A sign that reads “Don’t be the reason we lose our season” stands at the White Pass Ski Area on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. 

As Americans near 10 months of solitude and restricted movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to outdoor recreation has become exceptionally valuable. White Pass Ski Area is open for business, with expansive slopes that offer the desired safe outdoor recreation.

The snowy trees and rolling slopes at White Pass offer both solace and excitement to those wishing for a change of scenery. Skiing, in its essence, is an escapist activity. Gliding on a white sea under a canopy of trees and darting around boulders that have long graced the earth is a peaceful experience. Perhaps a dance on skis through the trees is the perfect activity for soothing the many anxieties.

Rather than being weakened, the White Pass community has strengthened since the pandemic stole the tail end of its season last March. White Pass pro patrol employee and freestyle team coach Gunnar Stoltenow recalls avid skiers hiking up the face of White Pass shortly after the ski area closed last spring, determined to get their last turns of the season.

However, the threat of a shortened season still looms over White Pass. Signs reading “Don’t be the reason we lose our season” are planted throughout the ski area for all to see.

The White Pass community, consisting of Nordic and slalom skiers, snowshoers, sledders, and even “fat bikers” (off-road cyclists with oversized tires), requires mask wearing and social distancing.

Skiers “have been cooped up for so long that the people who want to be here are willing to do whatever it takes,” said Stoltenow, who commutes from Selah.

While wearing a protective face mask when grocery shopping or exercising at a public gym was abnormal before the coronavirus pandemic, mask wearing has actually always been an ordinary element of snow sports. Masks significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University and numerous other researchers. But they also protect one’s face from the bitter winds of the mountains.

And, as is the case with masks, physical distancing is equally typical of snow sports. It is rather uncomfortable to navigate through the trees and across moguls — mounds of snow — when 6 feet or closer to someone. Thus, skiers and snowboarders alike have been practicing physical distancing for ages. The recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 6-foot physical distancing is not difficult to adhere to on the spacious slopes of White Pass.

Physical distancing indoors, however, is a different challenge for the ski lodge and après ski culture. Outbreaks at ski resorts such as in Ischgl, Austria, in the spring (described as the “ground zero” of the coronavirus first wave in Europe), serve as cautionary tales for mountaingoers who disregard safety measures.

In order to protect the White Pass community and beyond, White Pass has closed all indoor seating at the Day Lodge and High Camp. Visitors are encouraged to use their cars as their lodges this season. Going from packed lodge dining and its routine of searching for an open table to having a quaint meal from the parking lot while watching skiers and snowboarders sail across the face of the mountain? This is a transition that could be embraced.

This tumultuous year, White Pass Ski Area provides more than recreation. The great trees of the Gifford Pinchot Forest, where White Pass is located, provide lessons of survival through hardship. Many of the trees that line the trails of White Pass have lived through merciless windstorms, hailstorms, avalanches and fires. Yet many stand tall to this day, providing shelter to skiers and snowboarders who venture off-piste.

Let the stoic trees of White Pass inspire you to persevere during these arduous times as you safely recreate outdoors.

Mary-Frances Ballew is a senior at Selah High School.