Freeing the Snow
Climate Adaptation, Inequality, and the Future of Skiing
I first learned to ski at a small, family-owned resort in Maine called Shawnee Peak. It was the closest mountain to my hometown and provided affordable, no-frills night skiing for locals. Toward the end of high school, I spent countless evenings driving up to the mountain with my friends after the school day ended, skiing until the nearly empty lifts closed at nine in the evening.
Shawnee Peak isn’t blessed by geography. It’s on the edge of the rainy, temperate flatlands of the Maine coast. On cold nights, long since the last snowfall, the trails get infamously icy. Since the “resort” is really just a small business, it doesn’t have a lot of snowmaking guns or luxurious amenities.
Shawnee Peak is already marginal. A few warm or low-snow seasons could pose an existential threat to its business. In 2019, the New York Times published an interactive report on the effects of climate change on skiing. The report cited a study that predicted a large swath of American resorts — particularly those in the lowland East, like Shawnee — could be uneconomic after a couple of decades of moderate warming.
All this is tragic for mountains like Shawnee and the people who care about them and make their livelihoods there.
But I’m part of the problem: I haven’t been to Shawnee Peak in years.
After college, I moved to California to work for Breakthrough. Now I ski at Lake Tahoe, at a resort called Squaw Valley, one of the largest resorts in the world and the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. When I go back to Maine in the winter, I still ski as much as possible with the same high school friends, but we never go to Shawnee. We drive an hour further into the Maine mountains to ski at Sunday River, a much larger corporate resort that boasts the world’s largest snowmaking system. My season pass in California gives me five free days at Sunday River, perfect for my winter vacations in Maine.
Large, corporate, wealthy, and connected resorts like Squaw Valley and Sunday River are thriving. In the face of rising temperatures, they’re investing millions of dollars in adaptation, expansion into networks of shared passes, and consolidated ownership. Small, independent, and marginal hills like Shawnee Peak are closing en masse. There were over 700 American ski resorts in operation in 1978. Today, there are only 478.
This is a story about climate change and the future of skiing. But it’s also a story about luxury, adaptation, and inequality. Who can adapt for fun? And who benefits?
Throughout most of human history, skiing was primarily functional, not recreational. The first evidence of skiing comes from cave paintings and rock carvings of hunters in China and Norway. Modern cross-country skiing began in Scandinavian militaries. Soldiers fought on skis as recently as World War II, which had several significant engagements of ski troops, most famously in the “Winter War” between Finland and the Soviet Union. American soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division used skis extensively during the invasion of fascist Italy. Some of these soldiers would return to the US to build the postwar domestic ski industry.
Recreational downhill skiing began in earnest in the early 20th century, when mechanical lifts were built at resort towns in Europe and North America. The earliest ski resorts were some of the most luxurious destinations of their era, immortalized in art deco posters that can now be found in many an overpriced café or thrift store. Downhill skiing was expensive and geographically concentrated within a few regions in the European Alps and the American Rockies. The costs of attending these resorts — in addition to travelling to them — made skiing a fundamentally elite pastime.
In the postwar era, skiing exploded in popularity. Fast-growing economies and populations produced a rapid growth in the number of ski resorts. Modern ski equipment, like the fixed-heel alpine boot, were combined with chairlifts and snowmaking technology to make skiing easier, safer, and more accessible.
Today, although temperatures are rising, the ski business is still doing well. The number of skier days in the US approached an all-time high of almost 60 million in the 2018–19 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. After growing exponentially from 1945 to 1980, skier days have increased slowly from 1980 to the present, and have averaged a growth rate of around 0.5 percent per year. Although slower than population growth, the continued growth in skiing is still remarkable, especially given the decline in the number of operating resorts.
There is more skiing in the US than ever, just on fewer mountains. If you own one of those mountains, you’re probably doing pretty well, too. Vail Resorts, the only publicly traded skiing company, saw the value of its stock skyrocket fifteen-fold between 2009 and 2018, vastly outperforming the market as a whole.
If climate change spells death for the American ski industry, you can’t tell from its vital signs.
How has the ski industry continued to grow despite rising temperatures and increasingly disruptive seasonal swings in snowfall? Ski resorts — especially the largest and wealthiest ones — are champions of climate adaptation. Thank the snowmakers.
Artificial snowmaking is simple. You run a mixture of air and water at high pressure through a metal cannon, and provided the temperature and humidity are low enough, it begins to snow.
Snowmaking was key to the postwar expansion of skiing. Most American ski resorts haven’t relied on natural snowfall for decades. Since the 1980s, more than 90 percent of ski resorts have invested in snowmaking systems. By the turn of the millennium, almost every resort in the country, except a handful of backcountry spots, made artificial snow.
