Worried about the future of snow, more and more companies are spearheading change to make the ski industry more sustainable.
“Offsetting has been on the horizon since we incorporated in 2000, but it’s only the start,” says Beat Steiner, founder of Bella Coola Heli Sports. “Climate change impacts us every day, creating fluctuations in the weather, shortened seasons, and rapid changes in the glaciers.”
It’s easy to scoff at a heli-ski operation offsetting emissions as a marketing ploy. Wealthy people zipping around in fossil-fuel guzzling choppers doesn’t exactly conjure up images of saving the planet, but look closer and you might see a different picture. We all mistake the forest for the trees sometimes.
“It took us a while to stabilize as a business and have the resources to start looking for ways to reduce our impact,” said Steiner. “This was around that time the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project started and although there is a lot of skepticism in offsets, we saw them as a first step. A statement of trying to be part of the solution.” In 2013, Bella Coola ran a full audit of their carbon output, from daily commutes, to food, fuel, and flights for guests, and became the first heli-ski operation in the world to go carbon neutral.
Moving the Needle
“One heli-ski operation, even a big one, isn’t going to move the needle at all. In either direction,” says Steiner, emphasizing the need for a collective effort to solve the climate problem. “One of the most important reasons for us getting into offsets was inspiring others to follow.”
Northern Escape Heli Skiing, based in northern British Columbia, was the second operation to recognize the problem, and soon after became carbon neutral in 2021. Wanting to prove a new business could be sustainable early on, John Forrest, founder and general manager, mitigated his operation’s emissions by replacing gas-powered machinery with electric ones and installing renewables like solar to run the lodge. Northern Escape then bought offsets to cover the rest of their emissions.
The groundswell grew when Whistler Heli-Skiing went carbon neutral. Soon after, the HeliCat Canada group, which oversees all heli and cat ski operations in the province, created Sightline 2030, setting a goal for all 39 members to be carbon neutral by the end of the decade—but, will that change much?
All heli ski operations are highly dependent on fossil fuels and will continue to be until an alternative is available. A day of heli-skiing produces upwards of 600 kg of carbon. A trip across the Atlantic to get to a heli lodge is estimated at nearly five times that—half of what the average American emits in an entire year. Both Steiner and Forrest acknowledge their consumption and are looking for the next step.
Bella Coola is in talks with Tomorrow’s Air, a global carbon-capture collective, to remove the carbon it produces from the atmosphere. “Carbon capture is incredibly expensive right now, but that’s what it takes," says Steiner. "Our goal is to get into the market and help improve the technology, drive prices down, and eventually create an opportunity for everyone to balance the carbon they create.”
A Worldwide Problem
The impact of climate change is omnipresent across the ski industry. Winters are shorter, forcing resorts to open later and close earlier. The season is, on average, a month shorter than it was just 30 years ago. Temperatures are rising dramatically. Winter 2020 was 3.4 degrees C warmer than the average temperature of the 30 previous years, radically changing how resorts and mountain towns around the world operate.
Chamonix, the mecca of skiing, didn’t have its first real snow this year until late January. Some resorts in the Alps never opened the entire season—the second in a row—while those with enough resources converted to artificial snowmaking, just to spin lifts. Continuing at the current rate, the future is bleak. There’ll be no snow at most resorts in 80 years. Thankfully, leaders in the industry have taken note.
Laax, in Switzerland, is working towards becoming the first self-sufficient ski resort, eliminating emissions entirely. It currently gets all of its energy from renewables, such as hydro power, wind, and solar. Heat from trains is reused in buildings and EV infrastructure is growing, among other smaller efforts. Not far away, Zermatt, also in Switzerland, is car-free, with access by train only. Its gondola lift station is powered by solar, electric buses move visitors around the resort, and its groomers are electric hybrids.
There’s been progress in the U.S., too. Wolf Creek in Colorado and Palisades Tahoe (formerly known as Squaw Valley) in California are both powered entirely on solar. Vail Resorts has pledged zero emissions and zero waste across all its resorts by 2030, and is on track to hit 50 percent progress by 2025. Vail is reducing the energy used in snowmaking operations, as well as in buildings and new construction, to do so. Big Sky Resort in Montana made a similar pledge, aiming to be net zero by 2030 (its lifts already run on renewables).
