In the French Alps, they’re so desperately trying to save snow, they’re covering stored snow with wood chips. Hoping to stay alive, a Vermont cross-country ski area is experimenting with the same idea. In California, winters are shorter — and the fire season way longer. Nearly 200 ski resorts have been abandoned in the Italian Alps, where since 1960, the snow season has shrunk by 38 days. Worldwide, more than 60 percent of ski areas now have to rely on snowmaking … which is not only expensive, it contributes to the global warming that makes resorts, well, rely on snowmaking.
Off-piste, the situation is even more dire. In the Arctic and Antarctic, mammoth sheets of ice are plummeting into the sea. From Greenland to New Zealand, glaciers are melting like never before. The Earth is experiencing the warmest years ever recorded, year after year after year.
And yet… the President of the United States has declared climate change a hoax and is systematically undoing all the protective measures his predecessor fought so hard to put in place.
In Australia, the prime minister is not only another climate denier, he left for a Hawaiian vacation as a thousand fires fouled the air of the country’s biggest cities, destroyed more than 1,200 homes and killed an ever-growing number of people and animals (which, at the time of publication, has been estimated to be 1 billion animals dead).
As tiny Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific, slowly sinks beneath the sea, its president declares, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that warming is not manmade, and announces that his government will “put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation and has replaced it with a bold scenario filled with great faith in the Mighty Hand.”
Right. Along with burning Australia and sinking Kiribati, snowsports are the most endangered by a heating planet. We are the canaries in the cold mine.
Opposing Views of Two Neighbors at Whistler-Blackcomb
So, how is the ski industry dealing — or not dealing — with climate change? I asked techies and visionaries, business leaders and ski bums, writers and executives. Their responses ranged from what the industry can do to survive when snow grows scarce to what it isn’t doing. A perfect example of the split comes from North America’s biggest ski resort, Whistler-Blackcomb.
Rob McSkimming is Whistler-Blackcomb’s former VP of business development. Like the president of Kiribati, he’s not fond of those who predict dire consequences of global warming: “Much has been written and discussed about ‘the worst of times’ for the industry … despite perception of the doom and gloom for some, these may actually be ‘the best of times’ for the mountain resort industry.”
McSkimming goes on to discuss advances in gear, in clothing, in ease of learning, then optimistically adds, “Lift placement, snowmaking, summer grooming, artificial surfaces, multi-resort passes, indoor facilities — will all slow down and mitigate the effects seen as a result of climate change. One of the flipsides of the climate change issue is that most mountain resorts around the world are looking for ways to diversify their experiential offerings beyond snow-related activities… The growth potential is, in this regard, staggering.”
Right down the slope, G.D. Maxwell, the Whistler Pique’s legendary columnist, is less than staggered. He says, “Despite all the good words about what the mountains are doing to fight climate change, you don’t have to stumble very far from the bottom of the mountain before you find a mountain-owned heated patio burning propane so skiers can drink cold beer outside in a cold climate because … because it’s a money maker. Not burning fossil fuels to warm people too dumb to drink inside seems to me like what consultants call the low-hanging fruit. Like the lowest of the low. Why not just set the snow on fire? Oh yeah, it doesn’t burn. It just melts.”
Maxwell warms to his theme: “The inconvenient truth is the entire ski industry is a poster child for climate crimes. We entice people to jump on jet planes and punch holes in the ozone so they, too, can rent an SUV and drive to the ski hill to enjoy those cold beers on heated patios.
“Don’t get me wrong — I’m not stopping any time soon. But in a rational world, one where we really believe this climate-change crisis is a matter of life or death for homo sapiens, there wouldn’t be any downhill skiing the way it’s configured today. We’d be back to skinning up and sliding down. So smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em.”
Converging in Crisis: Driving Action to Meaningful Change
Now, let’s look at responses from the ski biz. If alpine skiing is facing massive climate challenges, double that for Nordic. Reese Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, says, “The Nordic side of the ski business is especially sensitive to climate change and the lack of consistent snow associated with it. Snowmaking, long considered an amenity if you could afford it, is now becoming more important to ensuring a lengthy season. There are, however, many smaller ski areas where the price tag is out of the question.
“For those that get snowfall, snow farming is a popular option with very limited start-up cost. There are several options here:
- Installing snow fences.
- Stockpiling snow into large piles.
- Storing snow over the summer months.
- Building future trails at higher elevation and in more shade.
Brown adds, “Alternative activities are being considered now to bring in revenue and keep staff busy when the skiing is limited. These include fat biking during the winter months and mountain biking, hiking, weddings and more during the non-winter months.”
Before becoming director of marketing at Snowsports Industries America (SIA), Chris Steinkamp was executive director of Protect Our Winters (POW). His comments show how much the two extremely different organizations have converged.
With his SIA toque on, Steinkamp says, “The industry has recognized the threat of climate change and understands what needs to be done. Every company needs to look at their carbon emissions, and more companies need to engage in this now. The UN Report on Climate Change said we’re not meeting our science-based goals. We need to de-carbonize entirely by 2050. Our backs are against the wall.”
I point out that this doesn’t sound like the SIA of old. “True. A year ago, SIA realized we can’t do this alone. We teamed up with NSAA and OIA to form the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership. The goal is to galvanize the business voice of the $887-billion outdoor industry to drive action on climate through policy change.”
Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for NSAA, the traditionally conservative National Ski Areas Association, also faces not only a challenging future but a vexing present. With a sigh, she says, “There are about 476 ski areas in the US. In 1982, there were 735. There are many reasons for this shrinkage, but lack of snow is one of them.”
Perhaps as a result, she says, “Nobody in the ski industry is just sitting back and letting things take their course. They’ve been very vocal on the impacts of climate change on recreation and on humanity. They’re taking local action to green their operation: investing in renewable energy, sustainable purchasing practicing, starting recycling and composting programs.”
When I ask her what could NSAA do better, she turns it to what they are doing better.
“In recent years, operators have been more vocal on the advocacy side for a climate-friendly regulatory agenda. We’ve brought business leaders to Washington to advocate for climate regulation, especially setting a price on carbon. Something we’re also doing better is mobilizing our guests to take action, from changing lightbulbs to advocating for change. We’re going to need as many solutions as possible — it can’t wait.”
Despite the fact that the next two people I spoke with come from different states and run very different organizations, their views are surprisingly convergent.
Here’s Menlove on off-piste: “In the backcountry world, three organizations are doing outstanding work: Protect Our Winters (POW), Winter Wildlands Alliance, and Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of skiers, climbers, hikers, kayakers and surfers. They’re all getting the outdoor community engaged in planetary conservation. What they all have in common are the athletes, guides and community leaders who are using their social media platforms to speak out on climate action.
“The best example is POW, formed by Jeremy Jones, a rock-star snowboarder. He’s gathered this amazing cohort of snow-world athletes. They’re being really sophisticated about helping elect candidates who support a carbon tax or other climate action. These athletes committed to climate action recognize that the only way we’re gonna make headway is through business and government.”
Farther west, Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California, takes a similar view from a different perspective. “One of the first things we have done as an industry is realize that we have to be bigger than we are individually, or even as Ski California. There’s no doubt that the proverbial changing of our light bulbs and reducing our carbon footprint is a net positive. But the simple fact is that we, as an industry, are merely one drop in a much larger bucket. That’s why we joined together with other state associations, a larger group, to support the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership, an even larger group. We have to push our government (not so much California) and other governments around the world to lead the change.”
Jules Older is author and publisher of the ebooks DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love and SKIING THE EDGE: Humor, Humiliation, Holiness and Heart