The benefits of snowmaking redound to every sort of resort. Snowmaking enables resorts to operate in regions with infrequent or insufficient snowfall. For resorts in snowy regions, it helps smooth the seasonal variability in snowfall.
Despite ongoing complaints from purists, snowmaking is now crucial to the survival of the sport at all levels. It is ubiquitous in modern competitive events: the 2014 Sochi and 2018 Pyeonchang Winter Olympics were held almost entirely on artificial snow. The upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — not a part of the world known for blizzards — will depend even more on artificial snowmaking.
Snowmaking is the fundamental reason that skiing will survive climate change. Even though making snow requires low temperatures, resorts can blast their snow guns in the coldest part of the night and have freshly groomed trails ready for the next mild, snowless day.
But snowmaking is expensive, mostly because of the large quantities of electricity and water it requires. A handful of resorts, including Maine’s Sunday River, have had disputes with their local utilities over their high energy usage and have been forced to change their snowmaking practices as a result. The state of Vermont limits water withdrawals for snowmaking from ski areas, which has resulted in some resorts building onsite reservoirs to reduce their impact on water systems.
Ironically, ski resorts’ adaptation to climate change makes the problem worse — when the electricity used for snowmaking is generated in a way that produces greenhouse gases. Very few resorts have moved to decarbonize their energy supply, with the notable exception of Squaw Valley, which set a goal to be powered by 100 percent clean electricity in 2018. The ski industry is represented by a prominent climate advocacy nonprofit called Protect Our Winters. But POW focuses mostly on policy advocacy at the federal and state levels. The industry as a whole has been noticeably sluggish in taking actions to reduce its own emissions.
Instead, some ski resorts have taken rather drastic adaptive measures. Starting in 1978, the megaresort at Vail, Colorado, began cloud seeding with silver iodide to encourage increased winter precipitation. Today, cloud seeding occurs at more than 100 locations in Colorado. Governments have gotten in on the action too. In 2013, an Australian federal agency began cloud seeding the Snowy Mountains in an effort to boost winter sports tourism. The readiness of ski resorts and governments to begin this sort of mild geoengineering (known as “snowfall enhancement” or “weather modification”) illustrates the entrenched dependence of winter sports on technological adaptation.
Even more outlandish adaptive measures have been taken to preserve skiing in a warming world. Indoor ski resorts and dry ski slopes, which began as novelty attractions in hot places like Dubai, have grown massively in popularity around the world. The first snow-slope indoor resort in the US opened in 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey — just 40 miles from the nearest outdoor ski resort.
Meanwhile, the ski resort at Tignes, France, is planning to build an indoor slope on top of one of its existing outdoor slopes, on the very same terrain where patrons now ski. Throughout most of the 20th century, year-round skiing on the glaciers at Tignes was reliable. But current research projects that all but the largest alpine glaciers will disappear by 2100. The sight of the indoor slope constructed in place of the outdoor slope at Tignes will be the most jarring sign of climate adaptation in skiing yet, but merely a prelude of things to come.
Skiing will survive. And it is thriving today: skier days are at their highest ever. But there is a competing and worrying trend. Despite the overall increases in skier days, the number of unique individual downhill skiers in the US fell 10 percent from 2006 to 2017, and only 3.6 percent of the population, almost 12 million Americans, report being active downhill skiers. Further, this group is getting older on average. And, like much of the American economy, skiing is becoming more and more unequal.
While skiing has always been expensive, it is increasingly done only by the rich. In 2017, 61 percent of skier visits came from households earning more than $100,000 per year. That’s up from 48 percent in 2003. One leading industry analyst, Laurent Vanat, characterized the state of the US ski industry as trying to extract “more money from fewer people.”
Trends in lift ticket pricing illustrate this inequality even more starkly. Over the past few decades, day ticket prices around the country have increased at a rapid rate — far above the rate of inflation. Whereas in 2007 the average lift ticket cost about $75, today it has nearly doubled to $125. (Patrons of the fanciest resorts have it even worse: a walk-up ticket at Vail this season will set you back at least $209.) The rate of price escalation in lift tickets approaches the exorbitant cost increases at American colleges. From 1999 to 2011, lift ticket prices increased by 3.5 percent per year, twice the rate of inflation, while college costs increased by 3.7 percent.
