Manitoba ski hills reopen with COVID-19 in mind

A number of Manitoba ski hills are now open to the public, but code red pandemic restrictions are making the openings more difficult than normal.

Northern Manitoba’s hidden gem, Mystery Mountain Winter Park, reopened Saturday after having to close early during the last lockdown.

Although the slopes, lifts and trails are open, the chalet is only open for buying passes and renting equipment, says Kacper Antoszewski, one of the winter park’s many dedicated volunteers. He teaches lessons and is a ski patroller.

“That didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits,” he said about the closed chalet.

“We’re lucky that we have a warm weekend this weekend so everyone can kind of ease into spending more time outside. It seems like everyone’s just stoked to be out on the hill.”

Kacper Antoszewski is a volunteer with the Thompson Ski Club, which oversees Mystery Mountain Winter Park. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Mystery Mountain is a 20-kilometre drive northwest of Thompson and overlooks Mystery Lake, about 665 kilometres north of Winnipeg. It has four lifts, 18 runs, 22 kilometres of snowshoe trails and is also the only largely volunteer-run ski hill in Manitoba.

Antoszewski says the area has gotten so much snow, they could’ve opened in early December if not for the pandemic. Because the entire province is red — “critical,” according to Manitoba’s colour-coded pandemic response system — a number of precautions have to be taken.

The province provided more details on outdoor recreation in the latest public health order released on Dec. 11 that will be in effect until Jan. 8. People are allowed to take part in winter sports, but must limit their group sizes to five (with exceptions for households larger than five), and Manitobans are urged to gather only with members of their households.

If you decide to take in the outdoors with someone not in your household, the province says you should make sure to physically distance, wear a mask, cover your cough and stay home if you’re sick.

Antoszewski says it was a fairly simple fix at the winter park — nobody’s allowed to hang out in the chalet. Instead, patrons are being asked to bring extra clothing, pack warm drinks and snacks and to warm up in their cars.

People are only allowed to ride the T-bar with members of their own family. They also must wear a mask inside the chalet when using the washroom or picking up their tickets, and cover up with a neck warmer while waiting for the T-bar, while also maintaining physical distancing.

Last year the Mystery Mountain chalet was packed with skiers and snowboarders warming up or having a snack. This year, they’ll have to do it outside or in their cars. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Still, something’s lost without the indoor space, Antoszewski says.

“The chalet is a great place to kind of sit down and chat with friends. and obviously it’s a place for community,” Antoszewski said.

“But at the end of the day, skiing is an outdoor sport, right? I think our priority is always to be outside, and I think we can have and still have a great ski season.”

Antoszewski says the last year has been a bit disappointing for winter sports enthusiasts in the north.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mystery Mountain had to cut its season short to comply with public health orders, when it easily could have remained open until the beginning of May. 

“That’s a shame that we couldn’t have a few long seasons this year. But obviously we’re doing what we can to keep everyone safe,” he said.

Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes reopened to the public last week, and although it was a challenge with public health restrictions to deal with, its general manager says it’s all about getting people outside enjoying the snow. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Elsewhere, Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes in the Whiteshell opened to the public last week, but not without challenges.

There’s a cap on the number of daily lift ticket sales, and those tickets must be bought in advance online.

“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure,” said general manager Caleigh Christie in an interview on CBC Manitoba’s Radio Noon on Thursday.

Christie says staff installed a take out window to make extra room for people to pick up different items.

Outdoors enthusiasts make the most of the winter during a pandemic on the slopes at Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes in the Whiteshell. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

“A big part of it all has been just the communication to our guests in advance because it’s a very different theme this year. We want to make sure everyone’s prepared for that when they arrive,” she said.

Another challenge is the climate, Christie says. It’s been a very mild winter and staff have had to make a lot of snow to accommodate the 12 runs, plus maintain the 30 kilometres of Nordic ski trails about 130 kilometres east of Winnipeg, she says.

Nevertheless, she says, it’s all worth it.

“You know, there were many moments in setup season where I thought, ‘Why are you doing this? This is beyond beyond stressful,'” Christie said.

“But now that we’re open, now that we can — well, we can’t see smiling faces because everyone’s wearing masks — but we didn’t see scrunchy eyeballs and laughter. It makes a world of difference … I feel great.” 

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