Aside from my general feelings on the damage that winter sports can inflict upon alpine regions, it has always been the use of glaciers for skiing and snowboarding which has drawn the majority of my ire.

It is understandable how the leviathan snow sports industry has managed to convert glaciers in the minds of Austrians from centuries old (semi)permanent ice fields into opportunities to lengthen the season at both ends of the traditional December-April operational period, enabling locals and tourists alike to get more out of what is at lower altitudes, a shrinking time frame for winter pursuits.

Created in many examples over an indeterminate length of time the formation of a glacier and the fluctuations of its depth rely on a net gain of winter snowfall over the inevitable summer melting. It is from this simple formula that the virtually unmolested glacial growth over hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years has occurred, when CO2 emissions, Global Warming, and depletion of the Ozone Layer were not the factors they are today. It is only now, for the purposes of clarification “now” relates to not only the here and now but the last few decades, when glacial depletion has become a poster boy for the inexorable march of Climate Change, with higher summer temperatures and pollution from alpine nations rendering relatively consistently high snowfall levels during the winter to be insufficient to counter annual net losses of glacial coverage, and depth.

To prepare any organised ski area pistes must be groomed for safety and consistency, should they be using ersatz snow, the genuine article, or a hybrid of the two. Despite the unadulterated provenance of glacial snow that thankfully isn’t corrupted by water and energy-sapping snow cannons crevasses must be filled, and striations smoothed over before the first patrons can get to grips with the terrain. Misleading pictures of bulldozers atop a glacial area in the Pitztal region of the Austrian Tirol, one that has been the subject of a for now paused proposal to link the ski area with the comparatively monied and sophisticated Oetztal, specifically Soelden, piqued the interest of environmentalists who accused those responsible of showing reckless disregard for an ancient landscape, and jumping the gun before a decision had been made on the Oetztal-Pitztal connection. Despite the vulgar scenes of man apparently holding dominion over his most vulnerable and unique surroundings, the pictures equated to ‘nothing more’ than standard maintenance of the glacier, which sought to make it safe for winter sports’ enthusiasts who have used it for years, and intrepid hikers. Far from excusing the use of excavators on the Tirol’s highest snow fields and not wishing to deny their incongruity at over 10,000 feet above sea level, it seems this has been a common practice for years but taken out of context by justly concerned organizations seeking to pressure the relevant decision maker into refusing the link, a project slated to cost in the region of €130 million.

It would therefore seem that the admittedly unappealing photographs depict standard practice, although if or not it can be described as best practice is moot, depending on the subjectivity of whether glaciers should be used for high-impact recreation in the first place. At least eight glaciers are used in Austria for winter sports, including the Rettenbach above Soelden which hosts the annual curtain-raiser to the Ski World Cup season. There is though a dilemma as to how their presence should be used for commercial purposes, in what is an incredibly powerful and persuasive industry within the Tirol and neighbouring Salzburgerland. Too many jobs are at stake to take winter sports out of the equation, a sector which has lifted many impoverished alpine regions out of poverty and made several key individuals/families in each valley extremely wealthy. Accumulating wealth through hard work and innovation is not the issue, but when the subsequent gold rush and the pursuit of more blinds those who put money before the landscape which has made them their pile, then we find ourselves with scenarios like the potential Pitztal-Oetztal marriage, where the former seeks to cash in where others already have before it misses the metaphorical boat, whilst the latter is effectively ‘coming along for the ride’, boasting an already bewildering network of lifts, ski areas, and associated infrastructure. The classic case of how much is enough – just a little more.

As Climate Change alters the ability of many Austrian resorts situated below 2,000 m(6,600 feet) to consistently provide snow cover without the use of water storage ponds and attendant snow-making equipment, the temptation to look higher where natural snow falls in greater quantities and lasts longer is obvious. It is therefore towards glacial regions, often virgin territory, which will be seen as the saviour to the ski industry but this itself represents placing faith in a false prophet.

It is suggested that an outlay of approximately €130 million for the Pitztal-Oetztal project will be akin to throwing it down a crevasse, should glaciers as predicted be a thing of the past by 2050-2070. With so many eggs in the winter sports basket, if Austria is to protect its glacial regions it has little choice but to allow lower resorts to continue to build egregious water storage ponds on its mountainsides, not for farmers to quench their livestock’s thirst during what are now consistently hot summers, but so this most precious of resource can be wasted in vast quantities on a pastime that holds disproportionately more sway than it should. The reality, should a toss-up between either model being adopted be considered, suggests that adherence to both is likely to continue.

The advent of novel coronavirus has already shown how greed can prevent apres-ski bars and lifts being closed when it was critical for them to do so. When a decision should have been made unilaterally by Ischgl, pejoratively labelled the Ibiza on ice, to pull the plug on its winter season when Covid-19 found ideal conditions for exponential reproduction of the virus, it took an order ‘from above’ to quarantine the Paznaun and Arlberg areas, as well as Soelden. By then the fertile ground had been tilled by the virus, with an estimated 11,000 people worldwide having contracted it directly in resort or as a consequence of it being taken back to whichever country home may be. The pursuit of an amount of money which enables many hoteliers to shut up shop during the summer and for many in the industry to live lavish materialistic lifestyles is a symptom and direct consequence of an attitude that more and more lifts and ski areas, when applied for, are seen as a given rather than a conspicuous admission that saturation point has not only been reached, but long since breached.

If the pandemic has taught Europe’s alpine regions anything it is that our natural surroundings are what give a beleaguered humanity solace, and much needed space to breath, appreciate creation, and adhere on a grand scale to social distancing protocols. There is a fine line between opening up more areas to recreation for these things to be achieved or instead being viewed from afar, but if the current situation will not take in to consideration the ecological emergency that characterizes are contemporary era on earth, serious consideration must be given to diversification to resorts’ winter offering that does not just focus on a reliance on snowfall, and the use of unacceptably high amounts of water to replicate it. The financial implications of here and now spending, with few guarantees that a return on heavy investment will ever be realized, will in a money-centred industry be given as much prominence, although in all likelihood far more, than the environmental factors which without, the likes of Austria wouldn’t be able to draw the levels of visitors that it consistently does.

There is a stark choice to make, but that doesn’t mean it will be paid anything other than lip service.

Source material and further information:

Die seele der Alpen(The Soul of the Alps):

Ski Resort Info: