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As We Look To Escape The Crowds In The Midst Of A Pandemic, Will It Force Us To Return To Skiing’s Roots

It’s no secret that this winter will be different. As I write this, travel companies are racing to reassure the market that there will be ski holidays. That there will be travel. That the ski holiday as we know it still exists…

But does it? And if it doesn’t, is that such a bad thing? 

Treble Cone, Lake Wanaka
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Socially-Distanced Travel

As industries go, there are few so dependent on infrastructure as winter sports and travel. The blessing of cheap flights and package deals has been a boom for the ski industry. And while more people flock to the mountains, and more lifts are installed, there has not been much pause to think about how far this can be taken. 

So, although the pandemic is new, our need for space and escape is not. 

Social distancing and viral protections don’t go hand in hand with close confined travel and a business model that packs people together tightly. Mainstream travel agents, lift operators, and airlines all think in terms of how many people can go for the least cost. An ideal model for viral transmission. Not so ideal for those seeking an escape from their everyday life. Not all operators should be tarred with the same brush, however. 

It’s because of this desire for escapism that specialists like Mabey Ski have been looking beyond the resort for years. Instead, choosing to adventure in some of the wildest mountains and most beautiful places on Earth. From adrenaline-fueled ‘steeps’ to endless mellow powder fields, there has always been an alternative to the standard ski holiday. So, although the pandemic is new, our need for space and escape is not.

Getting Ahead Of The Climate

These challenges have existed long before COVID-19. The virus is just an amplifier. For years skiers have lamented the hectic nature of travelling and packed resorts with endless lift queues. There is also the philosophical disconnect between riding on snow and using planet-warming fuels to get us to it.

The changes we now see happening in the ski travel industry, I think, would inevitably have happened sooner or later. Just for a rather larger and more ominous reason. The looming presence of climate change hovers just on the horizon. The incoming carbon taxes, reduced snowpacks, and unreliable weather patterns will all take their toll on this sector. 

And that’s a good thing, this industry needs change.

In essence, the reduced capacity at resorts and large hotels filters back through to the same support systems. Less people means it’s less cost efficient, as far as most businesses are concerned. The cost per person increases and the service has to change to match. As things stand right now, a pandemic may be the ultimate testing block for the future-proofing of skiing in the face of challenges yet to come. And that’s a good thing, this industry needs change.

A More Unique Ski Experience

Coronavirus has brutally cut to the heart of what many standard travel agents offer. Being treated as a booking reference rather than an individual may have a financial benefit, but it costs you in regards to your experience. A “one size fits all” approach will always sacrifice some areas in order to make it logistically easier or more profitable. But that approach leaves a lot to be desired in the search for memory-making experiences. 

But, here’s where I see the light starting to return. For years we have already had a carbon neutral way to enjoy the mountains. A way in which we can enjoy our own space and feel connected with the snow beneath us. A way in which lift lines and crowded hotels are excluded from the equation. A way that is becoming a more viable option in the face of a pandemic.

Ski touring and it’s younger sibling splitboarding offer a means to experience the mountain environment without the confines of a lift pass. You choose your companions, your destinations, and your time frame. The lifts stop running when your legs are tired and there is never a queue. There is just your group, your guide, and the best snow of the day. No crowds, no noise, just an alpine experience you can keep all to yourself.

Although many ski companies are struggling to find their “new normal”, Mabey Ski is sticking to what it does best—getting off the beaten track. Long before entering this newly social distanced world, their guests wanted to get away from it all just because they could. Ski touring remote volcanoes in Hokkaido and unwinding in a mountainside onsen (traditional hot spring) has always been more inviting than a long lift line to the top of a packed piste. 

The Lure Of Adventure Is More Than Just Escaping The Crowds

The first time I escaped the resort and ducked under the rope it was for the powder. But now, I do it for the whole experience. Splitboarding and ski touring has become the escape that the resort promised, but could never fulfil. 

To me, the journey up has become as much part of the experience, and the enjoyment, as the ride down. When I put the first skin track into untouched snow, it is so far removed from the noise and bustle of a lift queue that I could be on a different planet. I feel more connected with the world around me and infinitely more connected with the group I am out there with. 

No crowds, no noise, just an alpine experience you can keep all to yourself. 

Being immersed in the mountain environment is rejuvenating. It is an all encompassing experience that calls to something deep inside all of us. People need this wildness. People need this reconnection. And, as more of us look to escape the crowds, ski touring is there to be the adventure the resort could never be.

Will Ski Resorts Survive The Pandemic?

In my opinion, there will always be a place for ski resorts in this industry. Their consistently maintained environment enables quick progression and the endless practice needed for skiers to hone their craft. But, if the resorts do not rise to the challenges posed by the climate, people’s changing needs, and the ecological and ethical concerns of their customers, they will struggle. 

I know some will always want to carve perfect pistes or rip lines through the park, but even those most at home in the resort are coming to realise that the current model is not sustainable in the long term. Coronavirus may not force us to return to skiing’s roots. But, I hope it gives many of us a reason to think about what really matters to us when we spend time in the mountains.