Climate Change Is Changing American Ski Slopes Forever

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Beneath his easy demeanor and Hollywood smile, the mayor of Aspen is a worried man. He knows how this pretty mountain town once collapsed along with the silver-mining industry. Now he’s frightened about the loss of an equally valuable resource. “Our snow is running out,” says Torre (like regular Aspen-goer Rihanna, he goes by just one name). “That’s a major problem when you’re a ski resort.”

The numbers are, frankly, alarming. Aspen already gets a month less of skiing than it did in the 1940s, with snow levels across Colorado having receded by 20 to 60 percent. If drastic action isn’t taken, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that the standard ski season will be halved by 2050. “We have to keep shouting this message from the mountaintops in order to preserve skiing for future generations,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “What makes Aspen Snowmass stand out is that they were one of the first major resorts to be vocal about seeking climate solutions. Now the rest of the industry is following suit.”

Indeed, more than 75 percent of American ski areas, from Maine to Montana, have launched environmental initiatives, ranging from the quirky to the genuinely game changing. Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Massachusetts, for example, is now running on 100 percent renewable, self-generated energy, while nearby Jiminy Peak has built its own wind turbine (called Zephyr), which provides up to two thirds of the resort’s total electrical needs. In Colorado, Arapahoe Basin is powering snowmaking operations entirely through solar arrays, and Powderhorn Mountain Resort is experimenting with gravity-powered snow cannons. In New Mexico, Taos Ski Valley recently became the first resort in the world to receive the prestigious B Corporation certification for environmentalism, thanks in part to a revolutionary dehydrator that converts 80 percent of the its food waste into organic compost for local farmers.

“There is a strong and genuine desire to green America’s ski resorts, but it could already be too late,” warns Mario Molina, executive director of the nonprofit action group Protect Our Winters. “The next step is for the industry to come together and agree on a unified national strategy.” Many of the U.S.’s major mountains have reached the same conclusion, with representatives from a handful of heavyweights—including Steamboat and Deer Valley—joining resorts in Aspen in lobbying for policy change in Washington, D.C. Their position is helped by the fact that, according to NSAA, the ski industry now generates an estimated $55 billion, supporting 533,000 jobs in 470 resorts and ski towns across 37 states.

Over coffee on the sun-dappled terrace of the artsy Aspen Meadows Resort, Torre admits it will be an uphill battle, but one he’s positive can be won. “We’re fighting nationally, while tackling every sector we can think of on a local level,” says the mayor. “That means everything from building net-zero housing projects to greening our airport, looking at the potential future for biofuels and electric planes.”

To many it may seem odd for a place so drenched in wealth and luxury to be so proactive in terms of environmental advocacy. After all, this is a town where 10 private jets land every hour during high season, where bars fire “Champagne guns” primed with $120 bottles of Veuve Clicquot, and where the über-rich are drawn like iron filings to a magnet. Both Donald Trump’s first marriage and Hunter S. Thompson’s mortal remains exploded spectacularly here, at a cost of millions of dollars—the former via a chance encounter on the slopes between Ivana Trump and Marla Maples, the latter out of a cannon shot by Johnny Depp. But beneath the glitz of the Prada, Fendi, and Dior storefronts in the town’s charming Victorian heart, there lies a legitimate, desperate environmental mission to save these slopes. And it has turned the Hampton of the Hills into an unlikely green beacon around which others in the business have rallied. “We’re in a major fight against the fossil fuel industry, and at the moment it’s a peashooter against a bazooka,” says Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of Getting Green Done. “But the truth is that people love skiing and they don’t want it to die. If we can tap into that sentiment, then, hopefully, we can build a movement.”

This season, Torre, Schendler, and Aspen’s other winter soldiers are stepping up the battle even further. A small squadron of electric snowmobiles will join the new fleet of electric buses, while trail maps are being printed on treeless paper made from ground-up rocks, rental skis are treated with an eco-friendly waxless coating, and—in a move out of Jules Verne—methane waste from a coal mine is being used to power chairlifts. “You can’t just change a few light bulbs and declare victory,” says Schendler, bristling at any suggestion of greenwashing. “This is an existential threat, and we need to drive serious change any way we can. It’s bigger than us—and bigger than our backyard.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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