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Skiing Nowadays Just Feels Wrong

Skiers ride a chair lift, backdropped by a snow-less valley, at the Masella ski resort in Girona, Spain, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. Warming temperatures mean the vast majority of the worlds ski resorts already rely on artificial snow to boost snowpack and prolong the season, but a record run of mild weather in late December means even snowmaking is no longer possible in some areas. (Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg)

I first stood on skis at age three. Thereafter, my parents took me skiing every winter, because we lived in Munich at the time, and various good valleys in the Austrian Alps were only a short drive away. It’s what middle-class families in that part of the world did in the 1970s and 80s. Skiing wasn’t so much a pastime as a way of life. 

I’ve given my children a glimpse of it, too. But as I realized during one of our gondola rides the other day — while looking out at green slopes and brown catwalks severed by a few grayish ribbons of artificial snow — they will be the last generation to experience it. So it’ll be three in total, from my father’s to theirs. That makes me melancholy.

The thing that my generation took for granted — if we happened to live near mountain ranges — was snow. The evidence is there in our old photos, buried in shoeboxes rather than timelines. The slopes and valleys in the background were usually white, even before Christmas and after Easter. Having learned young, we looked effortless not only on piste but also on moguls and in powder — because it was there and we grew up rolling in it.

All that time, of course, we were already pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and thereby warming the whole planet, but especially the Alps. (Like the Arctic and Antarctic, the region is heating up faster than average, and its glaciers are melting.) So, it should have been obvious that skiing was one great example of the many indulgences and luxuries that are most to blame for climate change. Even if we weren’t heli-skiing in the Rockies, we were still driving or flying to destinations that were by definition high and remote. A skier’s carbon footprint is huge — and that was true even before we needed machines to make artificial snow to replace the natural sort.

But nobody made those connections, because you just don’t when you’re having fun. Personally, I’ve always loved not only the sport but also the atmosphere, especially in the Austrian Alps. That authentic but relaxed lederhosen-dirndl vibe works for me at noon in the huts on the peaks just as well as après, down in the valleys. I wanted my kids to experience this too.

A decade ago we started going to one resort in particular, which I won’t name. On the way there, one passes lower-lying ski areas that are already closed for most of the season. But ours still has enough snow — enough of the time, or with enough help from snow cannon — to make the visit worthwhile. We chose a cozy family hotel to which we returned for years.

Even so, my children’s experience was bound to be different than mine at that age. My first skis were wooden, long and straight, and my bindings were tied to my shins, apparently designed for maximum destructive effect during wipeouts. Nobody wore helmets. Meals were simple but hearty. 

My kids have grown up with slightly convex “carving” skis and helmets that, as of this season, have GoPro cameras affixed to the top, lest an Alpine moment should accidentally pass unrecorded and unshared. They’re excellent skiers, except in powder, which they’ve never experienced for enough time to gain expertise. But they don’t care, because they’re having fun, being buds with all the regulars and ski instructors and locals. 

The snow in that ski area, even during that short stretch of one decade, kept becoming iffier. Occasional dumps are followed by nothing but rain and mud for weeks on end, with temperatures so warm that even the cannon can’t spray their icy mist (which, technically, isn’t exactly snow anyway). 

Even so, the resort kept growing. Overall, the number of new lifts in the Alps has been static for decades, but the old ones keep being replaced with new and more deluxe conveyors. Every season, a few more four-seat chairs make way for eight-seaters. They now have butt warmers, too; I’m sure iPhone chargers are next. 

Our old hotel — we’ve since traded down to something simpler next door — also keeps adding stuff, both facilities and activities. Many lower-lying resorts are closing, but this one, like others in that valley, appears to be doubling down.

When we first came, it had one little spa, then it opened another, and another. Heated outdoor pools now steam the winter air, while Teslas are signaling virtue from their charging stations. They recently built a state-of-the-art equestrian hall, with stables full of ponies and horses, and some other farm animals. The family hotel is becoming a wellness and entertainment campus. A friend who’s a ski instructor tells me that it’s become the go-to place for sushi. The main athletic selling point seems to be all-season mountain-biking. 

Some people roll with such trends, but I’m feeling the whiplash of cognitive dissonance. In the hallway of our hotel, there are pairs of old wooden skis on the wall for decoration, the way a Tuscan villa might display Etruscan antiques. One pair was exactly like the ones I started on. I used to love the Austrian Germknoedel. And now, sushi? 

We all have different psychological mechanisms for coping with the reality of climate change. For activists like Greta Thunberg, it seems to be depression, anxiety and rage. For others, it’s resignation. For others yet, it’s denial. And people like me cycle between all of them. But hardly anybody has already reached the last stage of grieving, which is acceptance.

Can we save the sport of skiing if our resorts try to escape upmarket, with three-star kitchens, outdoor pools and riding halls? Should we even try?

Inexorably, snow will get scarcer in our lifetime, and all attempts to chase the remaining patches will drive us to ever higher altitudes and more exotic destinations, at ever higher cost in money and carbon. Skiing will keep getting more expensive, exclusive and indulgent. The snow patches are our Truffula trees, except that we’re both Lorax and Once-ler and wearing the Thneeds.

My kids understand all this at a tummy level the way I didn’t at their age. But they’re not ready yet to step into the gondola for their last ascent and their final run. Or maybe their dad isn’t quite ready yet to tell them.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Is this the end of skiing as we know it?: Twitter Space with Andreas Kluth and Therese Raphael

We’re Succeeding on Climate. We’ll Fail on Biodiversity: David Fickling

The Geoengineers Are Just Winging It: Faye Flam

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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