Snow? What Snow? The World’s Top Ski Resorts Are Melting Away Because of the Climate Crisis

16

Here’s how rising temperatures around the world will affect your future ski holidays.

Booking Carolina Buia’s ski trip this winter is proving more of a challenge than any Black Diamond. “I feel like I’m working as my own travel company, “ says the Palm Beach-based real estate agent. “For March, I’ve booked two places to stay, and I’m paying extra to have the ability to cancel, while I watch the weather.” Buia is planning an annual ski trip to Europe with her financier husband Heath and their four teenagers. The family usually goes to Italy, but the unsettling, unsettled weather this winter made the family reconsider. “We thought about skiing in Norway, but it’s just so cold and dark at this time of year,” she explains. Instead, Buia booked two vacations in radically different parts of the country to hedge her bets for great powder. The Dolomites are her favorite spot, but she recognizes the consistently poor weather means that booking won’t work. “Most likely we’ll end up in Courmayeur in Val d’Aosta, because it’s at a higher altitude and will get more snow—we like La Thuile, and if the snow’s not great, in 30 minutes you can ski over to France.”

Her anxiety around the trip isn’t misplaced. As she noticed, Europe’s ski resorts have seen barmy, balmy conditions: In the first week of 2023, the mercury hit up to 36 degrees higher than normal across much of the mainland, from Poland to France; it was the warmest New Year in Germany since 1881. Meanwhile, in the Swiss Alps, average temperatures hovered around 44 degrees—far too high for anything other than cold rain to fall; no wonder Gstaad resorted to hiring helicopters to bring in snow by air then dump enough that the two resorts of Zweisimmen and Saanenmöser could be connected. It didn’t work—it was still too warm—though Gstaad did finally see significant flurries by mid-January.

The long-term trends are equally concerning. Since 1970, the ski season in Europe has shortened by 38 days: on average it now starts 12 days later and ends 26 days sooner. Studies have shown, per Sören Ronge of Protect Our Winters, that just a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature could threaten one-third of the 600 or so reliable snow resorts in the Alps, where 1,000 days of operation is the benchmark for economic viability. Those will likely be the resorts at 1,500 meters (around 4,900 feet) or lower, which includes Megève (3,600 feet) and Gstaad (3,400 feet); Switzerland, in particular, is warming at more than double the global mean.

The unskiable conditions across those resorts produced memorable images, notably those showing strips of snow, squeezed out like toothpaste, across still-green valleys. Behind the headlines, though, there’s an economic issue, too: Many places like Gstaad are jetset playgrounds, ranking among the world’s most glamorous and expensive resorts. The money they attract is vital for the local economy, and the travelers spending six figures or more on a week on those slopes are likely to be piste off by the dearth of skiable runs. “So many people want to go skiing post-Covid, and the prices have risen steeply, but it hasn’t stopped people,” says Rob Stewart, a publicist with Ski Press, who reps many firms in the sector. “Thirty years ago, people wanted to go skiing for the adventure of it; they didn’t care too much about what the lifts were like, or where they stayed. Now the market has evolved.” That all-round upgrading of the ski experience means that the climate crisis impact is felt more vividly. Put simply, if it continues unaddressed, the clientele attracted to those areas now—not to mention the economic uplift they support—risks being as elusive as a two-foot flurry in December.

Snowless ski runs like this one in the Alps have become a common sight this year.
Chiara Pizzignacco

The Gstaad Palace helped cement this Swiss town’s glittering reputation when it opened in 1913, and Andrea Scherz’s family has owned and operated it since the 1940s. “It looked dreadful over Christmas and New Year here, the worst I’ve seen in a long time,” he tells Robb Report. “People still enjoyed themselves, but let’s assume for the next five years we never get a white Christmas here. That will affect my business because people will say let’s go to the Rocky Mountains or Aspen, which are higher up and so snow is more guaranteed. But even St Moritz and Zermatt struggled this winter, because it was so warm.”

Sharon Walters saw those same challenges from a distance, working as a luxury travel agent in California. Walter has a deep client bench in professional sports, in particular, so adrenaline-fueled vacations are a specialty. In the past, Walters explains, most ski trips would be booked a year ahead; this winter, she was often asked to find premium accommodation with a week’s notice or less. “It’s very stressful for everybody but it’s not possible now to book ahead like that, because you don’t know where the snow’s going to be—will it be better in Vail or in Italy?”

She points to one client, a wealthy Californian woman, who was booked on a trip to Austria’s Tyrol in December; Walters cautioned her to cancel, given the weather reports. The traveler pressed ahead anyway—and barely skied once. “She’s easy-going and had a lovely time, because we did some last-minute experiences like horse riding and cooking classes. But now that she’s home, she’s going to go skiing in the US in the next month or so,” Walters says. “Many of my clients are doing that—we’ve had a good snow year here, so those who typically have gone to Europe are doing the slopes here.” The challenge in that choice, Walters warns, comes once the ski day’s over: somewhere like Whistler might provide reliable snow, but it’s ill-equipped to entertain in other ways. “A lot of my athlete clients, their girlfriends or wives don’t necessarily ski but they want to go somewhere to see and be seen. They’re on their yacht in the summer in a bikini, and they want to show people how beautiful they look in their snow outfit in the winter. North America doesn’t have Europe’s cachet or flair.”

