The Dark Side of Skiing

To many CC students, skiing is more than a sport or a sideline hobby. Skiing is closer to a lifelong passion; it’s almost a religion. We exalt the gods of the mountains, and we do anything to catch a powder day. I will be the first to affirm that the best days of my life have been spent “shredding the gnar,” and I never feel so excited about life as when sliding down a slope on a powder day.

But all of this comes at a steep price—even more than the extravagant amount of money we spend on gear, lift tickets, and transportation.

Skiing is a notoriously environmentally destructive sport, and as it gets more corporate-dominated and institutionalized, it is becoming less of a stoked expression of the soul, and more of a demonstration of wealth and status. Skiing has moved far from its roots as a necessary mode of transportation with added fun bonus, and it is even past its initial growth in the U.S. as a niche diversion. Skiing has developed into a profit-driven venture for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.

Let’s take some of the favorite and famed ski resorts of Colorado for example. Most ski areas started because towns needed a new economic industry once the gold and silver rush died down. These run-down old mining towns have now become mega resort complexes, fit with five-star hotels and restaurants, 8,000 square-foot on-slope vacation homes that are occupied two weeks out of the year, and street shops such as Patagonia.

The commercialization of skiing is driving out the local mountainfolk to make room for the super rich. The median price of a single-family home in Breckenridge is $1,035,806. In Aspen, which has the most expensive real estate in the country, it’s $5,081,388 (apparently the cheapest home for sale there in recent years was a trailer for $559,000).

This proliferation of wealth concentrated in small areas negatively affects the thousands of people that ski resorts and towns must employ to keep the operation running: lift operators, mechanical workers, restaurant cooks, hotel maids—the list goes on. Efforts to provide affordable housing have either stretched the definition of “affordable” to include those with doctor’s salaries (in Aspen, the minimum income to qualify for this housing is $60,000; the maximum is $1 million) or resulted in unreasonably cramped quarters (last December, Vail Resorts told its employees that due to housing shortage, they would have to take on extra roommates and “get used to bunk beds”). As a result, workers camp in the woods, sleep in their cars, or live in cheaper places and drive or hitchhike two plus hours to and from the mountain every day.

The environmental impact of the ski industry is not small. The construction of ski areas requires extensive logging and destruction of animals’ natural habitat—it is akin to constructing a small city in a mountain environment. While many resorts are making efforts to reduce the CO2 impact of their lift and mountain operations, it’s difficult for them to mitigate the impact of those giant mostly-empty homes or the fossil fuels it takes to get all of those people and resources to the resorts in the first place.

The bottom line is that the way the ski industry is developing—corporate, institutional, exclusionary—is incompatible with the adventure, solace, and connection we seek from the mountains in the first place. Regardless, we aren’t likely to forsake our pursuit of powder because of any moral qualms. Perhaps the best course of action is for us to both become aware of the detrimental impact skiing can have and do our best to find a way to return to the roots of skiing.

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