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Will skiing survive? Resorts struggle through a winter of climate and housing woes

The business model of luxury ski areas is again under scrutiny as the perils of climate change take hold in the Rocky Mountains.
Kirk Siegler
/
NPR
The business model of luxury ski areas is again under scrutiny as the perils of climate change take hold in the Rocky Mountains.

Interstate 70, which cuts through the Colorado Rockies and its famous ski resorts, was a parking lot on a recent Sunday. It's like this a lot. SUVs with ski racks choke the thoroughfare alongside scores of idling semi-trucks, belching out an untold amount of smog into the pristine high country that everyone is escaping the city to play in.

"Honestly it's ruining the integrity of what skiing should be all about," said Erin Walton, during a pit stop for gas. "We spend more time sitting in traffic than we do on the slopes."

The avid skier - and reluctant driver - says some weekend nights it can take five or more hours just to travel sixty miles. She and others stuck in traffic seemed well aware of the irony of burning fossil fuels to get to skiing that's dependent on cold, snowy winters.

"There's too many contradictory things happening," Walton said. "It makes us sad about the future of skiing and what it's going to mean for people [and] the environment."

This last winter was supposed to be a post-Covid rebound for America's $50 billion ski industry. But persistent drought linked to climate change, labor shortages and frustrated customers stuck in traffic and in long lift lines has made getaways less attractive.

Climate anxiety is also focusing attention on the business model of resorts, which have increasingly relied on a more luxury clientele who often have to drive long distances burning fossil fuels or fly in on private jets.

A 'huge' carbon footprint

Farther west, at the tiny Aspen airport, locals have bemoaned 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 awaiting takeoff. Several looked as large as regional commercial carriers.

"The carbon footprint here is huge," says Roger Marolt, a local accountant and former ski racer. "Everybody who owns a fifty million or thirty million dollar jet also owns a thirty million dollar house here."

In his local newspaper column, Marolt often bemoans how the ski industry, which has been faced with a graying customer base, has lately shifted toward the ultra wealthy. Winters like this, he says, where the snow came all at once,, followed by six weeks of drought, cause introspection.

Longtime Aspen area residents like Roger Marolt worry about the increasing carbon footprint from luxury travel such as private jets in their valley.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Longtime Aspen area residents like Roger Marolt worry about the increasing carbon footprint from luxury travel such as private jets in their valley.

"It does give me a bit of a cringe and I feel like a little bit of a hypocrite too because I love skiing," Marolt says. "I make my living in this town 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 more recent years, Russian oligarchs, is used to being the punching bag.

But the resort has long been seen as an industry leader on climate, an early outlier sounding the alarms while many other large resorts stayed focused on traditional marketing strategies.

"Call us hypocrites, call us whatever you want, if we're not doing that work," said Auden Schendler, senior vice president for sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company.

Schendler led efforts to 'green' the valley's local utility, disconnecting it from fossil fuel-powered electricity. The Ski Co, as locals refer to 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 leasing on public land.

Auden Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Company says this winter is the season that broke skiing, as the industry combats the fallout of climate change, labor and housing shortages.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Auden Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Company says this winter is the season that broke skiing, as the industry combats the fallout of climate change, labor and housing shortages.

"Don't tell me, 'you're using carbon therefore you can't talk,'" Schendler says. "That's what the fossil fuel industry wants us to do, to not do anything and not change the system."

His latest charge is lobbying Congress to resurrect what's left of President Biden's Build Back Better Plan to help transition the country to cleaner energy.

A melting gondola car?

At the top of the Aspen Mountain gondola, Schendler lumbers in his ski boots over packed snow a few yards to a popular spot for photographing the dramatic Elk Mountains. Here, a dystopian looking, gondola car lies tilted on the snow.

"It 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 intended to be alarmist and catch the eye of Aspen's powerful and moneyed guests, and the resort's corporate sponsors, pushing them to action.

An art installation at the top of the Aspen Mountain ski area is meant to warn visitors that rising greenhouse gas emissions could end skiing.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
An art installation at the top of the Aspen Mountain ski area is meant to warn visitors that rising greenhouse gas emissions could end skiing.

"I've always been concerned that warming would 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 the mom and pop ski resort in Jersey goes away, those are our future clients."

After reporting some drops in business after a dry and warm January and February, this Spring Break season feels especially critical for western resorts.
On a recent afternoon, Jacob Phillip, who's visiting Aspen from California to celebrate his birthday, hadn't noticed the melting gondola as he got off the real one.

"You know, there are a lot of concerns that I have right now in life, in the United States, in Los Angeles where we live," Phillip says. "Whether my ski season gets a little bit shorter because of climate change probably makes the top 200?"

Aspen's temperature has already risen by 3 degrees F

Phillip's potential ski season is already about a month shorter. The temperature has risen by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the Colorado Rockies since 1980.

"In my lifetime here in Aspen, so since 1980, we've lost thirty frozen days, we have 30 more frost free days than we used to," says Ashley Perl, who has coordinated the city of Aspen's climate response.

She says that means less early season snow-making to help resorts open by Christmas, but more critically, it means less water for the drought-stricken West and more destructive wildfires. Aspen leaders recently cited the climate crisis when they temporarily banned all new residential construction and applications for short term rentals. Perl says many workers have to drive in to build and maintain free market luxury homes that stay empty most of the year.

The average temperature has risen by 3 degrees F since Ashley Perl was born in Aspen in 1980.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
The average temperature has risen by 3 degrees F since Ashley Perl was born in Aspen in 1980.

"Our workforce comes from a long way away to keep this town running, that comes with emissions from traffic, and our visitors come on their private jets which have a lot of emissions associated with it," Perl says. "That's always been the dichotomy of Aspen."


But with a worsening affordable housing crisis colliding with climate anxiety, things have felt especially tense this winter. An uproar ensued after a one acre plot at the bottom of the mountain was sold recently 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 into his bindings, readying for the quad burning 3,200 foot descent down the mountain into 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 says.

Mooney opined that the ultra rich will just go somewhere else when there's no snow left in the Rockies, leaving locals like him to fret about the future of their community and the beloved sport, skiing.

"It's so unpredictable now, we don't know if March is going to be the snowiest month," he says. "We don't know if it's going to snow at all in March anymore."

March has delivered some badly needed snow to resorts in the Rockies, at least some solace for the die hard - and conflicted - skiers that there may be some winter left.

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