December 14, 2020 / Comments (0)

Mt. Hood ski resorts adapt to pandemic as crowds converge

For the first time since March, the ski areas of Mt. Hood are back in full operation and throngs of joy-deprived skiers and snowboarders are racing to the mountain.

Traffic slowed to a crawl Saturday morning after a winter storm dropped six inches of snow on the mountain followed by perfect blue morning skies. Hundreds of people with pre-purchased passes were turned away at the Timberline access road and the Mt. Hood Meadows parking lot, both of which were parked out early. Skibowl opened for the first time of the season, and White River Sno-Park, Trillium Lake, and Snow Bunny were all packed with snow-seekers.

Crowds spilled out in all directions on Highways 26 and 35, including some unsafe ski-boot travelers heading up 35 from Teacup Nordic Center to Mt. Hood Meadows.

For the most part, visitors appeared to accept the new requirements of the novel coronavirus era, wearing masks, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and maintaining distance. Mask compliance at Mt. Hood Meadows was about 98% by my count.

The only potential flaws that I observed in the effort to avoid super-spread disaster and keep the mountains open for recreation were:

  1. crowded shuttle buses ferrying people between parking lots
  2. the odd skiers and snowboarders who seemed to think that the pandemic rules applied to everyone except for them

Equal Parts Stress and Bliss

There were a few arguments about the mask issue on the mountain last weekend, but not many. There were also quite a few people with legitimate complaints about driving 60 miles in three hours with purchased day or season passes, only to be told to wait for parking spaces that never materialized.

A dozen or so day and season pass holders who were turned away on Saturday took to the Mt. Hood Meadows website to express their frustrations. That thread grew livelier and more contentious by the hour. More than 200 comments had been posted by Monday under this photo of parked-out conditions.

“When we left at 1:30 there were TONS of open spots at HRM and you guys wouldn’t let anyone come to park,” wrote John Olson. “Those people pre-purchased tickets that you put up for sale then had no place for them to park! I’m sure there are a lot of pissed people today. Should have been pass-holders only.”

It “took 3 hours each way to and from Beaverton to get to HRM and there was no parking,” wrote Irena Fernandez, “Hiked up to HRM and saw twilight closed. Snowboarded for 3 hours and even leaving at 1:30 didn’t help to beat the traffic. 6 hours of driving, no parking – not worth coming at all. Would be better if you could check in online beforehand and get a guaranteed parking spot. Or purchase a dedicated parking pass? I would rather pay for parking.”

That comment about “hiking up” to the Hood River Meadows parking lot raised additional questions. “Are you going to address the fact that people were parking in the teacup snow park area and on highway shoulder and then booting it up to ski?” asked Raya Budrevich. “That’s not cool.”

Teacup’s core audience of cross country skiers got parked out of their own lot, and many missed a virtual Strava ski race that had been planned to lift spirits during the pandemic.

Several skiers also pointed out that the recommended strategy of showing up late as other vehicles were leaving did not work. “Parking is way frustrating,” wrote Steve Black. “I tried to do the afternoon gig to space out the crowd, lots were closed!”

Other commenters were more supportive, expressing thanks to the Meadows crew for getting operations up and running despite large challenges and overwhelming demand. However, several important questions were definitely raised, such as:

  • Why isn’t Meadows doing reservations like major resorts such as Vail?
  • Why hasn’t Meadows opened all of its lots, given the predictable demand for parking spaces?

Those questions and others are guiding resort managers to continue adapting to reality. Timberline required reservations for winter skiing and snowboarding at the start of the season, but that policy sparked backlash and lasted all of one week. Now they are simply shutting down the Timberline access road when the lots are full, forcing drivers to turn around and go find somewhere else to play in the snow.

Skibowl is taking a first-come, first served approach, with automated ticket kiosks set up outside for revenue collection. Season pass holders do not hold priority over members of the general public under the Skibowl system.

All mountain policies are in flux as a complicated snow season progresses. Still, it helps to remember why we do this. In spite of the many logistical challenges and frustrations, for those who were fortunate enough to make it onto the mountain and into the snow, this was an opportunity to convert stress into bliss.

The masks hid the smiles, but it was still easy to see that people were greatly enjoying the prime early season conditions. The snow has been plentiful and light and the views on Mount Hood are always good for lifting spirits. Terrain parks are open, racers are carefully organizing key events with COVID protocols in place, and Skibowl has opened its prime Upper Bowl steeps starting Monday, Dec. 14.

‘All I was doing was trying to help keep the resort open and available to all!’

With more snow in the forecast, 2020-21 is shaping up into just the type of mountain season we need. Provided we can all manage to work together, that is.

One final Facebook comment I would like to highlight comes from long-time Mount Hood Skier Kent Zook. What he says is important, and we should all heed it, with respect:

“We were up for Sunday and the snow was nice overall,” Ken writes. “I would like to make a suggestion regarding the ability to stay open. I think that you guys need to have a couple of mask monitors along the line. I asked several offenders to mask up so we can stay open. For that I received dirty looks, a lecture from a young woman telling me to mind my own business and enjoy the day. All I was doing was trying to help keep the resort open and available to all! This is my 50th year that I have skied here and I just want the season to be a great one for all!”

Kent is absolutely right. Let’s be smart and keep the mountain open, people!



Last modified: December 16, 2020