on the piste

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T’other day I overheard (I know, I know) a conversation in my local Costa where a gentleman was bemoaning his family’s luck wrt to the snow they had ‘enjoyed’ on their annual winter skiing holiday. Apparently, the region had recorded its highest-ever temperatures and heavy rain had wiped away what little snow there was. An anticipated minus-ten had morphed into a positive mid-teens and, in response, next year they were going to search out the resorts that could guarantee a healthy supply of artificial snow. Phew. All is not lost.

Skiing is an ancient activity and the oldest known skis, found in Russia, are at least 8,000 years old. Skiing as a sport, however, emerged in the mid-19th century after the Norwegian Sondre Norheim developed curved skis and revolutionised bindings by tying birch roots around his boots. In 1888, an Englishman, Colonel Napier, started a vogue for skiing at Davos and it’s been downhill, so to speak, ever since. The first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix in 1924 and twelve years later the world’s first chairlift opened in Sun Valley, Idaho, transforming the sport and opening it to the moneyed-masses.

Climate change is now wreaking havoc throughout Europe’s skiing industry where over eighty resorts have recently closed and around half the slopes in France were forced to shut down due to lack of snow during the already shortened season. The alps, which host more than a third of the world’s ski resorts are particularly sensitive to global warming. Temperatures have risen by twice the global average, snow depth has reduced by almost 10% since the 70s, and the season is now over five weeks shorter than it used to be. No summer skiing took place in Val d’Isere last year for the first time since 1958.

In response, the industry is relying heavily on snow cannons, which blast water droplets into the air, freezing them and allowing them to fall to the ground as a substitute to the real mccoy. However, this obviously requires water and energy, lots of it. A recent Swedish study found that the leccy to create just two metres of artificial snow is the equivalent of a household’s daily use and that it takes 285,000 litres of water to create an area of merely 60 square metres. Hardly cost-effective, ecologically viable or sustainable. Consequently, the lucky resorts are rebranding themselves as year-round destinations with spas, hiking, mountain-biking, snow-free tobogganing and ice-climbing but this isn’t bringing the cash in: Alpine skiing attracts more than eighty-million tourists, turns over almost thirty billion euros and employs over five hundred thousand in France alone. Huge figures all-round and it’s only going to get worse. Many resorts are predicting their own demise by the early 2030s.

For non-skiers, like myself, the fate of a few resorts catering to my aggrieved Costa regular, may not be at the top of their concerns, particularly given the massive carbon footprint involved. However, I do feel for the loss of local communities and for a radical change in the societal fabric of a somewhat traditional life. For the economies of the areas affected, it may well spell devastation. Didier Thevenet, the mayor of La Clusaz, recently told The Washington post: “We will have less money and we will lower our standard of living.”

And in a similar vein we Britons are also being told we “need to accept” that we’re getting poorer. This was the message from the Bank of England’s chief economist, Huw Pill, who explained “we all need to take our share” of the current cost-of-living crisis and asked workers to stop seeking wage hikes and to instead come to terms with the fact that we’re all worse off. I wonder if ex-Havard and Goldman Sachs employee Mr (Bitter) Pill is a skier?