Ski Resorts vs. The Climate Crisis

New hotels, high speed lifts, snowmaking infrastructure…are ski resorts doing enough to reduce their environmental impact?

In early autumn, press releases from ski resorts in Europe, Japan and North America start filling up my inbox. Using bolded fonts, they champion new ski runs, new gondola systems, new four-storey hotels, new state of the art snowmaking infrastructure, new resort mergers providing access to the largest piste network ever created…

Some resorts might talk about solar panels, eco hotels, and new measures to protect biodiversity, while also mentioning all the shiny, new construction they have going on, which feels like mixed messaging. I’d love a resort to come out and say: “Due to the climate crisis we’ve decided not to build anything new this year, instead we’ve spent the capital on retrofitting insulation,” or something equally unsexy but effective.

“If you really cared about fixing the problem of climate change, what would that look like?”

Or to just address climate impact directly in their marketing strategy. To take on the ultimate elephant in the room in snowsports, which, through melting glaciers, erratic seasons and warmer, wetter snow, is bringing an increasingly real and no longer abstract threat to the industry from one season to the next.

Last winter, at the top of a mountain in Colorado, Aspen Skiing Company tried to do just that, with a sculpture called ‘Melting Gondola’. Designed by the artist Chris Erickson, it shows a decommissioned ski lift melting into a bright red goop in the hot sun, framed by a picturesque mountain backdrop. Erickson, who himself has had to evacuate two homes on account of wildfires, wanted the piece to provoke conversations about the impact climate change is having on the ski industry and mountain communities.

Pictured: The Melted Gondola. Credit: Aspen Snowmass
Pictured: Aspen. Credit: Getty Images / iStock

Despite its associations with luxury and high-rolling excess, this isn’t the first time Aspen has put the climate crisis front and centre. As far back as 2006, the resort ran an ad campaign which highlighted how global heating could end skiing, and they’ve had some key environmental wins since then, most notably when they repurposed a local coal plant to convert methane (a huge greenhouse gas) into electricity. The plant can now power all four of Aspen’s ski areas including hotels and restaurants, with any excess electricity flowing back into the regional grid. A feat which took 15 years of community organising, including encouraging progressive candidates to sit on the utility’s board, to achieve.

Much of this is down to the advocacy of Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, who has been at the resort since 1999 and is also a board member for the environmental NGO Protect Our Winters. Auden says: “If sustainability means staying in business for ever, my approach is to ask: ‘If you really cared about fixing the problem of climate change, what would that look like?’”

For Auden, virtually no business, in or outside of the ski industry, has ever done anything at the level that would solve the issue. And while he believes reducing energy usage operationally is of course good and important, it doesn’t address the systemic problem of the climate crisis, which he says can only be fixed by changes in policy and how we practise capitalism.

“It’s about vocalising this massive outdoor community that is politically latent”

“The reason we live in a fossil fuel economy is because the most powerful business in the history of commerce is the fossil fuel industry. So, we need to think about where we as a business have power, and how we can strategically wield it,” he says. To that end Auden leads Aspen Ski Company’s political lobbying at a local and national level; they were the only company in the outdoor industry to support Massachusetts vs EPA in 2007, the environmental protection law which lets the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the US, which is now under threat from the recent Supreme Court ruling to limit the EPA’s power.

Auden sees the work of Protect Our Winters as an extension of that ethos, using a social movement to bring about policy change. “It’s about vocalising this massive outdoor community that is politically latent,” he says. “If you’re a hiker or skier you did that because you didn’t want to be working in Washington on politics, you intentionally disengaged, but if you can engage these people, it could be way more powerful and influential on climate than say the NRA is on guns.”

In the resort itself, Auden feels a duty to nudge the behaviour of their guests towards positive climate action in their daily lives. “The vision of Aspen has always been that you come here on vacation and as it’s so beautiful you’d be open to new ideas and go home more equipped to improve the world,” says Auden. But he concedes it is no easy task. “Our guests like what we’re doing environmentally but I’m not sure it’s that deep a concern, which is part of the problem in America. It’s like I care but let me drink this expensive bottle of champagne as a priority, and part of what we’re trying to do is change that. To get people who visit here to understand what we’re doing and go out into the world with a new world view.”

“We didn’t demand that our ski lifts run using energy that will eventually destroy civilisation, we just want to run the ski lifts”

He tells me the Colorado Rockies are 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than they were in 1980, with resorts including Aspen losing around 30 days off their skiing season as a result. But he also acknowledges that as a “centre of conspicuous consumption” some people might be resistant to hearing Aspen Ski Company talk about the climate crisis.

