Interstate 70, which runs through the Colorado Rockies and its famous ski resorts, was a parking lot on a recent Sunday. It’s a lot like that. SUVs with ski racks choke the artery alongside dozens of idling tractor-trailers, spitting countless amounts of smog into the pristine high country everyone escapes the city to play in.
“Honestly, it ruins the integrity of what skiing should be,” said Erin Walton, during a pit stop to refuel. “We spend more time sitting in traffic than on the tracks.”
The avid skier and reluctant driver says some weekend nights it can take five hours or more just to cover sixty miles. She and others stuck in traffic seemed well aware of the irony of burning fossil fuels to get to skiing that depends on cold, snowy winters.
“There are too many contradictory things going on,” Walton said. “It makes us sad for the future of skiing and what it will mean for people [and] the environment.”
Last winter was supposed to be a post-Covid rebound for the $50 billion US ski industry. But persistent drought linked to climate change, labor shortages and frustrated customers stuck in traffic jams and long lift lines have made getaways less appealing.
Climate anxiety is also drawing attention to the business model of resorts, which increasingly rely on a more luxurious clientele who often have to travel long distances burning fossil fuels or fly in private jets.
A “huge” carbon footprint
Further west, at the small airport in Aspen, residents are lamenting a marked increase in private jet traffic since the pandemic. On a recent afternoon, there were a dozen planes idling on the tarmac and two more waiting to take off. Several seemed as big as regional commercial carriers.
“The carbon footprint here is huge,” says Roger Marolt, a local accountant and former skier. “Anyone who owns a fifty or thirty million dollar jet also owns a thirty million dollar house here.”
In his local newspaper column, Marolt often laments how the ski industry, which has struggled with an aging clientele, has recently turned to the ultra-rich. Winters like this, he says, with all of a sudden snowfall followed by six weeks of drought, prompt introspection.
“It makes me cringe a bit and I also feel a bit hypocritical because I love skiing,” says Marolt. “I make a living in this city which is driven by this huge carbon footprint.”
“Call us hypocrites”
Aspen, where old hippies and extreme skiers can share the slopes with celebrities, Saudi princes and, in recent years, Russian oligarchs, used to be the punching bag.
But the station has long been seen as an industry leader on climate, an early outlier that sounded the alarm while many other major stations remained focused on traditional marketing strategies.
“Call us hypocrites, call us whatever, if we don’t do this job,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president for sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.
Schendler led efforts to “green” the local utility in the Valley, disconnecting it from fossil fuel-powered electricity. The Ski Co, as the locals call it, also runs its own clean power plant. Last year, they joined a lawsuit defending the Biden administration’s temporary freeze on new oil and gas leases on public lands.
“Don’t tell me, ‘you’re using carbon so you can’t talk,'” Schendler says. “That’s what the fossil fuel industry wants us to do, to do nothing and not change the system.”
His latest charge is to lobby Congress to resurrect what’s left of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan to help the country transition to cleaner energy.
A melting gondola?
At the top of the Aspen Mountain gondola, Schendler shuffles around in his ski boots on the packed snow a few feet from a popular spot for photographing the spectacular Elk Mountains. Here, a dystopian-looking gondola is tilted across the snow.
“Looks like you took a gondola cabin and put it on a hot street and it melted like a scoop of ice cream,” Schendler says, beaming.
The exhibit is meant to be alarmist and draws the attention of Aspen’s powerful and wealthy guests, as well as the resort’s corporate sponsors, urging them to action.
“I’ve always feared that global warming will end the ski industry. It will,” Schendler says. “We’ll be the last resort standing, because you and I are at 11,000 feet right now. But that doesn’t help us. If Jersey’s family ski resort goes, those are our future customers.”
After reporting some dips in activity after dry and hot January and February, this spring break season looks particularly critical for western resorts. On a recent afternoon, Jacob Phillip, who is visiting Aspen from California to celebrate his birthday, failed to notice the melting gondola as he descended from the real one.
“You know, I have a lot of worries right now in life, in the United States, in Los Angeles where we live,” Phillip said. “The fact that my ski season is a bit shorter due to climate change is probably in the top 200?”
Aspen’s temperature has already risen 3 degrees F
Phillip’s potential ski season is already about a month shorter. The temperature has risen 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the Colorado Rockies since 1980.
“In my lifetime here in Aspen, so since 1980 we’ve lost thirty frost days, we’ve had 30 more frost-free days than before,” says Ashley Perl, who coordinated the city of Aspen’s climate response.
She says that means less early-season snowmaking to help resorts open by Christmas, but more importantly, it means less water for the drought-stricken West and more wildfires. destroyers. Aspen executives recently cited the climate crisis when they temporarily banned all new residential construction and short-term rental applications. Perl says many workers have to drive to build and maintain luxury free-market homes that sit empty for most of the year.
“Our workforce comes a long way to run this city, which drives the emissions from traffic, and our visitors come on our private jets which generate a lot of emissions,” Perl says. “That’s always been the Aspen dichotomy.”
But with a worsening affordable housing crisis colliding with climate anxiety, things have gotten particularly tense this winter. An outcry ensued after a one-acre piece of land at the foot of the mountain was recently sold for $76 million to a Russian-born billionaire.
Back at the top of the Aspen Mountain gondola one afternoon, local skier Tim Mooney was clicking his bindings, preparing for the searing 3,200-foot quad descent down the mountain to town. “Huge corporate conglomerates are now taking over skiing with a Wall Street business model that is totally destructive on a much more massive scale,” Mooney said.
Mooney reckoned the ultra-rich will simply go elsewhere when there’s no more snow in the Rockies, leaving locals like him to worry about the future of their community and the beloved sport, skiing.
“It’s so unpredictable now, we don’t know if March will be the snowiest month,” he said. “We no longer know if it will snow at all in March.”
March brought some badly needed snow to Rocky Mountain resorts, at least some reassurance for hardened – and conflicted – skiers that there might be some winter left.
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