If ever there were a good reason to live in - or close - to the mountains for skiing or snowboarding, it's a global pandemic that prevents or advises against travelling
Skiing has been locals only in Canada this winter with resorts limited (in theory) to people from the same province and, more specifically, within the immediate vicinity of their own home. STYLE ALTITUDE'S North America Editor, Louise Hudson reports on the pressure to stay local and stay safe in Canada during the COVID pandemic - and the resulting mountain property boom......
So it's been tough luck if you live in Eastern Canada but usually ski in the West, particularly Ontario skiers whose resorts have been in lockdown during the pandemic, this winter, when travel has been restricted to essential trips only.
British Columbia health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry asked everyone to ski in their closest ski resort, not drive past one to visit another – a socially responsible request rather than a law. In a press briefing just before Christmas, she urged Lower Mainland skiers (in the greater Vancouver area) not to visit Whistler. “We know there’s a lot of strong connections - people live and work in Whistler and Squamish and the Lower Mainland - but I’m asking people to stay local. Stay at your local mountain if you want to go skiing,” she said.
In an era when multi-resort season passes like Epic and Ikon are the trend, this has been particularly restrictive. Other pleas from Dr. Henry have included “stay local, stay small” and “visit but don’t vacation”. However, many people are ignoring her warnings and, after Christmas, COVID-19 cases multiplied at Whistler village, Fernie, Revelstoke, and also Big White. Henry blames the spread not on the pursuit of skiing itself but on pre and après ski gathering in town rather than on the hill. But these coronavirus clusters show just how difficult it is to separate the two.
Regardless of the province’s messaging there are, of course, rule-breakers causing local antagonism. Reports in Canada’s National Post of travel between BC and AB for ski resorts and backcountry access in January suggested that the BC premier was considering a border closure. Meanwhile, Alberta snowboarder Dawn Urschel says that although there is as yet no law forbidding border crossing between Alberta and BC, there’s a great deal of shaming going on for those who do. “People are very aware of plates from other provinces appearing in Banff and Canmore and making harsh judgements about cross-border hopping,” she says.
With an array of topnotch resorts in both provinces, there’s always been a lot of competition between Alberta and BC ski areas as well as much rubber tire traffic between the two - particularly since the advent of collective ski passes. That has slowed down due to the pandemic although there are some inequities between attitudes in the two provinces as BC was an earlier adopter of warnings against ‘non-essential travel’ than Alberta.
Keeping close to her home in Calgary, Urschel has had several very different experiences on the Alberta slopes this season. Before the Christmas holidays, a typical downhill day at Sunshine Village would entail a 10 minute wait for the gondola, no crowds on the slopes, and a picnic lunch on deckchairs outside the lodge. Things changed drastically, though, on a powder-packed 23rd December:
COVID ON STEROIDS
“It was COVID on steroids,” exclaims Urschel. “Even at 8:15 there was a 30 minute wait to buy tickets, then an hour and a quarter wait to ride the gondola.” Impressed by the “super polite” helpful staff who ensured masks were worn correctly and lines were widely spaced, Urschel felt very safe despite the Christmas crowds and plans to ride at Sunshine more regularly this season as well as skating, snowshoeing and crosscountry skiing closer to home.
Due to a last minute tightening of federal travel restrictions,The Bachelorette film crew had to cancel an extended visit to Jasper Park Lodge where they intended to base themselves for filming this month. To fill all those empty cabins set around icy lakes, JPL has been reaching out to Albertan locals to come for a 50 percent off ski staycation exploring the nearby Marmot Basin ski area (main image).
At Lake Louise, owner Charlie Locke says that, due to stringent provincial government guidelines, lifts have been operating at 50 percent capacity. Similar restrictions apply to lodges where tables are widely spaced, staff are separated by clear plastic dividers, and deep cleaning is done regularly throughout the ski day.
“We really did not keep track of our total expenditures, but they were substantial, especially with respect to redesigning through the addition of ‘separations’ between each table in our lodges,” says Locke. “As well, we have numerous extra staff to ensure physical distancing is taking place and each of our guests always wears a mask while in the lift lines, on the chairs, and in the lodges.”
Open since November and until early-mid May, Lake Louise launched new backcountry-like bowl territory from the new Summit Quad Chair this winter. “Many of our extreme skiers have compared areas of West Bowl as being similar to, or more extreme than, Delirium Dive at Sunshine, Corbett’s Couloir at Jackson, or the most difficult chutes at either Whistler or Kicking Horse,” says Locke.
