“It’s science, but it’s not rocket science.” Gwyn Howat, the CEO of Mt. Baker Ski Area, addressed the crowd. “We’ve been working for two months to get here. Our ability to operate is reliant upon you.”
She smiled. You could see it in her eyes. The rest of her expression, of course, was hidden behind a mask, as were all of ours. It all felt so familiar, but a little different. Mt. Baker, WA opening day. Snow falling. Lifties scraping last night’s abundant accumulation from the chairs. The final minutes of anticipation for an early opening on November 20, a week before Thanksgiving. The mountain looked filled in, ready to go. And it was, thankfully.
I can’t imagine the intricate dance required to safely get the lifts spinning amid the year of COVID. As a second wave spikes nationwide, as restaurants close, responsible gathering places are few and far between. But Mt. Baker’s abundance of open terrain, of fresh mountain air, naturally disperses folks. It allows us to connect at a distance, to enjoy each other’s company without spreading viral concerns. Thus, Gwyn’s atypical opening day address.
It’s easy to want to fall into old patterns—to park your single butt on a chairlift with three folks who you hardly know. To crowd forth as the chairs begin to load. But these aren’t necessary acts—they’re simply spurred by excitement. I kept having to remind myself to check myself—to back off a bit, to wait my turn from six feet away. And after a few deep laps off Chair 1, it began to feel natural. A welcomed, more relaxed pace, even.
It may have helped that opening day, and day two as well, were for passholders only. For the most dedicated riders in our community, for those who base their winters around regular migrations up Highway 542. A test run for those who care the most. And for the most part, it worked.
Speaking of day two: it was definitely the best November 21st I’ve experienced in 14 years of riding Baker. A light snowfall overnight and clearing, cold temps extracted the prior day’s moisture from the snowpack. The groomers were perfect, Mount Shuksan shining to the east with her timeless façade. A few favorite alpine lines were already in form and that slow, deep breath of the bootpack above the chairlifts brought those with the appropriate knowledge and skills into a soul cleansing mountain meditation above it all.
Remember that skiing and snowboarding are a huge privilege, particularly in 2020. We’re so lucky to enjoy the hill we call home. And remember that whatever happens, the small sacrifices of wearing a mask and maintaining social distance are extremely small prices to pay for the privilege of riding those chairlifts at the end of the road. We’ll see you up there as December storms fatten the snowpack and roll into the deep days of January, February and beyond.
And remember to keep your face hidden. Follow Gwyn’s lead, and smile with your eyes.