Big tourism week expected
LAKE PLACID — The outdoors winter recreation industry is gearing up for a busy President’s Day weekend and week following, amid a year which has seen record numbers of people recreating in the High Peaks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are preparing for safety on the trail and regarding the virus as many business, services and stage agencies are expecting to be running at their maximum capacity.
Not only is President’s Day a three-day weekend; this week is also winter break for many schools, which leads to many family vacations.
Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington is sold out of passes for the holiday period of Feb. 12 to 21, according to Elise Ruocco, public relations and communications manager for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs Whiteface.
She said it will be hard to gauge how many skiers and snowboarders will be there because season pass holders may show up, too.
She said the mountain’s capacity is loose and that ORDA is not putting a number on the maximum number of tickets. As more terrain on the mountain has opened, she said, ORDA sells more tickets. She said Whiteface has sold more tickets ahead of this holiday.
Skiers and snowboarders need to buy tickets in advance, instead of at the window, but it’s too late to do that before Feb. 22.
Ruocco said it is difficult to freeze ticket sales and turn down customers, but that ORDA is putting “health and safety is first.”
“It certainly isn’t our highest revenue year,” she said.
She said Whiteface follows the New York Forward COVID-19 guidelines, which include social distancing and a mask requirement except when skiing or snowboarding down the mountain, or eating.
The lodge is capped at 50% capacity, and visitors are asked to boot up in the cars to avoid the lodge.
“We really haven’t been seeing a problem with capacity indoors. A lot of people are avoiding that on their own,” Ruocco said. “The weather’s been mild enough that our deck seating, people have been choosing to sit outside.”
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer, speaking in his role as a union leader in the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, said the President’s Day weekend is typically the rangers’ busiest weekend of the winter. With adequate levels of snow this season, he said they are as ready as they can be for the influx.
He said state Department of Environmental Conservation staff is spread thin now because they are providing COVID-19 assistance to the state, helping run testing and vaccination sites. He said they have helped during long months of droughts and forest fires, or with homeland security after 9/11, but never for this long.
“We’re really good at emergency management systems … That’s been a big stresser for the past year,” van Laer said. “To my recollection, this has been the longest, prolonged incident that I’ve been involved with in my career.”
He said rangers receive significantly fewer calls in the winter than in the summer, but the calls they do get tend to be more dangerous and require more rangers.
“You have a limited time frame that a person is safe in cold weather,” van Laer said.
He said rangers are often on call 24/7. He feels the state “takes advantage of that,” and it hurts when they feel like they are “taken for granted,” but that there’s no way around it.
“We’re not going to make any stance that were not gonna answer the phones,” van Laer said. “It just is what it is.”
Zack Floss, a guide with High Peaks Cyclery Mountain Adventures, said the three full-time and five freelance guides there are booked clean through Jan. 20 with three to six trips a day, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing and ice climbing. Floss is also an Enterprise outdoors columnist.
“I have pulled every available guide that we can get our hands on, and we are still turning people away,” he said. “I’m getting five to 10 requests a day.”
He said this weekend is on par with other years but that weekday business is higher than usual. The week after Christmas was also very busy, he said. The past year has been busier than usual, “edging into aberrant,” he said.
Guides are working at maximum capacity, Floss said, whether it is a quick snowshoeing scoot to Avalanche Pass or leading a group to ski the slides on Wright Peak.
“I’ve been comparing it to the late stages of a game of Jenga. There’s not many pieces that move anymore,” Floss said. “If anyone drops because of an injury or over-straining or if the weather gets really bad one day, then the Jenga tower falls.”
Floss said around 70% of clients in the past year have been medical professionals, including doctors and researchers. He said with the pandemic weighing heavily on their everyday lives, they are looking for a rest and a place to safely “get away” within the state and be outside.
Some clients talk about their work on trips, he said; others would “very much like to leave it behind.”
Floss said he generally guides many medical professionals in a usual year, as they have the financial means to pay for it. Other clients are outdoor enthusiasts who had other plans canceled and still want to get out.
Floss said guides follow COVID-19 protocols, even in the backcountry. He said social distancing is common and that he wears a mask when it is not possible. Clients have discretion over when they wear masks, but he said he tries to wear high-exertion masks while on trail most of the time.
There are changes in how trips are conducted. No more than one group may go on a trip. They caravan in their vehicles instead of carpooling, and clients must not have been near a COVID-19-positive individual within 10 days of the trip.
Floss said guides get tested for the virus frequently, some because they are in college and some just to “keep on the up and up.”
Floss said there is a misconception that guides are just playing in the woods. He said there is much more to it than that. Guides are responsible for group morale, safety and navigation. He said they assess avalanche conditions, do risk assessment and generally coordinate the group.
“It is rather tiring. While it’s really fun to be out on the trail, it is required of a guide that you’re constantly being hyper-vigilant,” Floss said. “With that said … most of us do this because we love what we’re doing.”