Working with the Canada West Ski Area Association, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies created a sound COVID Safety Plan that embraces protocols for workforce, guests and local ski town communities. RCR’s Senior Vice President, Matt Mosteller says this was key to being able to have a ski season for resorts under the RCR umbrella including BC’s Fernie, Kimberley, and Kicking Horse and Alberta’s Nakiska:
“We have taken it further to create greater collaboration between chamber, city, health authority, business community to bring everyone together to lead, educate and stop the spread.” A longer work day and increased work load has been borne with resilience, flexibility and great attitude, he says. “So proud of our mountain communities. COVID has greatly impacted so many, in so many ways, from health to economic impact, but we are strong, we help each other out and we will get through this.”
With changing health and travel advisories as the season - which launched in November - progresses, RCR resorts have had to adapt. Changes at all Canadian resorts have included greatly reduced indoor capacity, limited food and beverage offering, mostly focused on ‘to go’, and local-travel-only advisories. “Skiing and riding offer what everyone needs right now,” says Mosteller. “Not only the benefit of physical exercise in winter, but more importantly the escape, nourishment for your mind.”
ALL JOKING APART
In BC, Sun Peaks’ homeowners Barry and Thérèse MacDonald have experienced a range of attitudes to COVID codes on the slopes. Most people are following the guidelines to the letter but there are occasional lapses, they say. “I vividly recall one fella a few skiers ahead of us maskless up to the turnstile where he was directed to mask up,” says Thérèse. “He did but, as soon as the liftie shifted her focus to other skiers, he removed it. I spoke up with a kind voice pointing out that masking-up allowed our cherished winter resort to remain open. He yelled back for us all to hear, ‘COVID is a hoax. Don’t be controlled!’”
The ski-crazy but COVID-careful couple have cautiously viewed themselves and other skiers as asymptomatic carriers on the hill. “We appreciate how the great majority of staff and resident skiers have come together with an all hands-on-deck attitude to collectively monitor the lineups,” they say, although they point out the added burden for staff having to be COVID police.
With none of the normal cohorts of Australians and Europeans, Canada’s second largest ski area is exceptionally quiet during the week but busier at weekends. Despite the non-essential travel ban, Sun Peaks is still attracting both BC and Alberta skiers - as evidenced by car number plates in the parking lots. For the MacDonalds this means extra vigilance over weekends.
Amenities have stayed open all season including stores and restaurants but Barry says that hotels like Sun Peaks Lodge and Sun Peaks Grand and private rentals are only at around 35-40 percent capacity. For most locals, après has gone virtual with much video-conferencing of games, wine tasting, and ski banter. “We have done our best to support local small business by buying more food on the mountain and ordering the occasional takeout meal,” he adds.
Property markets are booming in Canada’s ski resorts, attracting city slickers keen for an escape route out of urban centres as a buffer against future pandemics. Director of BC’s Real Estate Association, Gianpiero Furfaro, who has recently taken up a position at Sun Peaks with Sotheby’s, notes a strengthening demand in the regional market. ALTITUDE, a new ski in/ski out condominium and townhouse development sold out in the first two days of release.
“The market in Sun Peaks has been incredibly resilient despite the pandemic,” says Furfaro. “As we entered the second quarter of 2020, we expected a delay in home buying and selling given the uncertainty brought on by COVID, but we foresaw pent-up demand. We did not anticipate the velocity of the market rebound, or that the rebound would occur so soon after the initial onslaught of the pandemic.”
This has led to an increase in sales across all types of real estate, including single family homes, townhomes, condos and undeveloped lots and, of course, price rises. “In addition to healthy local demand, Sun Peaks is experiencing an uptick in interest from recreational and vacation real estate buyers coming from other parts of British Columbia, Canada and internationally. Sun Peaks, like other Canadian recreational real estate markets, is now benefitting from the redirection of disposable income into what is perceived as safe havens for both travel and investment.” The majority of buyers tend to come from the Lower Mainland, he points out: “Not necessarily to escape major cities but to invest in their own backyards.”
A snowboarder and mountain biker, himself, Furfaro intends to try Sun Peak’s newest offering, paragliding later this year, as well as the resort’s array of outdoor pursuits. Healthy and naturally socially-distanced, Nordic skiing is also showing an upswing in BC and across Canada.