January 19, 2021 / Comments (0)

The Challenges of Building a Mountain Program During a Pandemic

Photo by Ben McKinley: Skier Rowan Farrell of the Meadows Race Team’s Big Mountain and Backcountry program launches off Hollywood on Mount Hood

Ben McKinley was happy just to get his coaches and athletes out onto the mountain and into the snow, to have something fun to look forward to each week in these sedentary times.

Then he got Covid.

His daughter showed symptoms first, with a slight fever. Then his wife started experiencing aches and pains, and ran a temperature of 100.4. Then he tested positive.

McKinley (pictured with his daughter Lauren) is head coach of Big Mountain and Backcountry for the Meadows Race Team, a very fit individual who once climbed all three Sisters mountains in one day. The virus shut him down for a week, but he says he feels lucky that his family got through it fairly well.

“My wife had it way worse than I did,” he says. “Mine was more this toxic malaise, just crap flowing through your system and you muscles are tight and achey and sore. I had a borderline fever for one day, with a cough and a sore throat. And it was energy sapping; I couldn’t make it through the day without sleeping. It wasn’t something I want to experience again.”

On the one hand he felt fortunate, but on the other hand he was scratching his head, wondering how he and his family all got the virus. They had been following all the CDC protocols and being super cautious, masking up, keeping distance and so on. Also, the only place they went out in public was Mount Hood.

“My wife and I went into the lodge three times between us during 6 days on this hill between Christmas and New Years, just to go to the bathroom,” he says. “But our daughters never went in once. I can’t say definitively that we caught it outside on the mountain but it sure seems that way. We didn’t go out to dinner, we didn’t go to a food cart. We just went up to the mountain and then went home.”

A Challenge for Resorts, Coaches, and Athletes

With Covid cases spiking and a new, more virulent variant of the virus spreading, ski resorts in Italy, France, and Germany have all closed. But across the U.S. and on Mount Hood, the ski areas have taken strong measures to stay open and keep people safe. Guests who refuse to wear masks risk losing their passes. Lodges and indoor bars and restaurants are closed.

Despite the restrictions, people continue to flock to Mount Hood and other resorts, to enjoy the fresh air and enjoy one of the few fun things left open. This includes the many families who participate in youth programs, such as the one where McKinley coaches. He says it has been challenging to keep the program going, to keep the athletes and coaches safe, and to manage risks amongst other mountain patrons that operate with less concern about the virus risk to themselves and those around them.

McKinley and his fellow coaches brought the big mountain program to MRT last year, and it has been growing steadily. They are up to 50 athletes and seven coaches, and they work on avalanche rescue skills and backcountry know-how as well as advanced riding techniques. Here they are on a sunny avalanche training day at Meadows:

Some of the athletes in the program are aiming for a shot to compete on the Free Ride WorldTour. But McKinley says “the heart and soul of the program is more backcountry focused.”

“We’re working with adolescents, and adolescents are really good at making bad decisions,” he says. “We’re here to help them make better decisions. We’re helping them learn about avalanche safety and develop backcountry skills, with goals of going on overnight hut trips and exploring areas that require backcountry skills. Because the backcountry is what they’re going to be interested in. That’s what you see on YouTube and in all the ski movies.”

‘My hope is that we’re an outlier’

McKinley and his family have recovered well from their bought with Covid, and they plan to return to the mountain and the ski team once it is safe to do so. They plan to keep wearing masks and following CDC guidelines, while diplomatically urging others to do so as well.

He’s also hoping that other Mount Hood visitors do not experience what he and his family experienced. “My hope is that we are an outlier,” he says. “On the upside, I view our program as a great opportunity to get kids outside and engaged and learning. But with that come all the challenges of keeping our athletes safe, and keeping our coaches safe. It’s a delicate situation.”

MRT Free Ride team members enjoying the view from the top of Cascade at Mt. Hood Meadows

Last modified: January 20, 2021