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Murray Journal

Veteran skiers plan a variety of approaches to an unconventional season

Dec 08, 2020 04:00PM ● By Drew Crawford

Ian Melling from Washington State enjoys the slopes at Alta. (Linnea Lundgren/City Journals)

By Drew Crawford | [email protected]

Utah is known for its wintertime wonders, and skiers and snowboarders are anxious to hit the slopes for the first time since resorts closed early in March as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Ski and snowboard enthusiasts, however, can expect some changes this season. Many modifications are in place, and resorts have implemented a reservation system and have started enforcing social distancing guidelines. 

As a result of the changes, some skiers are taking an unconventional approach to the season, planning for a mix of reservation days and backcountry skiing.

“It’s kind of what I expect I’ll be doing this season is a mix of both. My strategy is that I’m going to frontload my reservation days because I don’t know how long ski resorts are going to stay open. I’m not saving any days for March, but we’re going to see,” Michael Tzovaras, a veteran skier who moved to Utah last year, explained. 

Tzovaras, who has an enthusiasm and infectious attitude for the sport, is not too fazed by the actions of others and the chance that they will get in his way on the slopes. He plans to maintain his own distance during his runs and doesn’t plan on hanging out in resort lodges or riding in the gondolas. 

“I love skiing at resorts on Saturdays and hanging with friends and grabbing a beer, and that whole sort of sense of camaraderie of being at the resort,” he said. “At the same time, I definitely enjoy my days in the backcountry. I love to hike; my wife and I do a lot of hiking; we like the outdoors. Backcountry skiing for me is less about skiing, but it’s more about being outside and finding a little bit of peace and solitude, getting to be out in nature. They’re quite different.”

Tzovaras is encouraged to see that so many people want a piece of the action this year, but also recognizes the unique challenges that are posed by others who want their fix out on the slopes.

“I think I’m excited that so many people are getting into ski touring. Yesterday, I toured up Alta in the morning because they got snow, and I was excited, and it was an absolute zoo, it was crazy. I got up there a little bit earlier, and by the time I was making my way down the parking lot was completely full as if the resort was open,” Tzovaras said.

“I think that there is going to be some challenges with backcountry skiing and everyone getting into it. I know some people are a little nervous with safety and that sort of thing with so many people getting into it,” Tzovaras said, recounting comments made by others on social media groups such as Utah Backcountry Ski. 

New Yorker Miles Harris, a best friend of Tzovaras, plans on ditching his expensive city apartment and moving to Utah for the season to take advantage of skiing the Wasatch Front with his friend. 

“The more I thought of it, it seemed like a no-brainer to give up my lease, and to go live in a place that would not only be cheaper, but in which my social life didn’t have to be in some tiny pod in an apartment. I could ski, I could hike, and I’m grateful to be at a place in life where I could manage that,” Harris said.

Harris, who is single, is a recent MBA graduate from Columbia and has been renting Airbnbs across the country on a monthly basis since summer, as his work has changed to being fully remote. 

“I’ll kind of play it by ear. Michael is one of my best friends and ski buddies. He’s an advanced skier and I often take his lead on what we should do. I’m up for anything. I enjoy both [resort skiing and backcountry skiing]. My guess is that we do a little bit more of resort skiing,” Harris said. 

Harris currently plans on staying in Utah to ski through December to avoid being tied down in New York City with its restrictive distancing measures during the winter months. He has heard about potential pushback from locals who are concerned about people from outside the state taking advantage of the ski season and driving up rent and housing prices. 

“I don’t really understand that,” Harris said. “I go on Airbnb and there’s tons of availability. I imagine that locals aren’t staying in Airbnbs in their own city, so I’m not sure how that’s affecting their own rental prices, or their own home prices.”

Agencies around the state are preparing for skiers to change their activities this year, notably venturing into the backcountry.

Lance Barton, an experienced skier of 25 years, is encouraged by the material that the Utah Avalanche Center has released and wants to see everybody that skis use it. 

“In Utah we’re really lucky. The Utah Avalanche Center does a daily avalanche report, and they’re pretty on the ball with just getting the general idea of how dangerous it is and stressing the fact that any random person can’t just hike up the mountain and ski it without recognizing that there is risk involved,” Barton said. 

The Utah Avalanche Center has already started to issue press releases warning inexperienced skiers of the inherent dangers of backcountry skiing. 

On Nov. 13 the organization released the following statement:

“With the expected drastic increase of people venturing into backcountry avalanche terrain in the 20/21 winter season, we fear rising potential for individual human involvements, deaths, and even larger, catastrophic avalanche accidents. Critical resources like search and rescue teams, first responders, and emergency medical providers are stretched thin. Please consider this and adjust your backcountry aspirations accordingly: make more conservative decisions and avoid very steep slopes and extreme objectives.”

Barton feels that the organization is also increasing its avalanche preparedness training to account for skiers change in activity. 

“I know that they’ve been trying to just increase their awareness in general the last couple of years. This year, I kind of get the feeling that they’re making an extra push about it because they get the general idea that more people will be going into the backcountry,” Barton said.  

While it remains to be seen whether resorts will stay open all season, skiers are taking it all in stride.

“I’m still going to get outside and ski every weekend. If I’m going to basically live in my home five days a week and not leave my bedroom, I need to be outside on the weekends to maintain my mental health and sanity,” Harris said. “Utah’s a great place for that.”