So what’s to be done? Patrick Thorne, editor of In the Snow, takes one view, suggesting there’s a quick fix for some of the highest-flying visitors. “The irony: people arriving by private jet and thus doing more than their fair share of accelerating the climate emergency and making the snow disappear faster than it is anyway?” he muses. “When they’re frustrated to find limited snow cover on arrival, it is a bit rich.” (The truth, of course, is a little more nuanced.)

At left, a ski lift in the the Alps sits over a snowless mountain, while a skier (right) tries to make do with with scant snow on a ski run.
Dan Yates

More seriously,  though, some high-end, low-altitude resorts are opting for what’s known as snow farming but might better be dubbed snow banking. At the end of the season, snow is raked and groomed into piles before it melts; these can then be insulated against the warmth of spring and summer, before being uncovered and spread again on the mountain as the mercury drops. Davos has used this method since 2008, burying slopes in sawdust, while Austrian resorts use wood chips—it costs Kitzbühel around $165,000 per season to create this all-natural insurance policy. The authorities in Courchevel have opted for more high-tech methods, mostly reflective insulation panels and tarps, to keep their snow cold through summer. And it isn’t just lower altitude resorts trying to future-proof their assets like this: Val Thorens, more snowsure as one of Europe’s highest resorts at 7,500 feet, is trialing it, too.

These techniques are likely to become more commonplace as making snow proves more challenging. Snow-making machines have their own, inconvenient Achilles heel. Their technology usually involves shooting water droplets from a cannon which then condense with moisture in the freezing air to become snow particles. If temperatures are higher, though, said droplets simply fall in puddles, more like man-made rain. Protect Our Winter’s Sören Ronge points to another threat to the use of snowmaking guns. “There’s been a drought for many years in Europe reducing the groundwater supply, so what does that mean for snowmaking when there’s competition for water as a limited resource?”

Rather than replenishing regular slopes, then, perhaps it’s better to look for fresh pistes. Nick Davies runs Cookson Adventures which specializes in bespoke, adrenaline-boosting trips, and says this year, for the first time, he booked a group to heliski in Canada using a yacht as its base—it can move, of course, as conditions wax or wane. For five men traveling together to celebrate one of their 30th birthdays, he created a winter adventure getaway in Iceland which included climbing, heliskiing and Wim Hof-style ice bathing. They were a clean-living group, who brought along a personal trainer to keep them in peak condition, so the trappings of jetset resorts in mainland Europe weren’t much missed. “You can make your own kind of après if you’re traveling like that, as a group of friends.”

The yacht Cascadia launches heli-skiing trips from the water, bypassing the snow-scarce lower-elevation slopes altogether.
Cookson Adventures

Alternatively, if you’re determined to hit the Alps and around, flexible planning will become vital. Heliski expert James Orr trialed the concept of a Powder Hunter trip before the pandemic and plans to restart the program next season. “Clients booked flights to Milan and we had Mountain Guides on stand-by to take them to wherever the powder was best at the time,” he explains, of what he calls hunting for the snowy grail. “From Milan you can reach a large percentage of the Alps within two to three hours transfer time.”

Danielle Stynes offers a similar vacation via her heliski-focused company Swiss Ski Safari. She’s been living in Switzerland for 30 years, and running this firm since 2005; she charges clients a minimum of about $1,600 (€1,500) per person per day. In exchange, Stynes offers them the chance to chase snow around the alps, all but guaranteeing they can ski or snowboard as much as they wish, whatever the weather might be in a given locale.

Her secret weapon is forecaster Dr. Robert Bolognesi, an author and former researcher at the Swiss Federal Snow and Avalanche Research Center. Think of him as your personal snow whisperer. “We need snow scientists to know what’s going on because we can’t predict it anymore,” she adds, noting that the last two winters saw superb snow in December—the climate crisis, of course, isn’t linear, nor does it mean that snow will consistently taper away. “It used to be very reliable, but that isn’t the case anymore. Serious skiers will have to look at specialists for their trips in the future.”

Bolognesi, whose PhD is in snow forecasting, helps Stynes deliver the best conditions for her clients. She’ll consult with him on everything from destination to schedule. Take the trio of snowboarders she just guided around the Alps for a week, using three different hotels as their base over the trip—Stynes knew that statistically the range of areas would maximize the chance of great powder. One evening she called Robert to consult for the next day. Don’t leave at 9 am, like everyone else, he cautioned, but instead push take off an hour later; be sure to be off the mountain by 2 pm, as the rising temperatures will increase the chance of avalanches. “And sure enough, as we took off, the sky opened and the sun came out, and we had the best weather of the week,” she says.

