Ski Resorts See Slight Thaw After Chilling Effect Of Climate Change

Jan 1, 2016
Originally published on January 1, 2016 5:33 pm

Last year, snowpack across the Sierra Nevada was just 5 percent of average. Up and down the West Coast in fact, the 2014-2015 season was marked by late openings, early closings and some resorts not opening at all.

This year's strong start will be good news for farms and cities down the mountain later, but it's especially promising right now for people like Andy Wirth, the resort's CEO.

He took over in 2011, a record snowfall year, only to be followed by three dry years and then last year, the driest in 1,200 years.

"Mother Nature forced us to focus on every single element of our business, from the revenue perspective, from the cost structure perspective, from the service levels, you name it," Wirth says.

To cope, Wirth redirected $8 million into new, more efficient, automated snow-making systems. The other big thing they did was pool together with other resorts around the country to sell a collective pass. That way when it was dry in California, Squaw could still make some money from sales elsewhere.

"The past four years has been really tough, yet, we've not only survived, because of our capital structure, because of our work, we've done quite well," Wirth says.

Local season pass sales actually climbed during the drought. Yet Squaw still saw a pretty brutal 25 percent drop in overall business.

Human-Caused Climate Change

For a lot of people on this mountain, California's historic drought has been a glimpse of what skiing might be like with climate change.

Extreme snowboarders like Jeremy Jones began noticing the changes here as early as 2003.

A few years later, he founded a group called "Protect Our Winters," where by professional skiers and riders like him lobby Congress on climate policy and try to raise public awareness about human-caused climate change.

"If we do get to a point where we can't operate a ski area, the least of our problems is gonna be us skiers and snowboarders riding down these mountains," Jones says.

Standing atop one of his favorite lines under the KT-22 lift, with the famous deep blue Lake Tahoe off in the distance, Jones is as excited as the next person about the good early season snow. But he's worried for the future. A lower altitude mountain like this may have the toughest go in a warmer climate, he says.

Things are already pretty fickle.

"It is all about feast or famine these days, it's like, record breaking storm, record breaking lows, snowing in June, 70 degrees in January," Jones says. "You have to adapt and when the conditions do line up, take advantage of them."

Skiers As Eternal Optimists

Make no mistake, industry executives like Andy Wirth are counting on their customers being flexible in the years ahead.

Wirth is a self-described environmentalist, a one-time firefighter and forest ranger even. His grandfather used to run the National Park Service. But he's also in the business of making money from snow. It's his job to be optimistic.

"There might be a year, where the skiing starts here," he says from the resort's mid-mountain gondola. "But there's going to be years where it starts at lake level, 2,000-feet below us."

Wirth believes ski resorts can be profitable as the climate changes. Their business models just have to adapt to volatility.

To that end, on a recent morning, he cut the ribbon on the resort's new $7 million upgrade to its Siberia Express lift.

It now carries six skiers per chair — from the previous four — up to the top of one of Squaw Valley's most consistently snowy peaks. It's also designed to keep running in high winds. After all, the higher reaches of the mountain might be where most of the skiing happens in the decades to come.

For his part, Wirth is confident there will be skiing here in 50 years. He says he knows climate change is real and seasons will be volatile, but he doesn't think it's going to be as dramatic as no snow at all.

"It's rhetoric that's been used to bring attention to climate change, I get it and I support that," Wirth says. "But I have the obligation to run this business in a thoughtful and objective fashion and that doesn't match with thoughtfulness, science and objectivity."

It's a bet he and resorts like Squaw Valley are clearly hedging.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CORNISH: Up and down the West Coast, ski resorts are boasting some of their strongest early-season conditions on record. This is a big relief compared to last season when there were late openings, early closings, and some ski areas didn't open at all. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on a resort that considered the drought a practice run for the future.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The steep chutes and boulder-strewn glades served by Squaw Valley's KT-22 chair lift are legendary for extreme skiing enthusiasts and Tahoe locals like Laura Subotky.

LAURA SUBOTKY: Living the good life, for sure.

