This weekend’s annual Golden Fox Ski World Cup programme saw the best female exponents of slalom and giant slalom take on the Radvanje piste adjacent to Slovenia’s second city Maribor, and part of the Pohorje massif. Despite occupying a modest altitude Maribor’s yearly skiing jamboree has endured, although spring conditions meant an astonishing 95% of the snow pack was man-made, with north-eastern Slovenia again missing out on the surfeit of white gold being dumped upon Bavaria, the Tirol, and to some extent, the country’s own Julian Alps.
It is far from unusual for skiers at the start hut to look down into the town or city yoked to the winter sports area in which they are set to race and see little or no snow; this weekend was no exception. The eternal proclivity of snow depths to vary on a semi-localized, provincial basis or indeed from one village to the next ensures that areas such as Pohorje, not part a contiguous cross-border chain of mountains and situated away from where meteorological conditions are the most conducive to snow production, can be on the receiving end of a phenomenon known as a green winter. It is itself surprising that the production and curation of the necessary, albeit ersatz conditions, was possible in such relatively balmy temperatures.
Is it to simplistic to automatically ascribe Pohorje’s yearly battle with the elements as being the inevitable, nascent outfall from Climate Change? A start gate less than 2,000 feet above sea-level is extremely rare and whilst the Alpine World Ski Championships due to be held this month in Are, Sweden, barely top out at an altitude higher than for example many Austrian resort towns, Scandinavia’s geographic advantages for receiving natural snow in abundance are tacit. Throughout the Alps there always has and forever will be an element of luck for the right type and amount of snow to fall on cue, but Maribor Pohorje’s extremely modest situation is something out of the control of local race organizers, amid an undeniable trend of higher mean temperatures throughout central and eastern Europe, especially away from their highest points.
Running for the last 55 years the Golden Fox event has on four occasions since 2007 been relocated to Kranjska Gora in Slovenia’s north-west, a relatively more snow-sure region of the country but by no means guaranteed to be in receipt of natural snow in abundance. Being situated at a greater elevation doesn’t automatically equal apposite conditions but does offer a greater chance for temperatures to be more suitable for the production of artificial snow, a modern-day necessary evil of both the leisure and professional side of winter sports.
Although spring conditions and a lack of snow in Maribor shouldn’t genuinely surprise, the FIS governing body has always persisted in including the Golden Fox as an integral part of its race itinerary long before the technology to synthesize race characteristics became available. There must now though be genuine concern for the event’s long-term future. It is undoubtedly true that a high level of uncertainty will always go hand in hand with vertically challenged ski resorts, but I can envisage a time when winter-sports aficionados will be chased higher and higher into the Alps, where eventually semi-permanent glacial snowfields will number their few remaining playgrounds.
As with guarantees of sunshine during a British summer certainty of snowfall in the Alps has always been conspicuous by its absence; something that has everything to do with the direction from which prevailing weather patterns originate and the Foehn affect, less so Global Warming. When one desires a certain type of weather, even during a period of the year when it is most prevalent, luck rather than conspiracy underpins the eventual outcome. That is not for me to say Climate Change is just the terrain of scaremongers, far from it, but it has always been fanciful to suggest that just because a low-lying resort isn’t receiving snow it must a man-made, not naturally occurring issue at play. Climate Change’s inexorable but uncertain timetable will eventually have the final say, potentially decimating the highly lucrative winter-sports sector.
Pohorje’s altitude and unique meteorological foibles of course endure, and with these in mind the FIS renews its contract with Maribor’s race committee. It will though be for it to decide if the inherent risks attached to its elevation and geographic situations are becoming untenable in the face of Climate Change’s creeping uncertainty, or if Maribor’s popularity as part of the professional circuit ensures its continued inclusion, warts and all.
My personal experiences of snow in Slovenia reflect its unpredictable, all or nothing nature. From tales of being stuck in the Bolfenk area of Pohorje to a complete lack of naturally occurring conditions in one of its more reliable areas, Vogel above Bohinj, planning a winter-sports escape to the Julian Alps or Pohorje is fraught with archetypal uncertainty. Unless travel plans can be made at a moment’s notice during periods of optimal snowfall, visits predicated on hitting the slopes can end in disappointment. Vogel’s proximity to the Adriatic Sea and as part of the Julian Alps, the first range which prevailing frontal systems will meet on making landfall, arguably makes it the country’s most snow-sure but not the highest ski area in the country. Bovec, close to the Italian border and sharing the Kanin mountain with the Sella Nevea resort accounts for the latter accolade but has only recently once more become operational as a ski resort after three years of inactivity brought about by a collapsed cableway. Advantages of altitude do work in Bovec’s favour, although geographic and climatic quirks again offer few assurances.
I am not sure how much Maribor’s local economy relies upon the yearly influx attendant with the Golden Fox event, although for a region denied the advantages of having an airport that functions, losing the prestige and worldwide exposure associated with a place on the FIS roster would be another hefty setback. Those tasked with scheduling skiing’s World Cup events are all too familiar with the race’s shortcomings, but it remains to be seen how patient they will be with circumstances that are, after all, fully out of Pohorje’s control.