On March 14, Sarah Welch (pictured above) was one of the 100,000 or so seasonal workers who keep the bullwheels and other operations running at ski resorts around the country.
A day later, she learned her resort, Sugarbush in Warren, Vt. was closing due to the coronavirus. Within a week, she would be out of a job—another liftie let go.
Both Alterra Mountain Company (which owns Sugarbush and operates 14 other ski areas), and Vail Resorts (which owns or operates 37 ski areas), shut down their lifts on March 15. Other resorts followed suit like falling dominoes.
“We all got let go a month earlier than we thought— which is tough as so many of us are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Welch, a 29-year-old who also paints houses for a living.
A second blow came just a few days later when she discovered that someone had stolen all her gear from the lift operations locker room.
“They took skis, boards, poles, boots with custom insoles, helmets, even clothing. My favorite pair of Volkl Auras with Marker AT bindings were gone. I’ve milked those skis for five years and they don’t even make them anymore,” Welch said.
Fourteen lift operators had gear stolen. There was no sign of forced entry and police are still investigating. But according to Sugarbush Risk Manager, Amber Broadaway, insurance will not cover the missing items.
Then something good happened.
The story of the theft broke on local media and “the whole community rallied behind us,” Welch said.
Within just a few days a GoFundMe campaign had been set up and more than 80 donors contributed upward of $5,000. “I saw all these names popping up – many of them fellow resort employees—it’s an amazing testament to the Sugarbush community,” said Welch. “We also heard that a lot of guests were asking the resort to donate refunds for unused tickets or rentals to the employees.”
Vermont’s ski industry also responded.
Jason Levinthal, owner of Burlington-based J Skis and 4FRNT offered to replace the stolen skis. Burton covered the missing snowboard gear, Rossigol hooked the group up with new Pivot bindings, Julbo replaced goggles and Win Smith, Sugarbush’s former owner and current president, made a generous personal contribution.
While the robbery at Sugarbush was a low blow, around the country ski area lift operators and other workers were stunned by unexpectedly losing their jobs and, in many cases their meals and housing, too.
The ski community began doing what it could to ease their pain
Sugarbush had hired 115 international workers on J-1 visas this past season. At the end of March, many of them were still holed up in employee housing watching video games or playing cards as the resort worked to find them places to go. “When we shut down the resort, we gave away a lot of the cafeteria food to them and to other employees,” said Welch. They were allowed to stay rent-free through the end of March. Down Route 100, at Killington Resort, which is owned by POWDR, president Mike Solimano was one of several ski area employees who, wearing masks and gloves, loaded bags of groceries into cars as employees drove up. In rural southern Vermont, school bus drivers were running their routes but dropping off food — 12,000 packages from Stratton Mountain Resort’s food and beverage facilities—instead of picking up kids.
As snow fell on March 24, Sarah Welch watched others skin up Sugarbush’s Lincoln Peak, where she has worked the lifts for seven years. “For a lot of people who come skiing, the liftes are just the background. Most don’t understand what we do or that we hardly make any money or the amount of work we put in. In each ski community, somebody’s hurting. It’s great to see the community rallying around us,” she said. “Losing our equipment is just a drop in the bucket in terms of the issues facing our community right now. This makes their support extra meaningful. We feel very loved.”
As J Skis’ Levinthal said, “In times like this, no one is going to bail out the ski industry and skiing itself is a privileged sport. But if we can do something to help others, we will.”
Later that day, he mailed off 10 pairs of skis to the replace the ones stolen from Welch and the other Sugarbush lifties.
[Opening photo: Sarah Welch, a lift operator at Sugarbush Resort. Photo by John Atkinson/Sugarbush Resort]