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Atop the mountain, a mixture of relief and resolve

On the slopes of Wachusett Mountain, the pandemic is left behind, if only fleetingly

Snow lovers chill at the Ski School waiting area at Wachusett Mountain.
Snow lovers chill at the Ski School waiting area at Wachusett Mountain.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PRINCETON — A deadly pandemic races around the globe. The body count climbs with killer relentlessness. But for some blessed moments amid winter’s splendor, something akin to normalcy rides on frosty air.

At the base of Wachusett Mountain, skiers in multicolored winter clothing line up at the lifts, adjust their helmets and goggles, and try to forget dark headlines as they ready themselves for the slopes, a 1,000-foot drop.

“This is great,” Arden Sonnenberg, 58, a member of Sterling’s Select Board, told me the other morning. “I can forget COVID. I can forget politics. I can forget everything.

“It’s all about feeling good. Ski friends are a unique group of people. Do you remember when you were a kid in your neighborhood and you’d go out and find your friends on your bike? That’s what this is. Isn’t that fun?”

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Fun. If that isn’t one of the least employed words of this bleak winter, I don’t know what is. It’s only three letters long, one letter fewer than most words used to describe this cursed season.

And, for more than a few frightening moments, it seemed there would be no ski season at all this year. It looked like Wachusett’s 27 runs would be deserted, its three high-speed lifts empty.

“We kind of overreacted and basically shut the base lodge down,” said Jeff Crowley, 66, whose family has owned the ski resort since 1969. “We heard about the severity of it and we just wanted to be super pro-active. Then the decision was made to shut down nationally. So that was the end of the season.”

That was mid-March of last year, when the future seemed decidedly uncertain. The news grew bleaker with each report about disease and death, about despair and economic calamity.

So those smiles you see on the slopes of Wachusett Mountain these days are forged from a mixture of relief and resolve.

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They brighten the faces of skiers from across New England who are determined to salvage something fun from this season of darkness and doom.

“I don’t feel at risk when I’m outdoors,” said Polly Crowninshield, 72, of Marblehead. She is the captain of a ski team called Half Fast and races on the mountain on Wednesday mornings and Monday nights.

“It’s not that windy today,” she said. “But, still, it doesn’t seem anywhere near as bad as sitting in a restaurant, which I wouldn’t even consider doing. Maybe I’m turning a blind eye because I love this so much. This is my mountain.”

Actually, it’s Jeff Crowley’s mountain. It has belonged to his family since 1969, when his father, a World War II veteran and chairman of the board of Polar Beverage Corp., submitted a bid of $16,002 to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and won a five-year lease to operate the ski resort.

It’s been the Crowley family’s domain ever since. Through Vietnam and political assassinations. Through Watergate and moonwalks. Through economic collapses and, now, a historic pandemic whose global death toll stands at about 2 million.

There are 50 full-time employees and more than 1,000 part-time workers. There are 125 acres. And, in a good year, 350,000 ski-toting customers.

“We have 2,000 of our best friends out here skiing,” Jeff Crowley told me the other morning, blinking into a bright winter morning sun. “We hang out with them and ski with them and chat with them.”

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And, these days, there is this admonition: Don’t forget to wear your mask. He’s also learned a new way to sleep at night: eyes wide open.

“We essentially have 130 days to make our season,’' Crowley said. “We restricted the number of season passes. That was one of the things that was a tricky decision to make. And we have a lot of people who were disappointed that they weren’t able to get their season passes. Essentially, we have cut it in half. We’re trying to reduce the numbers just so we can control when people come.”

And people do come.

The parking lot was hardly empty the other day. If I didn’t know better, I would never have guessed the economic tightrope the owners are walking, or the restrictions under which skiers now seem to gratefully operate.

“We have half the capacity for twice the payroll,” said Carolyn Stimpson, vice president for mountain services and Jeff Crowley’s sister. “We’re happy to be able to survive this season. And that’s basically the rule for the industry. We’re just like, ‘Get us through it.’ Because, more than ever, I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about providing this service this year.

“It’s a sanity service.”

That’s precisely the way Mel Stephens sees it. He’s 88, a retired longtime schoolteacher in Belmont, and as a younger man was a full-time ski instructor at Mount Snow in Vermont.

“Being my age, I’m very worried about COVID,’' he told me. “So I try to stay away from crowds as much as I can. But skiing seems to be the best way that I can get exercise. To me, it’s the greatest sport in the world. It gets you outdoors. You get plenty of exercise. You’re among good people. And you can dress very nice.”

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I must say, Mr. Stephens looked pretty spiffy the other day in his blue knit vest, his dark ski pants, and blue mask. In fact, he fit right in with all the other people smiling behind their masks in Princeton.

People like Terry Hart, 64, of Princeton, who lives in the same house in which he grew up. He’s part of a skiing group of guys who dub themselves “Ten by Ten.” Translation: 10 runs by 10 a.m.

“I had the COVID about eight weeks ago, so I’m over it,” Hart said. “I just need confirmation that I’m not going to get it again. In the meantime, I’m doing everything that I can to stay active. I’ve actually — during COVID — lost like 30 pounds. So I’m an anomaly. I’m not sitting at a desk or pushing a pencil. I’m skiing or hiking.”

That sort of can-do attitude, that positive spirit in a season of doom, is what is propelling people like Jeff Crowley through this season of social distancing across 120 skiable acres.

He’s looking forward to an unusual festival in the not-too-distant future, when COVID has been conquered and normalcy returns.

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“We’re going to have a mask-burning bonfire,” said Crowley, standing at the base of Wachusett Mountain as skiers lined up for another run.

Until that day dawns, simple survival will have to suffice.

“We’re at 1,000-foot elevation right here,” Crowley told me at the base of the mountain. “It’s 2,006 up top. Which really is a jewel. When you look at the history of this, Henry David Thoreau called this place the observatory of Massachusetts.

“He walked over from Concord, Mass., and hung out and hiked up here. And from here you can see all over. You can see Mount Washington in New Hampshire. You can see the Prudential Tower. You can see Mount Monadnock.”

And somewhere, out there on the distant horizon, you can see blessed normalcy.

Blue skies. Fresh powder. A world in which the chatter in the lift line has nothing to do with vaccines and quarantines.

Instead, it will be about the spectacular snowscapes of Central Massachusetts and a hot cup of soup and a cold glass of beer in the lodge.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.