Those who seek to debunk Climate Change and Global Warming will point to the ski season beginning earlier each year as justification for their controversial standpoint.
What though is little known outside of the resorts open for business at this unseemly early stage in what is still, after all, the middle of autumn, and to those clamouring to take to the pistes way outside of the peak season, is that stored snow from the previous winter and that which is created by snow cannons is increasingly being used to further elongate the ski season beyond its normal parameters.
It is not in dispute that the Austrian Tirol has recently received a sizeable fall of snow but this alone would not be sufficient to form an acceptable depth and consistent coverage to otherwise ‘green’ mountainsides. Whilst it is also indisputable that snow cannons can only synthesise ersatz when temperatures are sufficiently low this attempt to give Mother Nature a helping hand is anything but environmentally friendly.
Storage ponds have become an increasingly common sight in the Alps, dressed up in some cases as ‘picturesque’ diversions to high alpine trails. In reality these artificial tarns offer few redeeming features, are scars on the mountainscape and unequivocally fail to harmonise with dramatic but fragile surroundings. It must be remembered that the water isn’t being stored for farmers to offer to their thirsty livestock but for a rapacious Winter Sports industry to get its snow on the ground often long before the skies provide the Tirol with its ‘white gold’.
Water is undoubtedly taken for granted by all of us. It is though in industries that offer few positives to the environment, think Fracking and yes, Winter Sports, which use a vastly disproportionate amount of water in processes whose ends overwhelmingly fail to justify the means required. Where is the logic, other than from an unabashed financial perspective, that mountain farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to source drinking water for their livestock during the increasingly hot alpine summers, whilst countless gallons of it is being sequestered away, often in plain sight, for a profligate winter sports industry?
Resorts below a certain altitude, say 1,200 metres below sea level, have known for a while that the game is almost up for their medium to long-term viability as ski destinations. It is though now the resorts higher up the food chain, both in terms of elevation and cachet which are increasingly resorting to gaining a head start over local, regional, and national rivals by cranking their snow cannons into action earlier than what would be regarding as the delineated period for winter sports. If though, for example, Obergurgl can start its ski season in the second week of November using only natural snow, a neighbouring resort or that of a similar altitude itself not yet blessed with nature’s bounty will feel compelled to go down the artificial route to simply compete.
I fail to acknowledge the argument that resorts/lift companies are merely acceding to consumer demand. Is there really an appetite amongst the winter sports cognoscenti to ski down a narrow isthmus-like strip of snow whilst surrounded by autumnal greens and browns? The argument that this snow is often that which has been ‘recycled’ from the previous winter is of little consequence when it will be added to by artificial means, using greater amounts of precious water by dint of commencing the season far earlier than it should be. There is also the inevitable collateral damage inflicted upon the area by the attendant issues – traffic, litter, après ski drunkenness – associated not only with increased footfall but the winter sports scene in general.
Several areas I have visited in the Alps are so far gone from an oversupply of cableways and associated infrastructure that they probably look better, or less bad, under winter’s coat that has the ability to hide a multitude of man’s sins. Soelden, in the Oetztal, and the Pengelstein area(pictured below) above Kitzbuhel are two such areas where the concentration of infrastructure is such that it is obvious that many in the industry do not know where to stop and have no desire to do so.
I will though draw this admittedly negative blog to a close with some pleasing personal photographs from a summertime visit to Obergurgl. Whilst relevant to the narrative it is the built environment of Obergurgl as a village that has in my view been overdeveloped through construction projects designed to house as many tourists as possible in the smallest available space. Visiting Obergurgl has become a surreal experience for those doing so in the summertime, where the village in effect seems to be shut down and resembles more an artificial tourist construct than the remote settlement made famous by explorer Auguste Piccard almost 90 years ago. It is therefore the wide-open spaces that remain in, around, and particularly above Obergurgl on which I will concentrate, instead of the unrelieved jumble of associated infrastructure built as a sacrifice to the god of winter sports in nearby Soelden, and frankly in many other areas of the Alps.