A socially distanced and masked, a skier waits in line for lifts to open at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A socially distanced and masked, a skier waits in line for lifts to open at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Shredding in the age of COVID: A report from Stevens Pass

Our reporter hit the slopes to find out how the resort’s virus precautions work in practice.

STEVENS PASS — At sunrise Wednesday it was gray and drizzly as I packed my freshly waxed skis into my car, bound for Stevens Pass.

Driving down U.S. 2, clutching a mug of hot coffee, I cranked up the speed of my wiper blades. A mile from the resort, I was steeling myself for a soggy day of skiing. But as I approached the parking lot, the raindrops turned into fluffy snowflakes.

The slopes were a welcome escape from the work week and my bedroom-turned-office — and it turns out I wasn’t alone.

I expected Stevens to be quiet on a weekday morning but found a host of other stir-crazy skiers and snowboarders with newly flexible schedules.

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike for the third time this year, ski season offers a tantalizing dose of normalcy: an outdoor activity where social distancing is possible. Or at least that’s the idea.

I hit the slopes to see how virus precautions are panning out in practice.

The ski area requires everyone on the mountain to wear a face covering. On opening day last Friday, employees stopped guests without masks and asked some to pull face coverings up over their noses. Staff offered disposable masks to anyone without one.

Ted Cartwright, a snowboarder from Marysville, said he had no trouble following the rules.

“Who skis without a face covering anyway?” he asked. “It’s cold!”

Skiers make their way to the lifts on opening day at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Skiers make their way to the lifts on opening day at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Staff at chairlift lines made sure guests kept 6 feet between “tips and tails,” the ends of your skis and your neighbor’s.

Instead of the usual maze leading up to the lift, lines had an empty “ghost lane” between them to keep unrelated guests apart.

It’s a little difficult, especially for beginners, to stay apart from people when sliding into lift lines. But it’s doable if you slow down and stay aware of who is around you, and for the most part, riders followed the rules.

If you’re riding alone, you’re not likely to make many new friends on the mountain this ski season. The resort requires unrelated parties to sit on opposite sides of lift chairs, and I found singles were less likely to jump on with another loner than in the past. Depending on how social you are, this could be positive or negative.

In the middle of the week, I was surprised to see a good number of kids on the slopes.

Kirkland resident Paula Gallagher brought her children, ages 12 and 9, up on Wednesday to avoid the weekend crowds. The kids can do their remote learning in the afternoon when they get home, and her husband has plenty of vacation to burn.

People ride one person to a chair on opening day at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People ride one person to a chair on opening day at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

On opening day last week, Edmonds resident Jon Langley brought his son Jack, 12. They were first in line at the Daisy lift.

“This is a good mental health outlet for everyone,” Langley said. “This is my outlet, and I hope it will be his outlet, too.”

It was Jack’s second time ever snowboarding. He gave the sport a thumbs-up. When the lifts started running just before 9 a.m., he hopped on the chair without much help from dad.

After an early closure last season due to COVID-19, and months of isolation and restrictions and stress-eating and doomscrolling, everyone (including me) seemed a little extra stoked to hit the slopes.

“I’m mostly excited just to have something to do on weekends after nine months of nothing happening,” Cartwright said.

Outside of the lift lines, Stevens Pass enforces a host of other COVID regulations.

Lodges and the rental shop are at 25% capacity, in accordance with state and county regulations, with a one-way flow directing foot traffic. Six-foot distance stickers line the path to restrooms, and Plexiglas dividers separate hand-washing stations — at least in the women’s room. There’s staff at every door and dispersed throughout the resort to make sure rules are followed.

“We’re not going to compromise,” general manager Tom Pettigrew said. “We prepared for a long time and we’ll follow through with what we said.”

Floor stickers encourage social distancing at Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Floor stickers encourage social distancing at Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

At lunchtime, I found plenty of tables outside of the lodge, where guests could grab burgers, fries or healthier options to go.

In the parking lot, guests at Stevens Pass have taken the lack of lodge space and turned it into a tailgate.

At noon Wednesday, the lot resembled game day at Husky Stadium. Camping chairs surrounded popped trunks as snowboarders bumped house music and heated lunch on propane stoves.

“I’ve been waiting for opening day since the day the mountain closed,” said Sam Hoovee, who works in Seattle.

Some quick tips:

• Place your goggles over the top of your mask to keep your face covering from slipping down as you shred.

• Without room to warm up in the lodge, it’s extra important to bring layers. I’d recommend stashing some hand warmers in your pocket.

• Snickers bars are irrefutably the best ski snack.

Despite the new rules and extra preparation involved this year, a few things never change. The drive back home when you’re exhausted and feeling accomplished is still one of the highlights.

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @sanders_julia.

People make their way up and down the mountain at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People make their way up and down the mountain at Stevens Pass last Friday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

If you go …

• The Stevens Pass ski resort is only accepting cashless transactions, so bring a credit card.

• Face coverings are required at all times.

• You need to make a reservation and buy your pass in advance online. If you already have a season pass or a daily lift ticket, that’s pre-loaded. You can pick up your pass or ticket at the resort’s window, but you cannot purchase a ticket there.

• Lodges are capped at 25% capacity, and there’s no dine-in food service. The resort encourages guests to bring their own food and water and take lunch breaks at their cars or outside.

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