A long slippery slope should be a good thing for skiers. The environmental one, however, looks more like a rocky road to disaster than a fun day out on the piste. In the
Alps, as in many other mountain areas, the glaciers are disappearing at an uncomfortably rapid speed, snowfalls decreasing, and many resorts closing due to rising snowlines. Skiers are going higher and higher in search of perfect powder, with the United Nations predicting that Alpine snowlines could rise by 300 metres in the next fifty years.
Sadly, most people who don their skis in search of ‘pristine’ wilderness, are totally unaware that they play a huge part in the destruction of their beloved winter wonderland. Resort development has been virtually unstoppable over the last thirty years, with piste after piste being cut into untouched ground. With lack of snowfall, thousands of snow cannons have been introduced to create it artificially, ejecting water droplets into the night sky (220,000 gallons of water to cover an acre), which then freeze and fall to the ground as snow. About half of this water comes from manmade reservoirs, the rest from rivers and local drinking supplies. With eighty million tourists visiting the Alps every year, compared with a resident population of around sixteen million, that’s a lot of adrenaline junkies’ habits to feed.
One international conservation group, Mountain Wilderness, describes skiing as ‘the cancer of the Alps’. The energy-eating water cannons, heli-skiing, or off-piste skiing are top sore points. Not to mention the vast amounts of CO2 from endless flights descending over this chocolate box scenery.
Keen skiers can do many things to reduce their personal impact. I struggled to find any Irish ski websites with ethical guidelines, but The Ski Club of Great Britain’s Respect the Mountain campaign offers many useful tips. From taking the train instead of the plane to not leaving litter on the slopes. A dropped cigarette butt may look like it’s disappearing, but it will be there when the snows melt, and still there five years later, which is how long it takes it to disintegrate. Water bottles take about 1000 years longer. It has a guide to eco-friendly resorts, including those with bio-diesel piste bashers, solar panels, use of biodegradable detergents, and eco-friendly water waste systems. (www.skiclub.co.uk). Ski journalist, Patrick Thorne, who has visited over 200 resorts, also makes a passionate plea to protect mountain landscapes in his website www.saveoursnow.com.
Many companies are now offering low-impact winter holidays. For a Christmas trip to Lapland with a difference, try Aurora Retreat. They create an itinerary to suit your family, including cross-country skiing using traditional wooden skis, igloo-building (and sleeping), indigenous Sami activities such as felt making, and dog-sledging (www.auroraretreat.se).
Among the big operators, Neilson has one of the best responsible tourism policies. They use only locally-owned properties, and do not offer ‘all inclusive’ holidays, encouraging you to bring cash into the small rural communities. Responsible travel company Explore offers many low-impact ski holidays from Slovakia to Siberia (www.explore.co.uk), or for a winter-walking break in the snowy Scottish Cairngorms, learning how to manage ice axes and crampons, see Wilderness Scotland.
Anyone who has experienced that sensation of seeing the Alps for the first time, and almost weeping with the pure beauty of it all, must know that we have to do everything we can to preserve these mountain landscapes. By supporting some of the organisations above, you will add to the much-needed statistics which prove to governments and those who can help stop the destruction on a grand scale, that skiers really do care.
(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 4 October 2008)