by Marc Peruzzi | photograph Dave Cox | skier Michael Barney
Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement gave us a moment to pause and examine the state of things. Here’s what I see: Aboom on top of a boom in backcountry skiing. Last spring when the resorts shut down, all manner of skiers bought into the backcountry concept. This is a testament to the fact that a far larger percentage of skiers is willing to hike for the joy of descending than the resort executives—hyper-focused on heated bubble chairs—conceived. There is competition for overcrowded ski resorts. It’s our own legs and lungs. The backcountry boom will settle back into steady growth for the 21/22 season, but it will see a long tail. Once new skiers experience the backcountry they tend to stick with it.
It’s not bigotry, it’s classism.
It’s easy to look at the lace curtain whiteness of skiing and take potshots about racism. But I’ve sat in corporate board meetings with the folks that run the megaresorts and they aren’t that way. Neither are they entirely altruistic. Diversifying skiing makes business sense. Unless you’re selling pillows, few businesses can afford xenophobia. The big resort companies are actively trying to figure out how to appeal to Blacks, Indigenous, and People of Color, but they’ve hamstrung themselves with their own pricing structure. Unless you’re committed to running your super pass for 25 days or more, skiing is expensive, and with fewer small, affordable hills left, new users must face ticket window and rental pricing. We’re talking a few hundred dollars for a day. More if you hire an instructor.
It’s the cost of skiing that’s keeping it white. How do I know this is true? Each year wealthy Mexicans from Mexico City descend on Vail for spring skiing. The National Brotherhood of Skiers—with its high dollar demographics—is perhaps the most heavily recruited club in North America. And Asian Americans in wealthy California have made Mammoth one of the most diverse resorts in the country. It’s racist to say that the BIPOC community doesn’t want to ski, they often can’t afford to.
Call it inequality, classism, or systemic racism. It’s what Martin Luther King was fighting for when he was murdered by a white supremacist. The system—high prices—is rigged against lower incomes communities, where you often find Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The fix isn’t to hang up a welcome sign and virtue signal. The fix is to reimagine the economics of skiing. That needs to be skiing’s next big push.
The experience is at risk.
The story is the same all over the country. The experience is being ruined. Skiing is supposed to take place in nature. One should enjoy some solitude out there. But the fallout of cheapo super passes, work from home flexibility, and no sporting events and concerts have combined to overrun ski areas. That dynamic will likely taper slightly next winter as the dabblers go back to the sports bars, but the issue needs to be addressed. Continuing to limit ticket sales is one option that’s being talked about. But if that’s mishandled it could lead to higher prices and still more classism. Demand outweighing supply is not new to the ski industry. But at certain resorts, we’re returning to the crowding of the 1970s, and now, thanks to enhanced lift capacity, the runs are miserably crowded. At some point soon, the resorts will have to decide between greed and the beauty of skiing. To this point greed is winning.
Climate change is taking hold.
Mountain has always been a science-based magazine and has never shied away from reporting on climate. But even as each year is hotter than the last, it’s been easy to think of climate change as something that’s coming. Except now it’s here. We’ve used the term “global weirding” since magazine inception. And that’s what we’re seeing now. Instead of the consistency of a historical winter we get erratic weather patterns; polar vortexes descending from a warming Arctic; rain events; and powerful storms too. Oddly, the one zone that’s grown accustomed to this variability—Northern New England—got a pass this winter, but weirdness hit everywhere else hard. Nowhere is this perhaps more true than in the Rockies, where this year’s highly avalanche prone snowpack in the Intermountain West might be indicative of climate change as well. Weird weather seems to mean more early season mountain snow. Which sounds nice, but sets up deep instabilities that can make steep terrain unskiable for months. I’ve reported in the past that avalanche forecasters are scrambling to keep up with these strange new snowpacks that don’t fit the models. Expect winters to grow evermore unpredictable until society begins to seriously reverse climate change.
More guides and huts are in our future.
A retired USFS District Ranger told me in confidence that the days of new ski area development on public lands are over. But that doesn’t mean the skiing experience won’t get richer. It all hinges on allocating resources (money) to land managers so they can process the paperwork of the recreation economy. If that happens, backcountry skiers will demand more access to the mountains in winter. This will come in the form of more winter plowing of secondary roads, new guiding permits, and more hut, or more likely yurt, systems. The trick will be to balance that type of commercialized recreation with the wilderness ethos. The goal is not to replicate European style ski touring, but to build enough light infrastructure to allow human-powered skiing to take much of the carbon out of the sport.