Six months ago, West Virginia’s ski area operators were uncertain about whether they would be able to open their slopes for the 2020-21 snow season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Thanks to a host of new policies put in place to protect public health and a strong public desire to get both outside and out of town, the season got underway on schedule, continued without interruption and ended up being unexpectedly busy.
The final runs of the season took place last Sunday afternoon at Pocahontas County’s Snowshoe Mountain resort, where the season began Nov. 25.
“This season turned out to be one of the better ones we’ve had in the last several years,” said Snowshoe Mountain spokesman Shawn Cassell. “It wasn’t a season that broke records, but it was very strong.”
In September, the state’s ski area operators got together and worked out a plan to operate safely during a winter through which the coronavirus pandemic was expected to linger.
“We incorporated a plan the National Ski Areas Association had developed into one of our own,” said Joe Stevens, spokesman for the West Virginia Ski Areas Association. The plan set standards for social distancing and face coverings, both indoors and in lift lines, and limiting the number of skiers and riders on slopes on weekends and holidays, which draw larger crowds.
“We submitted the plan to the governor’s office, they tweaked it a little, and we were able start the season,” Stevens said.
That took care of one of the major concerns ski area operators faced. But it still left them worrying about whether skiers and snowboarders would arrive at West Virginia slopes in numbers large enough to cover expenses, and if the weather would be wintry enough to cover their slopes in snow.
At Snowshoe Mountain, where the opening of its mountain bike park was delayed last May because of COVID-19 concerns, business was exceptionally brisk when the park finally opened in the months preceding ski season, as it was in West Virginia’s State Parks and with New River Gorge whitewater outfitters. People in Mid-Atlantic urban areas, it turned out, were eager to socially distance in natural settings with family and friends a day’s drive away.
“We wondered if the boom we were seeing in our mountain biking visits would carry from summer into winter, and it did,” Cassell said. “Folks adjusted quickly to the changes in how we operated during ski season, and for the most part, were good with following the health guidelines.”
This season, the weather cooperated as well.
“We were well below the historic average for snowfall this year,” Cassell said. “What snow we did get was nice and spread out. But the most important thing was that it got cold in December and stayed cold into March, with none of the warm, thawing stretches we sometimes get in January and February.”
Mountain managers at Snowshoe Mountain, Canaan Valley Resort, Winterplace Ski Area and Timberline Mountain wasted no time using the cold temperatures to convert water into snow.
The $10 million in new chairlifts, snowmaking gear and resort infrastructure that Indiana-based Perfect North Slopes added helped produce a banner debut season. Perfect North bought the Tucker County ski area out of bankruptcy in 2019.
“Timberline Mountain came out of the gate like gangbusters,” Stevens said. “What they provided skiers and snowboarders in their first season was phenomenal.”
With crowd size limited on the slopes of Snowshoe Mountain and Winterplace on some weekends and holidays, more customers than ever opted to hit the slopes on weekdays this season.
“With so many people working or going to school remotely this year, people figured out they could stay here and still get things done during the middle of the week,” Cassell said. “A lot of people who used to book two-night weekend stays started spending three midweek nights here, while avoiding the larger weekend crowds,” giving Snowshoe Mountain its busiest midweek numbers ever.
Stevens said another reason for the newly ended ski season’s success might have to do with the unwillingness of skiers and snowboarders to fly, making a drive to a West Virginia resort preferable to traveling by air to western resorts.