SIEGLER: Subotky is thrilled because these slopes right now have more snow on them than at any time last year.

SUBOTKY: I moved up here four years ago full-time, and we haven't had a super awesome season in all that time. So it's great to see it change.

SIEGLER: Last year, snowpack across the Sierra Nevada was just 5 percent of average. But this year's strong start will be good news for farms and cities down the mountain later, but it's especially promising right now for people like Andy Wirth.

ANDY WIRTH: It's been many, many years since KT's been open at all, and to be able to ski KT this early in the season is nothing short of remarkable.

SIEGLER: Wirth is Squaw Valley's CEO. He took over here in 2011, a record snowfall year, only to be followed by three dry years and then, in 2015, the driest in 1,200 years. It's the kind of season that leads to a lot of soul-searching, not to mention tough questions about whether skiing will even be viable much longer.

WIRTH: Mother Nature basically forced us to focus on every single element of our business from the revenue perspective, from the cost structure perspective, the service levels; you name it.

SIEGLER: To cope, Wirth redirected $8 million to new, more efficient automated snowmaking systems. The other big thing they did was pool together with other resorts around the country to sell a collective pass. That way, when it was dry in California, Squaw could still make some money from season pass sales elsewhere.

WIRTH: The past four years has been really tough, yet we've not only survived because of our capital structure, because of our work; we've done quite well.

SIEGLER: Season pass sales actually climbed during the drought, yet Squaw still saw a pretty brutal 25 percent drop in overall business. For a lot of people on this mountain, it was a glimpse of what skiing might be like with climate change.

JEREMY JONES: Let's go to chute 75. That's one of my favorite runs. It's...

SIEGLER: Extreme snowboarders like Jeremy Jones are already noticing the changes. A few years ago, he founded a group called Protect Our Winters. This group of professional skiers and riders lobbies Congress and tries to raise awareness about human-caused climate change.

JONES: As I've become more educated, I've realized that if we do get to a point where we can't operate a ski area, the least of our problems is going to be us skiers and snowboarders out there riding down these mountains.

SIEGLER: Jones says lower altitude mountains like this may have the toughest go. Things are already pretty fickle.

JONES: It is all about feast or famine these days. It's like record-breaking storm, record-breaking lows, snowing in June, 70 degrees in January. And so you have to adapt, and when the conditions do line up, take advantage of them.

SIEGLER: It's safe to say industry executives like Andy Wirth are counting on their customers being flexible in the years ahead. I met back up with him for a couple of runs by the resort's gondola.

WIRTH: It's going to take just a second to get here, though.

SIEGLER: Wirth is a self-described environmental, a one-time firefighter and forest ranger, even. His grandfather used to run the National Park Service. But he's also in the business of making money from snow, and it's his job to be optimistic.

WIRTH: There might be a year where the skiing starts here, but there's going to be years where it starts at lake level 2,000 feet below us.

SIEGLER: Clicking into our bindings, Wirth tells me ski resorts can be profitable as the climate changes. The business models just have to adapt to volatility.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Are we just taking a groomer down, probably?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, we're just...

SIEGLER: To that end, we ski down to a ribbon cutting for his resort's new $7 million upgrade to its Siberia Express lift. This lift now carries six skiers per chair up to the top of one of Squaw Valley's most consistently snowy peaks. It's also designed to keep running in high winds. After all, this might be where most of the skiing in the future happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Again, our CEO of Squaw Alpine joining us for our ribbon-cutting ceremony. So come on down. Be a part of history.

SIEGLER: Later, Wirth tells me he's confident there will be skiing here in 50 years. He knows climate change is real and seasons will be volatile, but he doesn't think it's going to be so dramatic as no snow at all.

WIRTH: Its rhetoric that's been used to bring attention to climate change. And I get it, and I support that. But there are - I have the obligation to run this business in a thoughtful and objective fashion, and that doesn't match with thoughtfulness, science and objectivity.

SIEGLER: It's a bet he and resorts like Squaw Valley are clearly hedging. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Tahoe City, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.