to Cardigan Mountain in the distance, before he dropped in for a run. The Danbury resort is off the beaten path, and the view from the top is dramatic.

Down at the resort lodges, hosts were making the rounds, making sure indoor capacity restrictions were being observed.

Online sales

Like Gunstock, Ragged Mountain has beefed up its online sales options, which Matzke thinks is a positive development for the future.

Both resorts provide guests RFID cards, which are used to get through electronic gates and access the lifts.

The same electronic cards are issued at Waterville Valley, 45 miles to the north, but there are no gates on the lift lines. Attendants use handheld devices to check the cards.

Matt Hesser, director of marketing and sales at Waterville, sees a change in skier patterns this year.

Come and go

Business is spread out throughout the day. People come and go, and the typical mass exodus at 4 p.m. doesn’t seem to be happening.

Night skiing was recently added.

“With COVID and everything, we have to be scrappy and try different things,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to spread skiers out.

“I talked to a guy last week, a local who doesn’t want to come on a busy Saturday, but he would come at night. It’s calmer for him and that’s exactly what we had in mind.”

The resort has also changed its ski lesson procedures this year. The group lesson product has been replaced by private, or family lessons, in an effort to reduce COVID-19 transmission risks.

Waterville customers and staff have also been enjoying decent weather this season. It’s been cold enough for robust snowmaking operations.

On Friday, 27 of its 50 trails were open along with seven of its 12 lifts, including the T-bar that takes skiers to the summit and its commanding view of Mount Tripyramid in the distance.

On the Web

With all the changes this year, ski area operators are encouraging guests to “Know Before You Go,” by visiting websites and understanding new rules and reservation requirements: Gunstock, gunstock.com; Ragged Mountain, raggedmountainresort.com; Waterville Valley, waterville.com.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.




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