Most folks in my generation who grew up near New England or the Rockies – I can claim a bit of both – were raised to some degree on skis. It was tradition, just something that you did, usually because it was something that your parents did. You pile the whole family in the station wagon and drive several hours into the mountains, with the kids complaining most of the way there and sleeping most of the way home. If you were lucky, your high school had a ski club, and the trip back and forth to the mountain on the bus was often more fun and eye-opening than the actual skiing. If you were really lucky, you might have a friend whose parents had ‘a place’ and you’d get invited. And if you were really really lucky, your family could afford a holiday trip to Vermont, or *gasp* Colorado.
Is it any wonder that many of us boomers consider skiing an ancient, time-honored tradition, like we’re tapping into something as old and dependable as the mountains themselves?
But it’s not true. The fact is, alpine skiing in America is a completely modern idea, barely older than our parents. It got started in 1934, when FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps cut a trail up Mount Mansfield in Vermont, which they nicknamed, ‘The Bruce.’ When they were finished, one of the crew, a young man named Paul Barquin, put on some skis and headed down it, becoming the first person to ski at Stowe. The rest of the mountain was developed over the years: a rope tow was installed in 1936; an old logging camp got converted into the first base lodge, complete with unheated outhouses; in 1938, a set of races at the mountain created one of the worst traffic jams in state history; the first chairlift was installed in 1940 (and lasted until 1987); in 1943, the chairman of AIG built a second lift, and then became the major investor, and grew Stowe into what it is today.
During World War 2, there was a New Hampshire state legislator named Dave Bradley who learned about of group of Finnish mountaineers that had put up incredible resistance to a Soviet invasion. Inspired, he and his friend Charles (Minnie) Dole – who would later direct the national Ski Patrol – decided to create a similar force of Americans to go fight the Axis in the mountains of Europe. The call went out for the rare few young men with experience working and skiing in the mountains. And it was answered by, among others, the ski coach at Dartmouth, a Swiss émigré and downhill ski champion named Walter Prager, who got 109 of his students to enlist. And so was born an elite corps of winter fighters, who would come to be known as the 10th Mountain Division.
In 1945, they had their legendary moment. There was a supposedly unclimbable spine of the Apennines called Riva Ridge that was defended by the German army. The 10th climbed it, overran the enemy, and sent the Allies surging forward. One of the American soldiers in that engagement was hit by a shell and badly maimed, but was saved by two of his friends; he would go on to become a senator from Kansas and an advocate for the disabled, named Bob Dole.
When the war ended, the 10th came home…and essentially invented the American ski industry. Many of them spilled out to places with names like A-Basin and Sugarbush, Crystal and Bachelor. One of them named Pete Seibert transformed a sheep pasture in Colorado into a place called Vail, and then opened a second place in Utah called Snow Basin, which would one day host the 2002 Olympics. The 10th Mountain boys would spur the growth of over 60 resorts, including building White Pass in Washington, Ski Santa Fe, and the legendary Jackson Hole.
Today, American skiing is a $3.5B business, with 462 resorts in the U.S. and Canada, and is expected to grow at about 5% over the next few years. The industry has coalesced around 2 giant players: Vail, originally a 3-mountain operation, has bought up 17 more and introduced the ‘Epic Pass’ which lets you ski them all; Alterra Mountain Company has consolidated 12 major resorts under one banner, with its own ‘Ikon Pass.’
All of which sounds great. But, at the same time, if you’re a skier looking out the window, you may be asking an obvious question: um, where’s the snow?
Anybody paying any attention knows that winter is dying. The EPA estimates that in the period 1930-2007 (which essentially encompasses the entire age of American skiing), annual snowfall dropped by .2% annually in the lower 48. And the proportion of rain, which can wash out snow accumulations, has steadily increased.
And it’s getting worse. This month, researchers at Dartmouth, where much of this whole thing got started, have concluded that New England winters are getting shorter, and steadily warmer, at a much faster rate than the global average. New Hampshire is getting about 2.5 degrees warmer each winter. This year there has been hardly any snowfall, and the school’s legendary winter carnival will be postponed, if not cancelled. The Nordic ski team has been practicing on rollers.
Another Dartmouth researcher concludes that we are headed towards a 50% decrease in snowfall in New England. And a scientist from the University of New Hampshire projects that, by the end of this century, only 15% of existing ski areas in New England and Quebec will still be in operation.
And so we may be reaching the end. Almost all those original 10th Mountain boys have passed on. And as they go, it looks like winter may be going with them.
All of which means the ski era as we have known it may turn out to be the anomaly, not the norm. The American ski tradition may literally turn out to be the adventure of one lifetime.
– Mike Keeler