For anyone skiing mostly stateside, but keen to apply similar scientific rigor, consider a concierge membership with PowderChasers. It’s a service established by Steve Conney and his friend Luke Stone, an atmospheric scientist. For $785, the pair will effectively offer a snow guarantee for up to 15 trips for that subscriber; they work with up to 70 such members every year. “The typical client will reach out to us five to 10 days before they jump on a plane—often their own—and we’ll provide updates on a near-daily basis as to which airport they should fly into, or what resort to go to,” Conney says, “We don’t arrange the bookings of hotels or restaurants, but we do give them information. And we always tell clients to hold off booking anything until the final three days before their trip.”

Take the client who just told them he was hoping to fly into Denver; they warned that the weather models didn’t look promising and suggested he go to Utah instead for two feet of deep powder—and sure enough, he did. “I have a client in Jackson Hole right now and we reached out to him to say you need to extend your vacation by three days, because you could grab 12 to 18 inches over the next three days,” Conney explains, “We try to follow them, and keep in touch, as they’re on their trip—maybe we’ll send an email at 5 am to tell them to hit Grand Targhee versus Jackson Hole, because it will have the deepest snow within an hour’s drive.”

Heli-skiing makes it possible to get to elevations where snow is essentially guaranteed.
Cookson Adventures

The duo uses publicly available data, but combines it with first-hand, on-the-ground knowledge—it’s that know-how which allows them to deploy the forecasts so effectively. “I’m obsessed with powder snowboarding but I also have weather training,” adds Luke Stone, pointing out that there’s more to forecasting than simple snowfall. “A lot of these storms have winds that could close down chairlifts, so you have to know what the threshold for lifts closing down in a given resort might be.” Pity the poor resort in northern Arizona they decline to name which has just installed a spiffy new chair lift system, but one that’s required to close when winds even touch 30 mph, a regular occurrence there. The pair’s expertise is currently focused on US resorts, but they’re slowly expanding to cover Europe‘s hotspots.

Perhaps, though, an answer’s already in place to help address the scarcity of snow in some of those jetset towns: shift away from focusing on the slopes at all. “Snow above 6,000 feet is at normal levels or above, so in terms of big-name resorts it’s only a small number that have been impacted,” notes In the Snow’s Patrick Thorne. He continues that lower altitude resorts can reposition themselves instead as mountain getaways, places that appeal as much for their cleaner, cooler air. Indeed, it’s likely no coincidence that most of the resorts as famed for their après-ski as their slopes are at lower altitudes: not just Gstaad and Megève, but also Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, higher than those two but only just, at around 4,000 feet.

The lack of snow this season has many opting for alternative winter activities such as off-road “fat” biking on glaciers.
Cookson Adventures

“It’s nothing new for low ski resorts like that, Megève or the Dolomites, not to have reliable snow at Christmas,” agrees Danielle Stynes, “We’ve known that for years.” As a result, then, these towns have long been nudged into developing alternative attractions, whether Michelin-starred restaurants or a roster of designer boutiques that would best Beverly Hills. Gstaad-based hotelier Andrea Scherz says that he and other hospitality leaders came together to create a new indoor playground for kids in the former fire station, and he expanded his hotel’s spa this winter. “I apologized to one guest this Christmas for the weather and he said ‘Don’t worry Mr. Scherz, because that means we can party harder’.”

Indeed, he adds that takings this winter at the hotels’ famed GreenGo, a throwbackish disco, have made it one of the best five years in the bar’s decades-old history. Scherz says that at most 40 percent of his guests are drawn to Gstaad primarily for skiing; over the festive season, that drops to just one in five.  “I asked my reservation department after New Year, how many people had canceled for lack of snow,” he says, “There was one.”

As an alternative to skiing, Cookson Adventures offers remote glacier camping, with a sauna, plunge pool and an ice bar.
Cookson Adventures

No wonder then, that Gagosian gallery even added a Gstaad outpostwhile there are countless contemporary and old master showcases in Cortina d’Ampezzo. St Moritz, where the idea of the ski vacation as we understand it first emerged in the late 19th century, is more snow-sure than many rivals, as it sits at almost 6,000 feet. Still, it has a similar roster of off-slope attractions, including galleries run by Basel-based Stefan von Bartha, whose family has been in the contemporary art business for five decades. He set up a pop-up space there this season, and will continue next year in a different location. 

“People have time when they’re here. Meeting a big collector in London, say, they’re always terribly busy, but not when you meet them in St Moritz. The biggest collectors might walk into the gallery and you spend an hour with them over a coffee—they might walk into the gallery and say ‘I had to escape my mother-in-law or I’d kill her’,” he laughs, “It’s not like that at Art Basel, where you get 10 minutes.” Von Bartha was thrilled, for example, when two major collectors and an art fair director walked into his space with a bottle of wine and asked if he wanted to join them; three hours and a long lunch later, he sold a significant piece.

The allure of these resorts, then, is more than their slopes—it’s the chance to relax among like-minded people, to socialize with a global grab-bag of your peers. “The rich and famous and wealthy who come to Gstaad want to see and be seen. They all know each other, and every night there’s some exclusive party in someone’s chalet,” say Andrea Scherz. “This is a social bubble they want to be part of, and Gstaad itself—that cosmopolitan, social whirl—that’s an attraction in itself.”

Source Robb Report