Cleaner Supply Chains
Improvements in the ski industry aren’t limited to just resorts and operators. Manufacturers have begun to revolutionize the materials that go into skis and snowboards, led in many ways by WNDR Alpine. The brand uses bio-based materials to improve performance while reducing petroleum inputs. Its Algal Wall offers 138 percent better damping compared to traditional ABS with a much smaller impact.
WNDR’s microalgae oil results in one third of the carbon emissions as similar petroleum products and its Salt Lake City facility runs on 100 percent renewable energ—and that’s just the start. “We're setting our sights on the systemic impact beyond our own skis and boards,” says Xan Marshland, manager of brand development. “It's one thing to sell a product that utilizes a bio-based material instead of petroleum, but we have a massive opportunity to multiply our impact by using our technology to improve other brands' supply chains. We're in the process of sharing these materials through industry partnerships.”
Jones Snowboards has overhauled its manufacturing process in the last five years. It now uses bio-resin instead of petroleum-based carbon, recycled ABS in sidewalls, and a natural wax on all boards that's plant-based and biodegradable. Like WNDR, its factory is powered entirely by solar. Since 2016, Jones has saved 18,000 kg of petroleum-based solvent, 847 miles of ABS, and 1,366 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. It uses 100 percent recycled down in its apparel, too.
Perhaps there's no bigger influence than Patagonia. The brand's new ski line is entirely PFC-free, a harmful chemical that rarely breaks down, and is made from 100 percent recycled materials. (Patagonia helped bring this new ePE GORE-TEX to market.) Meanwhile, the visionary brand has reduced its footprint, using 100 percent renewable energy in stores, offices, and distribution centers. Since 2016, it's doubled its use of regenerative organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester, and recycled nylon, and there are plans to remove petroleum completely by 2025.
In the last four years, Patagonia’s efforts have kept 6.6 million kg of carbon out of the atmosphere, the equivalent of planting 109,000 trees. By 2040, it hopes to be net zero across the entire business, including its network of partners and suppliers. But the biggest change is a new ownership structure in which all profits not invested back into the company are put toward projects that help protect the planet.
The Bigger Picture
Let’s zoom out further. Few organizations have created more holistic change than Protect Our Winters, a non-profit dedicated to, as the name implies, fighting climate change. Founded in 2007 by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones, the organization has successfully raised civic engagement in the outdoor community, making climate change a top issue and driving change through state and federal legislation.
“When we launched our first 'get out the vote' effort in 2018, most brands wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Fast forward to 2022 and the opposite is true,” says Mario Molina, executive director. “We’ve been successful at evolving our message to make it less partisan and getting more brands involved, but there's a lot more work to be done. We need to get past ideological fights to conversations of substance.”
Molina says the ski industry has made real progress in the last five years, mostly from private companies on individual projects. He's helping brands to see the bigger picture. “The main obstacle is the idea that solving climate change is about scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions for any company. The entire ski industry could go net neutral tomorrow and it wouldn’t change much,” said Molina. “We need policy changes, like full support behind the Inflation Reduction Act. The ski industry is uniquely positioned to do this. It has outsized political influence with large media visibility that's being under leveraged.”
Carbon offsets are a fine first step, but just table stakes, he says. “Offsets fund important climate projects, but they don’t fundamentally change how businesses operate. We need to avoid perpetuating a false narrative that brands can pay their way out of burning carbon,” said Molina, who hopes the industry shifts from removing the carbon off balance sheets to investing in long-term solutions.
The Path Forward
Skiing isn’t the root of the problem. It’s our collective reliance on fossil fuels. However, skiing will never be sustainable if we continue to power our world with coal, oil, and natural gas. Changing that is the goal, Molina believes. To get there, we need to support brands making sustainable products and services, and most importantly, put more effort into advocating for critical policy changes.
Making turns down a frozen slope doesn’t add carbon to the atmosphere, but buying a new pair of skis and flying across the country certainly does. If you plan to take a ski trip next winter, consider your responsibility in the future of snow.
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