STEVENS PASS, Wash. – Skiing is an endangered sport, caught between a warming planet and a global pandemic. But there is a boom in one corner of the skiing world that is driven, at least in part, by a combination of climate change and Covid.
The unexpected recovery shows how skiers are adjusting to the double crisis and how a winter sport is changing as snow cover decreases around the world.
Ski touring or downhill skiing, a hybrid style that combines elements of cross-country and downhill skiing, has been popular in Europe for decades. In the United States, however, it is traditionally a sport for mountain climbers and extreme athletes, who use special skis to climb slopes and in the backcountry in search of unspoiled powder.
That changed when the pandemic shut down ski resorts in 2020. Sales of hiking equipment in the United States rose as recreational skiers searched for ways to ascend without elevators. More than a million people in the United States used hiking equipment last year, even as most ski lifts reopened, sales of specialized equipment increasing 260% between November 2019 and the same month a year later, according to market research firm NPD Group.
“It’s not linear growth,” said Drew Hardesty, skier and forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center. “It’s exponential.”
Touring skiers use removable traction bands called skins on their skis and adjustable bindings with free heels that allow them to walk. To descend, they remove the skins and block the heels for the descents.
The sport originated in Europe as a convenient form of transport in winter, with the predecessors of today’s ski touring appearing. from the 16th century. Ski touring is “part of the fabric of culture” in Europe, according to Drew Saunders, a senior executive at Oberalp Group, the mountain sports company that owns the Dynafit and Pomoca ski brands. “The European market is almost a generation ahead of us in terms of maturity and sophistication and ski touring in general,” Saunders said.
Ski touring began to infiltrate the American mainstream in the mid-2000s, when wild backcountry downhill videos in places like the Himalayas, the high Andes and the Arctic began to circulate on the Internet. “Back then, there was hardly anyone doing it,” said Ingrid Backstrom, a professional skier who helped popularize ski touring in the United States through films of her descents on isolated trails. . “The equipment was harder to find, more expensive and didn’t perform as well.
In recent years, with decreasing snow cover and pristine powder increasingly difficult to reach, skiers like Ms. Backstrom have been pushed more often on groomed trails. This increased visibility, combined with pandemic closures, she said, has prompted more skiers to try hiking gear. “It always helps to have a visible example,” she said.
Ms Backstrom also said more and more skiers are choosing to avoid the backcountry and ski uphill on developed trails because it is “safer given extreme weather and climate change.”
One of the main reasons is that, like the weather becomes more volatile, avalanches are increasingly difficult to predict. For example, much of the work done by forecaster Mr. Hardesty is based on his previous observations and on computer modeling of past avalanches by scientists. But, he said, “the old hard drive won’t necessarily be accurate for watching the avalanches we’re going to see.”
He also said the avalanche threats have been magnified by the forest fires, which are made worse by the extreme heat and drought linked to climate change. “Increased layers of ash and dust in the snowpack create weak layers” which can split in avalanches, said Hardesty, and can accentuate the melting of the snowpack in general.
For Ms. Backstrom, whose brother was killed in a skiing accident, safety considerations are increasingly pressing. “Now that we have two small children, I am very demanding on my days in the backcountry because of the risk and the risk of avalanches,” she said.
She now sometimes chooses to stay on the slopes of the resort, even when the snow conditions allow her to travel the hinterland. “It’s an easy way to hike and exercise, to have that freedom and to feel the thrill of skiing back down,” she said.
As well as making ski touring less safe, climate change is also making it more difficult to traverse unmanaged terrain during an increasing part of the season as snow cover decreases.
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Many North American ski resorts have spent much of this season relying almost entirely on artificial snow. “Normally there would be enough snow to at least try to hike the backcountry now,” said Tristan Droppert, US marketing manager for Black Crows, a ski maker, in late December. “And this year, it’s still almost impossible.
In Colorado, where ski touring is particularly popular among endurance athletes, skiers have been confined to a very limited range of terrain. Copper Mountain, the training ground for the US ski team, was only 50% open in the days leading up to Christmas. The resort has quadrupled the number of uphill ski trails for cross-country skiing, but most of the trails are supplemented with artificial snow cannons. And near Bluebird Backcountry, a ski area founded last year and dedicated exclusively to ski touring, there was not enough snow to open by Christmas.
Between 1982 and 2016, the U.S. ski season shrank an average of 34 days per year, and snow cover levels experienced an average decline of 41%, according to a study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“We are going to see a continued shortening of the snow season,” said Xubin Zeng, director of the Center for Climate Dynamics and Hydrometeorology at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study. “My best guess is that it will be at least double what we’ve already lost” by 2050. This trend will continue to affect not only skiing, but agriculture, fishing and the wild ecosystems that rely on regular snow cover.
With that in mind, the industry is wondering whether it should adapt to the changing conditions or try to overcome them with new infrastructure and artificial snow.
China and the International Olympic Committee are preparing for the 2022 Winter Games at venues that will most likely use 100% artificial snow. About 49 million gallons of water will be needed to create the conditions necessary for the events, according to a 2019 estimate, a decision that some have criticized as unsustainable.
More and more alpine skiers report using ski touring on natural snow as a reflection of their values. “Powder is one of the natural wonders of the world,” Ms. Backstrom said. “It’s just a pure miracle of nature, and you can’t reproduce it in any way, in any form.”
Clinging to these values may require further adjustment as the snow cover continues to thin.
“We’re probably going to have to walk in the dirt and our boots for a while,” Droppert said of ski touring for years to come, “and then put on skis and skins.”
“But we will always ski, even if it means walking in the mud.