His response? “Who ought to be trying to solve this problem if not a wealthy and influential community that has the ability to do it and is affected by it?” He also says that all consumption in the US is based on fossil fuels, whether that is manufacturing or running ski lifts. “We didn’t demand that our ski lifts run using energy that will eventually destroy civilisation, we just want to run the ski lifts. it would be disingenuous if we didn’t advocate for solutions that might include policies which increase our operating costs, carbon taxes or whatever but we are doing that,” he says. 

Credit: Getty Images / iStock

I ask Auden how he thinks European resorts compare to US resorts in terms of climate action. He says in many senses they’re in a better position thanks to the European Union “being way ahead of us on carbon” but he thinks the issue isn’t discussed enough publicly. “One of my gripes about European resorts at the leadership level is they never talk about it and the more they talk the more they can wake up their peers. Customers want that, as they care about the climate,” he says.

Dom Winter, Programmes Manager at Protect Our Winters UK, agrees that skiers and snowboarders do care about the environment and, according to research by the Ski Club of Great Britain/Mountain Trade Network, increasingly factor that into their choice of destination. He also says some resorts have been vocal in lobbying for better train connectivity, but more could be done.

“The biggest problem for resorts in terms of their climate impact is guest transport getting to and from the resort,” he says. A problem which is especially acute for resorts catering to international travellers such as the British going to France, Italy or Austria. Travelling from London to the Alps by plane has over 12 times the carbon footprint of taking the train.

“The biggest problem for resorts in terms of their climate impact is guest transport”

When the Eurostar direct train from London to the Alps was cancelled, French resorts including Les Arcs, Tignes, La Rosiere and Meribel supported a petition and open letter by ski train experts SnowCarbon to get it reinstated, which garnered over 12k signatures. Dom says he’d like to see resorts do more to financially incentivise those who travel by train or electric vehicle, as some private operators have started to do.

But it’s interesting that the drive for the petition came from SnowCarbon and NGOs such as Protect Our Winters getting the message out to the snowsports community. In fact, many people who saw the petition hadn’t known about the ski train until they read about it and now are demanding its reinstatement so they can travel by train in the future.

Community action from skiers, snowboarders and those living in mountain communities is growing all the time. Earlier this year, 500 activists joined protests in La Clusaz against the building of new reservoirs to extract water for artificial snow. While in the Austrian Tyrol, a planned merger between Pitzal and Ötztal, which would have created the Europe’s largest ski resort destroying a wild glacier and pristine high Alpine environment in the process, will now not go ahead thanks to pressure from local skiers and snowboarders, supported by the Austrian Alpine Club and the NGOs WWF Austria and Friends of Nature. A local referendum in July 2022 narrowly voted against the merger, which has been in the works since 2016, and the development was halted.

“Ski resorts are just competing against each other. So, is there a real need for more lifts?”

The Patagonia film Vanishing Lines tells the story of those opposed to the project. Bibi Tölderer-Pekarek, a physiotherapist based in Innsbruck and ambassador for the brand says the campaign really struck a chord with local skiers and snowboarders, who felt they didn’t need a new bigger resort at the expense of destroying more of this unique environment during an accelerating climate crisis. Locals already have a great option of different ski resorts – I can’t even tell you how many there are,” she says.

“Ski tourism isn’t growing anymore, but ski resorts are just competing against each other. So, is there a real need for more lifts? I guess it’s good for the marketing to advertise how many km of slope you can offer…I would rather that my daughter will still have the possibility to enjoy an unspoilt alpine scenery.”

Pictured: Lesley McKenna. Credit: Hannah Bailey

Lesley McKenna, three-time Olympian, ski and snowboard instructor and co-founder of Wandering Workshops in the Cairngorms National Park tells me the opposition to Pitzal-Ötztal was a perfect community response. “It got people on-side and gave them a language, vocabulary and vision to articulate what they were feeling and thinking. It’s a really human thing to feel connected to others and nature and be inspired by your experiences, and that connection created momentum,” she says.

Lesley thinks we need to reconsider who the stakeholders are when it comes to mountain environments; to ask who is this precious land for? Is it just the capital stakeholders or the communities who use the land for sports, recreation and finding a deeper meaning to life? “If the answer is only to make money for a select small group of people or a faceless company, as opposed to safeguarding it for future generations or more broadly conservation, that’s a problem,” she says.

“If people can directly benefit from whatever is going on then they’re more likely to become responsible caretakers”

She gives the example of Cairngorm Mountain receiving £16 million of government subsidies for a new funicular up the mountain, but locally people are asking what is the community payback from that investment? Long term, the Aviemore and Glenmore Trust, a community group, hopes to take ownership of the mountain, so that any profits can be funnelled back into doing good for local people, who in turn would take the environmental stewardship of the mountain more seriously.

“That is how to build community and empower individuals to protect nature, because if people can directly benefit from whatever is going on then they’re more likely to become responsible caretakers,” she says.

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