Everything is different this year, and the slopes are no exception.

By Stacey Leasca
November 28, 2020
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Credit: Stacey Leasca

Everyone has their happy place. A place both real and imagined that brings them a sense of calm, joy, and pure happiness. For me, that’s the mountains in winter. The fresh snow, crisp air, and joyful shrieks of skiers and snowboarders as they rip down the powder. But, being 2020, I thought my happy place was in peril. Until I visited Mammoth Mountain for opening week. 

On a delightfully warm bluebird day, I drove up to Mammoth Mountain in California to celebrate its opening week and to see just how the mountain experience has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down mountains around the world earlier this year. Yes, things were immediately different, but to my surprise, every change felt like not only a good idea for the health and safety of mountain-goers, but some that were just plain good ideas anyway. Here’s how Mammoth is dealing with the pandemic, and what you can expect at this mountain and beyond all season long. 

Credit: Stacey Leasca

Get a season pass or book early

Mammoth Mountain works with Ikon pass, which represents mountains both around the nation and a few global destinations. This year, those mountains, along with the mountains under the Epic pass, are working to ensure season ticket holders get first priority. That means if you want to get on the mountains during peak holiday times you’re going to need a pass. 

“Day ticket sales are tightly limited this season in order to manage resort capacity,” Lauren Burke, communications director at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, shared. “No walk-up lift tickets will be available this season.” 

The mountain added in a covid update on its website, “We will control resort visitation levels to avoid overcrowding by tightly regulating the number of daily lift tickets, available by advance purchase only.” This, Mammoth explained, is to “manage capacity and reduce contact points in our lodges.” 

While this may be bad news for day-trippers, it’s great news for season pass holders. During my visit opening week, it seemed like only the most ardent snow fans were on the mountain. Sure, Mammoth had fresh snow, but it only had nine runs open at the time (which, pre-Thanksgiving is seriously impressive). And that wasn’t stopping anyone from having a ridiculous amount of fun. The stoke level was ultra-high and that’s because everyone there really, really wanted to be there — and use those $1,000+ passes they invested in. 

Expect to eat outside more often

Credit: Stacey Leasca

According to Burke, Mammoth Mountain is currently operating at 25% indoor capacity for restaurants and cafeterias based on state and county guidance. That means, sure, you could eat inside, but why would you? The mountain now offers several grab and go options and expanded outdoor seating at places like The Lunchbox, a new trailer located at the bottom of chair four, which serves up beers and cheesesteaks, just what god intended you eat in between runs.

Indeed, this is the year to grab waffles, sandwiches, coffee, and hot cocoa (or if you’re like me, a half-coffee half-cocoa), and sit outside in the cool winter air. Take in the winter sun and safely socially distance from others. And if you really can’t handle it, try parking close enough to the mountain so you can head back to your car and tailgate for lunch. 

Those who want to learn more still can

Like other mountains, Mammoth is still offering its ski and snowboard school options for children and adults. I saw a few classes going on early in the morning, and the only real difference is the instructor was standing a few feet further back than they might normally. Don’t use the pandemic as your excuse not to learn a new skill this year. You can still hit the slopes in style and learn something new this season.

Be prepared to follow some new(ish) rules

Credit: Stacey Leasca

Look, it’s just a reality that we’re all going to have to live under COVID’s thumb just a little bit longer. At the mountain, this of course means wearing a mask at all times and social distancing from others. But luckily, for skiers and riders, that’s kind of already our thing anyway. 

At Mammoth, everyone — and I mean everyone — is expected to cover their mouth and nose while in line for the lift and while on the slopes. This can be done with a traditional gaiter or via a traditional face mask. The liftline operators at the mountain had to play police just a bit by reminding people to cover both their mouth and their nose while in line. 

“Cover your nose so we don’t close,” one ski school teacher quipped in line to a patron. But really, they mean it. If an outbreak occurs there’s no telling how it will affect both Mammoth Mountain, its small town community, or the skiing community at large. Sorry, no gaiters with holes poking through the mouth or nose either. Keep it covered. 

Then, there’s the social distancing. Again, this is already our thing guys, so we got this. But just in case, while in line for the lifts Mammoth has denoted what six feet looks like with small blue streaks painted on the snow. And, you can’t ride up with strangers on the lift anymore either. Ride with your own party. This isn’t the year to make new friends. 

“A successful ski season will require a strong partnership between Mammoth Mountain, local government and health officials, the state, and our guests,” the mountain shared in its COVID update. “We will continue to work closely with and follow the guidance of local and state health officials and adjust policies and procedures accordingly.” 

Yes, you can have fun on the mountains this year. But it will take all of us working together to ensure a long and spectacular season. So, cover your nose. Please. For me. I need this. 

Stacey Leasca is a journalist, photographer, and media professor. She’s been skiing since she was 3. Her dad once told her she can’t leave the mountain until she hits 25,000 vertical feet and now it’s her life rule. Send tips and follow her on Instagram now.