In February 2020, following one of the resort’s deepest snowfalls in its history, visitors to Vail waited for hours in a crowd that ballooned so big you would have thought the lift operators were handing out wads of hundreds and an affordable place to live. The internet deemed it “Lift Line Apocalypse” and, at the time, I felt sorry for all those skiers and snowboarders. Now, I realize they had never been so lucky.
To be clear, I hate lift lines. There are not many things in life I despise more than cow-eyed single-file standing, shuffling inches forward every five hours toward a chair, where I’ll get to sit and keep waiting. I’d rather take a Mike Tyson uppercut to my bathing-suit area than be stuck in traffic. Hell on earth, to me, is a festival ATM.
I’ve done my best to avoid lines. I moved from the crowds of Chicago to the peaceful Colorado mountain communities of Telluride and Carbondale. While ski towns often offer streets with more snow than people, skiing is a sport stuffed with lanes of humans. Lift lines, especially long ones, are the necessary evil all skiers/riders tolerate. But standing within arm’s length of anyone—let alone a crowd of strangers—amidst COVID-19 causes more anxiety than a middle school dance your parents are chaperoning. So how exactly are we going to ski during a pandemic?
At the end of August, Vail Resorts laid out a winter operating plan that includes a ticket reservation system, capacity restrictions at lodges, and socially distant chair-loading policies. This is all well and good, but what about everyone waiting at the base?
According to Vail-Beaver Creek spokesman John Plack, Vail Resorts will apply learnings from its summer operating procedures: larger maze construction at lift bases, physical distancing signage, and a zero-tolerance mask and distancing requirement. Plus, said ticket reservations will redefine what “crowded” means. Even with a powder-day forecast, Plack assures the resort can “maintain a level of visitation to our mountains that encourages the physical distancing we all need to stay safe.”
Needless to say, last February’s Vail-pocalypse isn’t likely to happen again this winter. But we also shouldn’t expect any kind of “normal” lift line experience, or “normal” ski experience for that matter. It’s all going to feel a little…off. We will ski, it will be different, and that different ski experience, like everything else during the pandemic, will surely make us grateful for things we previously thought we could live without.
Just like a chest-burning uphill on a mountain bike delivers a fun downhill and guilt-free donuts, lift lines gift the greatest feeling known to humanity: skiing. And even though I often moo aloud like a cow going to slaughter as I waddle forward, lift lines are the place where skiers and riders rejoice and laugh and hug and high-five in celebration. Even when you’ve just skied molar-cracking death ice, lift lines are the spot for “Wow, that was really terrible” giggling conversation.
I miss people and crowds so much that I’d happily stand in a line for a festival ATM inside a Porta-Potty. I miss the communal stoke of powder days. I miss hugs. I miss high-fives. I miss high-fives that miss and turn into hugs. I miss huge groups of skiers all smiling at the same thing, unafraid to be close to one another.
What the pandemic has best illustrated is that, as a skier, happiness isn’t simply first tracks in snow so deep you can’t breathe, or not having to wait to get scooped up by a chairlift. Happiness is community and shared joy. And in a post-COVID world (whenever the hell that will be) happiness is a lift line—even an apocalyptically long one.