'Your vehicle is your lodge' and other changes Mt. Shasta Ski Park is implementing due to COVID-19

Barry Kaye
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
Workers put the finishing touches on a 2,000 square foot expansion of the Ski Park's bar. The project had long been a goal of former owner Ray Merlo, who passed away last summer.

The mountain looks the same and hopefully so will the snow but skiing during a pandemic now requires more planning and the apres ski may take place in the parking lot.

Mask mandates and restrictions on everything from chairlifts to lodge access are all part of the new normal, according to Richard Coots, general manager at the Mount Shasta Ski Park. Welcome to retro skiing.

“Your vehicle is your lodge,” Coots said. “It is just like when we were kids at the Old Ski Bowl. That’s how you would ski. You did everything out of your vehicle.”

Coots said the Ski Park’s virus management plan has been accepted by county health officials. Employees will be broken into pods and tested regularly. Food and beverage will be “grab and go.” And registration for everything from rentals to lessons will be encouraged to be done in advance online.

Mt. Shasta Ski Park

“At the rental shop the skis will be handed to you and you will go to your car and put them on,” he said. “Lessons will be restricted from large group lessons down to a smaller size.”

The one part of the lodge that will remain open are the restrooms. In addition, portable bathrooms will be set up in the parking lot.

“We are putting a special emphasis on sanitation and cleaning,” Coots said. “We are hiring extra people for that.”

As the Ski Park enters its 35th year – Coots has been there since the day the first lift started turning – it remains a popular regional day use facility. Part of the success this year will depend on people following the rules.

“Our expectations are that the guests will cooperate,” Coots said. “If they do not cooperate this is private property and we will ask them to leave.”

What may not cooperate is the weather.

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During the period between 2000-2010, the Ski Park had one subpar year due to poor conditions. In the past decade that number jumped to four years where the resort either opened late, closed early or never opened at all.

The Ski Park also faces environmental challenges due to a southern exposure on Mount Shasta, a base elevation below 6,000 feet and limitations on snowmaking due to the supply and storage of water. For every one degree the temperature increases snowfall elevations rise by 200 feet.

Complicating matters is that much of the North State is experiencing drought conditions and this past fall was one of the driest ever recorded, according to the National Weather Service. A La Nina event – where ocean temperatures are currently colder than normal – can often result in California winters that are drier than average.

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“It is doubly challenging to have two significant impacts to our business that are out of our control,” said Adrienne Isaac, director of marketing for the National Ski Areas Association. She estimates that the industry lost $2 billion by closing early last March.

This year she said the key is to “know before you go.”

“This isn’t a typical season,” she said. “There are going to be different procedures.”

Despite the challenges, Isaac said the virus can provide opportunities for the ski industry to improve its product and create a more seamless guest experience. Examples are heated seats for outdoor dining and better use of mobile technology so people can not only order food but know when it is ready for pickup. At the Ski Park, guests who fall getting off the lift will now be helped up with a hula hoop to limit person-to-person contact.

“It makes you really good at pivoting and coming up with innovative solutions to your problems,” Isaac said. “We can use this pandemic as a lens to ensure a more stable winter climate for our future.”

Those innovations will be critical to a $55 billion industry spread across 37 states. There are 437 ski resorts currently in operation and many provide a trickle-down economic snowfall for the businesses in nearby resort towns.

And during a pandemic any activity that supports both physical and mental health is almost as important as an epic powder day.

Those sentiments were echoed by Jeff Williams, owner of the Fifth Season outdoor recreation store in Mount Shasta. 

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“I think a lot of people are just looking for a change,” he said. “They just want to get out there and go skiing.”

Williams said it was a “huge role of the dice” in trying to order inventory six months ago for an uncertain winter ahead. He expects back country skiing and snowshoeing to do well.

He also remains hopeful that the Ski Park can have a good year as skiing and riding can be done fairly safely because people naturally social distance on the mountain. The trick at larger, destination resorts will be getting on the lift itself.

“Some of the bigger ski resorts in Tahoe it is all reservations and that reservation is based on your having a season pass. Those will be the first people allowed on the mountain,” he said. “You probably have a better chance of getting on (the slopes) at some the of smaller shop mountains.”