Rolling up into a parking lot at Stowe Mountain Resort on a warm and sunny weekend in March to find locals AJ Payack and his fiancée Kayla Zakrzewski seated in camp chairs behind their Jeep Cherokee, grilling food and enjoying a Vermont craft beer, wouldn’t be out of the ordinary during a typical ski season. But had you seen them doing the same thing a couple months earlier when winds were ripping and temps were below zero … well, you might scratch your head and wonder.
But this is no ordinary year. With resorts across the country limiting access to base lodges and other internal spaces as a safety measure during COVID-19, skiers and snowboarders have been forced to adapt. For many, that has meant utilizing their cars to serve not only as transportation, but as ski locker, warming hut, water stop, baby changing station, favorite breakfast/lunch spot, après-ski hotspot and every other amenity typically provided at resort base areas.
“It was tough when we had a few weekends of negative-degree wind chill, but if it is in the 10s and 20s and sunny, you can’t beat hanging out in the lot,” Payack said. “When it is really cold, we will try and warm up in the car for a little bit instead of hanging outside. If it’s really bad, we’ll just go home. It’s been fun this year.”
The couple, in their late 20s, have been skiing Stowe every weekend and on weekdays whenever possible, as well as visiting Bolton Valley and Cochran’s for night skiing. Payack, who grew up in New Jersey, moved to Stowe two years ago to start a business, Vermont Organic. They live just three minutes from Stowe’s slopes, which is helpful when plotting out the ski day.
Zakrzewski completely gears up when they leave the house, including ski boots, while Payack will wear just about everything except ski boots so he can drive. They pack food to grill or sandwiches, along with hydration and, of course, craft beer. At the beginning of the season, Payack picked up the camp chairs and portable grill knowing they’d need to change things up due to the coronavirus. Their setup is simple but effective. Fortunately, they’ve only had to use restrooms in a base lodge once so far, but Payack says the resort has done a good job providing accommodations while also enforcing distancing and masking protocols.
Sheila Drakely and Chris Caswell of Boston are relatively new skiers who decided to up their game as the pandemic stretched into 2021, making skiing their primary winter social distancing pursuit to get them out of their apartment and enjoy healthy activity in the mountains. They purchased Epic passes and have visited a variety of New England resorts this season.
They coordinated season-long equipment rentals early on to avoid having to manage the process at the resorts. “This saved us not only time indoors at the lodge, increasing our time on the mountain … but also allowed us to leave all our gear in our car the whole season so at any moment we could go to the mountains,” Drakely said.
For a two-hour drive to Crotched Mountain, they’ll dress in their base layers before leaving their apartment. This keeps them comfortable on the drive up and when they get there, “saves us the hassle of trying to change in the car and public view,” Drakely said.
They also load up with provisions on their way, stopping at the grocery store or convenience store, knowing their options for food and drink at the resort are limited. And, they’ve strategized to do most of their skiing during off times. “Ninety percent of our slope time has been during the week or during meal times when the mountain is less crowded, not only to promote social distancing but also, who doesn’t love feeling like having a run all to themselves,” Drakely said.
“We continue to perfect as the season comes to an end,” she said, thrilled that they made the effort to ski during a challenging year. “We have caught some amazing sunsets, enhanced our own skills and made the most of this season.”
Sarah Wojcik, the former director of marketing and communications for Ski Vermont who is now associate editor for Ski Area Management magazine, is founder of the All Mountain Mamas blog, a featured content link on the Ski Vermont website. The mom of a pre-schooler and a baby born in March 2020, Wojcik brings a unique perspective on how to successfully go skiing with a young family when based out of one’s car.
“When I had my first son in 2017 the base lodge became core to my on-mountain experience,” Wojcik writes. “When he was a baby, we’d set up shop for the day in the lodge and my husband and I would swap out for runs. Sometimes we would run into friends who would watch him for a bit while we snuck a run in together. My son would get a bottle while I sipped on my Sip of Sunshine. It was pretty wonderful to share that base lodge community with him.”
Ah, the good old days. Then 2020 — and COVD — came along.
“I became nervous that we wouldn’t get out at all,” Wojcik writes. “How do you bring a baby with you to the mountain without all-day access to a lodge? How do you get a three-nearly-four-year-old to spend a whole day at the mountain without having a warm place to snack, color, and use the bathroom a million times? Would I ever ski again?!”
Like so many New Englanders passionate about skiing, she figured it out.
“My car as a base lodge game is hardly gorgeous, but it worked,” Wojcik writes. “With relatively mild weather in the early season, we’ve been able to boot up as a family in the back of the van and hang out in it when my kid needed a rest or snack. It also became a makeshift baby changing station and bar, sometimes both at once, during a few occasions. While we hardly had fancy trimmings, we had everything we needed and made it work, even with a baby in tow.”
Snowboarders Greg and Cassandra Small live in Secaucus, N.J., about an hour away from Mountain Creek, but they regularly drive two hours to Windham (N.Y.) and 3.5 hours to Stratton, Vt. Despite it being a COVID year, the couple find themselves in the mountains more than ever.
“Our snowboarding has increased and nearly doubled this year compared to years past as we purchased the Ikon Pass, which was definitely a win,” said Cassandra, a senior vice president for Quinn PR. It’s even more impressive considering they travel with their 2½-year-old son Greyson, who they’ve been able to introduce to the sport that Greg has been enjoying for 32 years and Cassandra for the past 14.
“The larger challenge — with a family — is that nothing is quick or easy anymore and you have to overly plan,” Cassandra said. “For instance, in years past, families could set up base camp inside the lodge should there be a nanny or a non-skier/snowboarder family member to help watch the kids, but that’s not feasible anymore. To do lunch, we’ll pack a cooler in the trunk and walk to the car for a brief break.”
It means more on-snow time for Greyson, and dad wouldn’t want it any other way. “Even though this year was different, it was a very important year,” Greg said. “Snowboarding is my passion and it is something very special I get to share with my wife and now son. In a crazy year we needed something that would take our minds away from the daily routine.
“Even with the new rules this was one of the best years ever.” ′