We’re catching our breath in the daunting shadow of Devil’s Castle ridge in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains at Alta, one of the United States’ first ski areas, opened in 1938. Spread out before our ski tips is a wonderland of snowy slopes snaking away between stands of pines. The thrill of the impending run mixes with the fine chill of another perfect winter day.
I learned to ski when I was 5, on wooden skis with cable bindings and lace-up leather boots; decades on now, downhill skiing remains my favorite sport. But I also recognize that skiing and snowboarding are sports of privilege — with a heavy carbon footprint.
High-powered lifts, water-guzzling snowmaking machines, slope lights, resorts nestled in mountain valleys — or even on mountaintops — where operating fundamental infrastructure is complex and expensive: It’s no secret that, even in the midst of pristine snow and pure alpine air, this can be a dirty business.
Compounding all that, many skiers and snowboarders venture far — often via planes — to these remote mountains. Travel to resorts is often the biggest carbon outlay of a ski holiday, accounting for 52 percent of the total CO2 generated in a day’s skiing, according to a 2022 study.
Will downhill skiing and snowboarding survive? Should they? There are plenty of voices calling for an end to the sports in the battle to save the planet.
All About the Snow
Snow fell during the night, and we’re now carving our way through glades of Douglas fir in deep powder. This is the dream, what pulls skiers to the mountains: Powder is the equivalent of champagne’s bubbles, and we’re floating in the snowy effervescence.
Alta averages 540 inches of snow annually — about a foot every five days during ski season. But the climate crisis is confounding even the weather many other people curse. Winters are getting shorter; snowfall is becoming unreliable.
In the Alps, home to some of the best skiing in the world, snowmaking cannons are often now needed to remedy erratic snowfall — and in the driest winters, helicopters have been required to ferry snow down to Austrian slopes from higher mountains. Scientists estimate that the Alps’ glaciers will lose half of their ice to global warming by 2050.
A similar problem could face Alta. The area’s world-famous snow comes thanks in part to the lake effect from the Great Salt Lake: Cold air moving over the saline waters destabilizes the atmosphere and results in a wealth of snowfall. But the lake itself is now shrinking because of climate change, potentially creating a ripple effect on snowfall.
With the popularity of downhill skiing, exclusive resorts have been built in parts of the world that don’t even get much snow — if any. The last three Winter Olympics provide proof: Eighty percent of the snow for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, was artificial; more than 90 percent of Pyeongchang’s snow in 2018 was synthetic.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics required an estimated 343 million gallons of water to carpet slopes with faux snow in a water-scarce region. That’s the equivalent of a day’s worth of drinking water for 900 million people.
A Pledge to Greener Skiing
After several runs, we’re exhilarated yet exhausted; we aim our skis toward a mountaintop chalet for a cup of cocoa. Dollarwise, that hot chocolate doesn’t cost us any more than a cup down in town, but its cost to the environment is extravagant: toting ingredients and containers up the mountainside to chalets, which then require infrastructure and workers to operate.
Many ski areas are committed to recycling and banning single-use plastics; others are investing in water-saving snowmaking machines and more environmentally friendly lifts. Famed ski-gear maker Rossignol even announced a recyclable ski for 2022–23.
But it’s not anywhere near enough.
Happily, many ski areas are striving to remedy that. In fact, they have to, for the survival of the sport — and the environment.
Alta is one of 120 U.S. ski resorts that operate on federal lands; they all pay a special-use fee to the Forest Service. As a steward of the land, Alta created the Alta Environmental Center as part of its commitment to building sustainability.
The ski area is now powered in part by 98 solar panels, and workers have planted more than 40,000 new trees in the area since 1991. Its campaign to collect and divert food waste saved 3.2 tons of waste in 2019 alone.
And Alta’s eco-friendly Skier Services base lodge has been awarded a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Certification.
Many other ski areas are also turning to renewable energy. Because they’re located high in the mountains, solar is the obvious solution. Many resorts have committed to sun power, including Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin; Montana’s Bridger Bowl and Big Sky; Vermont’s Sugarbush; and more.
Wolf Creek in Colorado claims to be the first ski resort to run on 100 percent solar energy; even its snowcats are fueled by biodegradable grapeseed oil.
Others are following similar paths. Along with using solar, Colorado’s Aspen captures waste methane from a local coal mine to generate carbon-negative electricity to help power the resort. Wyoming’s Jackson Hole is powered completely by wind.
New Mexico’s Taos is one of the most environmentally conscious ski resorts. In 2017, it was designated the world’s first B Corp ski area, a certification measuring a company’s social and environmental impact, including workers’ rights, energy use, and waste reduction.
The National Ski Areas Association’s Sustainable Slopes, the Green Business Bureau, and the nonprofit Protect Our Winters work to fight the climate crisis while also saving the sport.
Back at Alta, the sun has set behind the ridgeline, turning the world that deep, rich blue you seem to find only in the mountains. We ski down to the base, feeling the exertion in every muscle and bone, but looking forward to another day on the slopes — and, we hope, a future that includes greener skiing and snowboarding.
How to Find Sustainable Slopes
Keep these ideas in mind for greening your next ski trip.
- Read ski areas’ environmental initiatives web pages. Some are super detailed on what they’re doing; others are full of platitudes about how much they care but include few solid examples, making you question whether it’s just greenwashing.
- Think about how you’re getting to the slopes. Your travel is often the largest part of your carbon footprint. And some resorts are nestled in valleys with little room for all the rental cars: Many resorts are now offering shuttles, e-vehicle carpooling, and other options. A number of Swiss, French, and Austrian resorts, led by Switzerland’s famed Zermatt, do not allow cars.
- Maximize the life of your ski gear. All equipment, from your winter coat to your actual skis, has a carbon footprint. Support brands that support sustainability. Fix and repair when possible. You might also consider renting ski equipment to save on transport costs or buying secondhand when you do need new boards.
- Try uphill skiing, too. Earn your turns by hiking (rather than riding) to the top of runs, especially if you’re backcountry skiing.
This article originally appeared as “Ski Green” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.