by Marc Peruzzi | photographs Grant Gunderson
Maybe it was because I started booting up in the family Mercury (in ski swap lace-up leather boots) and hauling my skis (screw on edges) to the lift when I was a toddler, but I’ve always been a dirtbag skier. There was no way that my parents were going to throw down for lodge food anyway, so we often skipped lodges. In college, I dealt with vacationers enough in the shops I worked in. I knew better than to intermingle with the skiing public on my day off. (No offense.) When my wife and I had kids, I was designated the skiing expedition leader. It made no sense to me to further delay the day by having two staging areas, so the outfitting happened at the car, even if it was blowing a gale. (There are tears in skiing, kids.) And now, after waking up at 5:00 a.m. for 16 years to ski in Colorado, rolling out of the house in Montana at 7:45 to boot up in the front row is the sweetest of dirtbag luxuries. Lifts are nice for hard-charging skiing, the kind most of us shouldn’t be doing in the backcountry, but beyond that, the commercialized accoutrements of resorts are not what skiing is all about. Inbounds or out, I’ll avoid crowds, seek secluded stashes, practice self-sufficiency, and ski like the old-timers and New Hampshire wood boogers that mentored me until I can ski no more, a day which I hope coincides with my cremation. Hereís how to ski during the pandemic.
Ski Local, Ski Often, Ski Safe
That’s a mantra for any year, but during Covid it should be your mandate. Getting to know your home hill and refine your system will boost your confidence come winter. I bring a ratty pack that nobody would steal, loaded with water, herbal tea and honey, snacks, extra layers, and hang it by my favorite lift on powder days anyway. This year I’ll bring it every day. If you’re a vacationer, sketch out your day before you go to figure out crowd avoidance, picnic spots, and to zero in on the least crowded outhouses. Carry hand sanitizer in your pocket and take your kids to the john one at a time so you can monitor them. Pull up a two layer buff in the lift lines and give people extra room. Skip the après unless it’s just you and two friends at the tailgate. Get fit so you can ski straight through. And adopt one mountain as your own. You’ll ski more powder and at a higher level on terrain that you know.
As I write this, I’m thinking about my Colorado days, when my son and I would ski untracked snow at Loveland late into busy weekend days because we had the place figured out and it wasn’t destroyed by the mega pass crowding. I tried explaining this once to a wealthy acquaintance who skied Vail because that’s where his friend group from Boulder skied. But although I’d skied at probably 100 more ski areas than he had, and was raving about Loveland’s terrain and April storm cycle, it just didn’t register. To him, skiing was more a testament to elitism than snowy mountains. Embrace the athletic and outdoorsy components of the sport or don’t go this year. There’s nothing else that the sport can safely offer you amidst the pandemic.
The Resort is Now the Backcountry
The ice climber Will Gadd once said that he’s only cold if he did something wrong—and he’s seldom cold anymore. I’ve taken that advice to heart for years and applied it to my skiing, not just in the backcountry where I’ve always carried more than I need for self rescue, but on the ski hill too. This is the year to ski with a small pack equipped with a fat puffy, dry gloves, spare goggles, and a thermos of something warm. The pack lets you ski in more layers than you think you need. But don’t forget the extremities: Alpine boots are cold, buy boot heaters. Also, invest in the thickest mitts you can find. For most people it’s their toes and fingers that drive them inside. As for the kids, they aren’t as cold tolerant as you are, nor are they aware if their feet are wet and at risk of frostbite. If it’s gnarly out, watch them assiduously and duck under a tent or a space heater—there should be plenty at most ski areas this winter—and pull their boots, socks, and gloves to get a visual.
The Backcountry is Still the Backcountry
Backcountry gear sales boomed last spring as ski areas shut down en masse. That gear is outselling everything else now too. The indications are that we’ll see a corresponding uptick in backcountry visits this winter. That’s a good thing. But avalanches don’t care if you’re trying to protect yourself from a pandemic. Don’t head into avalanche terrain unless you have the skills, the gear, and most importantly, the type of level-headed decision making that properly discounts the ability of skill and gear to save you. And although many of us have sadly grown accustomed to recreating alone this year, that practice needs to end in the backcountry. The numbers bear this out. When the statisticians look back on the Covid Pandemic, the estimated infection fatality rate will likely hover around one-half to one percent. (Which, at 3.28 million potential deaths on the higher end in the U.S. is no joke.) Meanwhile, seven percent of avalanche burials result in fatalities even if the victims are excavated within 15 minutes. If you’re buried for more than 45 minutes, your odds of survival go down to 20 percent. And unlike Covid, avalanche deaths tend to favor young adults. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can “manage” avalanche terrain. And don’t ski alone. Avalanche Canada reports that most backcountry veterans prefer group sizes of three to five people. The science is still out on this, but my take is that’s big enough for one skier to find a safe zone midslope from which to perform a rescue if needed in the leapfrog mode, but small enough that group-think isn’t as deleterious.
Your Car is Now the Lodge
At some resorts this will be hard because so many mountains long ago stole our beloved slopeside parking lots and built dream homes in their place, but if you can walk, ski, or shuttle a few minutes to your car, then make it your base camp. A buddy of mine has a full-size van and little kids, he just bought a space heater and a CO2 detector so they can smash around inside for an hour at a time. A friend of his lives at Big Sky and is considering buying an old school bus for a day lodge. For my part, I have an awning on my Honda Element and I’m considering occasionally rolling it out and setting up my two burner stove. I might be more comfortable than my friend Earl who is building a snow fort off-trail and stashing a jetboil, but then he’s too grumpy to be around the parking lot scene.
You don’t eat a burger and fries in the middle of your bike rides. So why would you eat a huge meal in the middle of your ski day? That leg burn you feel is because the blood that’s supposed to be running your quads is running your gut. But you don’t have to eat nasty energy bars either. Stews and soups will stay blistering hot in a well prepped thermos all day long. A hunk of ham, a baguette, and a knife is a French skier’s lunch on a lift. I pack compostable bags with dates and nuts, and sliced salami or chorizo. OK, that’s pretty stoic and utilitarian I know, but if you want to, step it up a notch. Head back to the car, bust out a cutting board, and put together a proper charcuterie. To do it right you’ll need cured sausages, patès, sliced fruit, mustard, pickles, and warm nuts. And no cheeses if you want to be true to the art form. Serve it with toasted slices of baguette and thermoses full of warm broth. None of that Sysco slop masquerading as lodge food inside comes close to that ten minute meal. Turns out dirtbagging is just skiing elevated—that’s always been true.
To figure out how to make a legit charcuterie it’s a nicer way of saying meat board we attended a virtual seminar featuring former single-speed MTB racer turned Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino; the hunter, meat packer, and owner of Olympia Provisions, Elias Cairo; and Ryan Coulter, the artisan behind The James Brand knives like the meat, they’re handmade in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a brief version: A proper charcuterie is served without cheese (cheese is a dessert item), but is served with items like sliced finocchiona, chorizo, and spreadable patËs that you smear on bread grilled with olive oil. Acids like mustard and pickles cut the richness of the meat. And fall fruits like apples and figs lighten the meal. You will own the tailgate. At the least, order enough Olympia Provision’s Pepperettes to last the winter they are crazy tender and flavorful. Also on the board is The James Brand’s new to die for backcountry chef’s knife, the Hellís Canyon.