And yet there are some who claim that skiing is actually cheaper than ever. In a way, this can also be true. The past decade has seen an explosion in the availability of multi-resort season passes. For between $600 and $1,100, you can buy an Ikon or Epic Pass and ski throughout the year at dozens of resorts. If your favorite mountain is included in one of these passes, you can easily make the cost of the pass pencil out by skiing seven to ten days out of the year. If you ski two weeks out of the year, the value of this pass compares favorably with lift ticket prices from decades ago, and skiing has really gotten “cheaper” for you. In the same way, if you’re an ultra-wealthy jet-setting super skier who can fly around the world using your season pass — resorts in South America, Europe, and Australia are included — you can get even more “value” out of it.
Season passes are also a climate adaptation tool. Skiers who buy a pass are more likely to come to the mountain even when the weather is poor and the snow is scant. In this way, passes and advance tickets mitigate weather risk for resorts. Many resorts have begun to offer steep discounts on single-day tickets bought days or weeks in advance, while they have continued to raise prices on same-day lift tickets bought slopeside. But even advance tickets remain expensive relative to passes, if you can ski enough.
The passes can be exclusionary. By creating a large lump-sum payment, season passes are available only to skiers who have hundreds of dollars to spend at once and who can comfortably expect reliable leisure time to ski many days throughout the winter. And it’s not like the middle-class families who formed the bulk of the postwar skiing population have been getting much wealthier. American average annual wages have stagnated since the 1970s as inequality has skyrocketed. No: the passes are plainly designed for the rich. They are another symbol of the unequal world of winter sports in the Anthropocene.
If you can pay up, it’s great. If you can’t, the sport recedes from you into a smaller, wealthier community, becoming less and less attainable.
The rise of season passes is the result of intense corporate consolidation.
Consolidation in skiing began in the 1990s, when the first multi-resort companies emerged and brought hedge-fund and private equity money to a slew of small, independent resorts. The first consolidators viewed ski resorts primarily as real estate investments, and built huge hotels and vacation home complexes. But almost all of the early consolidated companies failed. The American Skiing Company, which grew rapidly to become the industry leader in the 1990s, piled up a mountain of debt with its highly leveraged real estate strategy. The company collapsed in the mid-2000s, and the consolidation tide appeared to recede.
But it didn’t last long. Improvements in technology and continued slow growth in the industry have fueled a second, bigger round of mergers. Instead of real estate, the primary focus of the new conglomerates is selling passes and experiences.
Today, American skiing is a duopoly between two companies — Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts — which operate the Epic and Ikon passes, respectively. Alterra is owned by private equity, and Vail is publicly traded. The consolidation of the ski industry is rapid and ongoing. Last season, five companies accounted for the majority of US skier visits: Vail, Peak Resorts, Alterra, Boyne Resorts, and POWDR. At the beginning of this season, Vail acquired Peak. Now there are four.
If your favorite mountain is owned by one of these companies, you have probably seen a lot of changes. Lift tickets have become much more expensive; season passes have become much cheaper. (Compare the $700 multi-resort Ikon Pass for Squaw Valley, which is owned by Alterra, with the $1,249 season single-resort pass at Killington, Vermont, which is outside of the major pass networks.) Under new corporate management, perhaps new restaurants have emerged and you’ve noticed more consistent artificial snow on the trails.
But if your favorite mountain is not part of the ski industry oligopoly, you have probably noticed a strange absence of change. And season by season, as it slowly gets warmer, perhaps your mountain will be the next to close.
Skiing is not like most of the economy. It doesn’t produce much of anything tangible, and it’s not necessary for anyone. It could disappear entirely with only minor — and perhaps, ultimately, salubrious — effects.
But skiing won’t disappear. It will merely retreat, gradually, into higher and colder places, less accessible places, with more and more expensive and complicated measures to adapt to warming temperatures. Perhaps it will return to a place in society like that in which it began: obscure, prohibitively expensive, and exotically glamorous.
This is bad for skiing, but it’s the worst case for climate adaptation more broadly. If adaptation is prohibitively expensive, only the rich will be able to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The specter of an “avocado politics” — a restrictive and isolationist turn driven by environmental challenge — appears much closer.
If you drive around San Francisco today, in the wealthier neighborhoods, among expensive single-family homes protected by restrictive zoning laws, you might see a strange bumper sticker. Instead of “Keep Tahoe Blue,” the iconic California environmental slogan, you might see “Keep Squaw True.” This is a movement to prevent the development of more lifts and hotels at Squaw Valley.
It is a skiers’ NIMBYism, an effort to keep Squaw from growing. Just as they would keep their single-family homes and restrictive zoning in the City, they would have one fewer hotel at Squaw. But Squaw is the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, not a small or marginal resort. In a changing climate, who is keeping Squaw — and American skiing — “true”? And “true” for whom?