This ski season, more and more of us will be leaving the chairlifts behind—but what does this mean for the ski industry?

 

Skiing is an oft-precarious business. Weather dependent like few other sports, backcountry skiing once seemed like the ficklest niche in this already fickle pursuit, given the attendant threats of snowpack and weather instability, and the need to be proficiently fit and adept at navigation if you had any hope of enjoying yourself in the school of earning your turning.

However, now more than ever, backcountry skiing looks like the one to bet on. Covid-19 has ripped holes into business plans that depend on cramming as many weekend warriors as possible into the day lodge or targeting foreign customers, like the high-end heli-skiing sector and resorts like Whistler Blackcomb that doubled down on the international market when Vail Resorts assumed ownership in 2018.

In Summer and Fall 2020, operators were gazing into the crystal ball searching not for optimistic predictions of an epic winter, but for certainty in a world that has little of it these days. The multi-million-dollar question was: would they have a season at all and if so, what would it look like?

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Heli- and cat-skiing owners were forced to reimagine their businesses without affluent foreigners on which this niche was built. One heli-skiing operator decided to start offering trips to Canadians at a 50 per cent discount in the months of February and March 2021, for what they “hope” would be a “once in a lifetime opportunity to heli-ski at this price.” It was pitched almost as an act of benevolence, but there was a caveat. Should international borders open, all bets are off. Those opportunistic Canadians who were looking forward to heli-skiing for cheap (a relative term) would be sent packing with a full refund. I don’t mean to be unfair or callous towards people whose businesses and livelihoods are being threatened by factors far beyond their control—the social and economic costs are real. However, the optics of this particular strategy, at least from this dirtbag’s perspective, were a little odd: hey Canadians, we need you to help us keep the lights on this winter but, lo siento, if our rich clients can get their passports stamped then you can go back to dreaming!

Similarly, when Vail purchased Whistler Blackcomb for $1 billion in 2018, they announced lift pass changes that immediately alienated the local market. For example, the Colorado-based company scratched the popular pre-paid one- and three-day lift tickets that were discounted exclusively for British Columbia residents and their Washington State neighbours. To add further salt to this wound, Vail introduced an on-mountain app that featured Fahrenheit and inches rather than Celsius and centimetres.

With day lift ticket prices north of $100 at many resorts, it’s no wonder that backcountry has been the fasted growing segment of the ski market in recent years. The sales of backcountry gear grew nine per cent and six per cent respectively in 2017 and 2018. Most industry observers believe this winter will only accelerate the trend as resorts grapple with how to manage ski school and day lodge crowds in the midst of a second-wave pandemic, while also trying to nurture a new generation of skiers to fill the still warm chairlift seats being vacated by aging Baby Boomers (Millennials are not buying into downhill skiing the way other generations have).

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The backcountry was a salve for my soul in March 2020 as the world came crashing to a halt and the bull-wheels and helicopter blades stopped turning. Yes, I was one of the naughty ones. While health officials counselled against pursuing risky outdoor pursuits and armchair critics shamed us for potentially stressing health care and rescue resources, I formed a small bubble of co-conspirators, slapped the skins on and went exploring. I felt a little guilty at times, as if I was personally insulting Dr. Bonnie Henry. But I, like many people I know, considered it an investment in mental health during troubling times.

My freelance career temporarily on furlough, I was functionally unemployed. I became a professional recreationalist and homeschooler for my two daughters (the latter experience gave me profound respect for teachers).

For a devout atheist like me, the mountains are like church; a church with a self-organizing congregation where physical distancing comes naturally. As usual, I plan to be in attendance.

  

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020/21 issue, Everybody Outside.

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