Snow Making: The Recreationist’s Dilemma

My first ski day of the year was Christmas Eve; by far the latest I have ever begun a ski season. The reason was an abnormally slow start to the season. As of New Year’s Eve, Stevens Pass had received just 52 percent of its average snowfall for this time of year. Folks I’ve talked with on the hill say this is one of the slowest starts to the season in memory.

I had hoped to a better start to the winter for geographical and financial reasons. The Pacific Northwest is known for copious early-winter snowfall, and I plunked down $500 for a season pass to Stevens. I have endured dry Decembers in Utah, but resorts there deployed an increasingly popular weapon that mitigates the (perceived) effects of drought: snow makers.

Stevens Pass makes no artificial snow, making it a rarity among ski resorts even in the snowy West. Crystal Mountain, Stevens’ southerly competitor near Mount Rainier, opened early thanks to artificial snow. Each year, resorts in Colorado vie to be the first to open on snow that falls not from the sky, but metal tubes flanking a ski run.

As an avid resort skier, I want to hit the slopes in December, and often that’s only possible with the help of snow making. I spent four years skiing at Snowbird in Utah, which averages a whopping 455 inches of snow each season, yet every December in Salt Lake, I was skiing on artificial snow. This is nice as a paying customer; I paid $500 to ski, so I want to ski. It’s also nice to get into the mountains, to escape the traffic and pollution of the city to schuss for a few hours, even if it involves being pelted by a snow maker’s frozen bullets that sting like blowing sand and freeze to your goggles.

The skier in me appreciates snow making, but my environmental conscience hates it. Snow making is a resource-heavy endeavor. Fossil fuels must be burned to operate snow guns, and they suck up tremendous amounts of water from streams or lakes. Furthermore, snow making can hide the effects of global warming from the public conscience. The best way to make skiers understand and appreciate the effect of climate change is to make them wait until February for reliable snow, and then watch it all disappear by mid-April.

One thing is certain — snow making isn’t going away. Eastern resorts thrive on snow making, and resorts in the West soon won’t be the powder paradises they once were. In college, I wrote about the environmental bombshell that looms over Park City, Utah: By 2075, the town could warm by 9 degrees Fahrenheit, which would cost it $66 million in economic activity each year. Scientists project Park City could lose all its snowpack by 2100.

Ski resorts are invaluable assets. Despite the glitzy lodges and expensive food, they allow people to recreate in the mountains during winter without the fear of avalanches. They chop down swaths of trees and pollute watersheds, but they introduce people to the mountains who otherwise would stick to the cities. But you can’t have a ski resort without snow, and resort skiing as I’ve known it will likely die before I do.

I want to ski in December, hell, maybe November. I don’t care if the snow is crummy, manmade garbage: I want to slide downhill and pay too much for beer in the lodge and feel the cold air against my cheeks. By that logic, I want Stevens Pass to start making snow.

But that’s a selfish outlook. Topping my desire to ski early in winter is my desire for people to understand climate change. Ski towns and regions are typically filled with people who are environmentally and ecologically conscious. They are also filled with wealthy residents and tourists who wield influence over the systems of daily life. If they see brown slopes heading into January, then maybe they’ll better understand climate change. A ski chalet isn’t so romantic when it’s just a cabin in the mud.

Artificial snow lets us ski longer each winter. But it also hides the fact that winters are growing shorter. So I’ll continue to moan as Stevens Pass’ seasons continue to shorten, but beneath the whining, I’m glad that the resort’s lack of snow making is helping me better see the effect of climate change.

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