WINTROP, Washington. For the first time in 32 years, the organizers of the Rendezvous Ski Festival in Western Yellowstone, Montana, had to cancel the traditional November ski season opener due to lack of snow.
About 300 miles away, the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah offered skiing in November by building a sophisticated artificial snow system, while a small business in Vermont was able to double skiing days by laying a new pipe to supply water to hungry snowplows. That won’t work at Methow Trails in northern Washington, which can’t cover its 200 kilometers (124 miles) of ski runs with artificial snow; instead, they dance in the snow and work on plans to move the trails to a higher altitude if necessary.
The snow hasn’t stopped falling, but it’s certainly not piling up as much or as hard as it used to be amid climate change, and it’s hitting the sport, which skyrocketed when COVID-19 hit in the winter of 2020. Many escaped from the cab. fever, hitting the ski slopes for cross-country skiing for exercise, fresh air and serenity.
Scandinavian skis quickly became the new toilet paper – they were hard to come by and sold out in stores.
“COVID has pushed people outside,” said Reese Brown, executive director of the Association of Cross-Country Ski Areas in Vermont. “It brought a huge number of new people to cross-country skiing because it’s the perfect winter sport.”
However, climate change is making the future of any skiing sport uncertain, from elite World Cup runs and sprawling resorts to family-run operations that are jam-packed with recreational skiers on the weekends. For cross-country ski centers, warmer temperatures mean more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, forcing them to look for snow-making equipment to cover their trails.
Water scarcity and costs make this an impossible option for some, especially in the American West. A new study predicts mountain states will be in a ‘low to no snow’ quandary within 35 to 60 years if greenhouse gas emissions remain at current levels.
The problems have already touched the best athletes who spend more time on the snow than most. The lack of snow has made early season preparations difficult for many of the top cross-country skiers and biathletes as they prepare for the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month. In the fall, a group of US Ski Team members traveled to Germany to practice in a ski tunnel.
“In cross-country skiing, we see the impact of climate change on the cities we drive through,” said Olympian Jessie Diggins of Afton, Minnesota. “There are years when they only have artificial snow and 2km of riding on a tiny hamster loop.”
When the team was training in a small town in northern Finland, where snow is traditionally guaranteed in mid-November, the tracks were limited.
“We were skiing on a strip of muddy artificial snow and green moss and little purple flowers bloomed on the side of the trail,” Diggins said. “It looks wrong and feels wrong.”
Marine Duesser Bjornsen is a former member of the French biathlon team who now lives in Winthrop, Washington, where she runs a ski shop with her husband, former US Ski Team member Eric Bjornsen.
“When I was 15-16 years old, we went to the glacier to ski, and it was well maintained,” she said. “Now these glaciers no longer exist. It’s just rock.”
They say that skiers and biathletes become summer, but due to climate change, off-season training has decreased.
Brian Halligan, director of biathlon at the Auburn Ski Club’s training center in Truckee, Calif., said smoke from the wildfires that engulfed the Lake Tahoe area in September killed their fall season. He said they were considering training on the East Coast to avoid the smoke.
Methow Trails, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, boasts of being the largest cross-country ski trail system in North America, with 124 miles of prepared trail running between Winthrop and Mazama thanks to agreements with over 200 states. Federal and private landowners.
According to James DeSalvo, executive director of the trail system, the operation is a significant contributor to the region’s economy and generates more than $12 million per season. “If the snow melts, there will be serious consequences.”
Methow operators have spent years developing contingencies for little or no snow winters, but those plans do not include snowmaking. The trail system is simply too big. DeSalvo also said the water is precious and the surrounding county has a moratorium on drilling.
One option, he said, is to move trails to higher elevations using old logging roads.
While not an option everywhere, snowfall has breathed new life into some cross-country skiing areas where the snow has disappeared.
Some small Scandinavian centers in Vermont have been able to install artificial snow systems for $65,000 to $80,000, Brown said. These include blowing the snow into a pile and using front loaders to move the snow around the trails.
The Riker Nordic Center in Ripton, Vermont, has made a bigger investment and increased the number of ski days from 70 to 140 with HKD snow equipment. According to Brown, the initial cost was in excess of $850,000, and each season requires about $40,000 to maintain the system.
Luke Bodensteiner, general manager of Soldier Hollow, which hosted cross-country skiing and biathlon during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, said climate change has reduced the amount of snow they see each year.
Utah hopes to host the Winter Olympics in 2030 or 2034. To achieve this, Soldier Hollow has invested in state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment. It helps that they are at 5,900 feet (1,798 meters) with cooler temperatures. However, climate change has taken its toll.
“Natural winters are definitely getting shorter,” he said. “We’ve probably lost two to three weeks early in the season skiing on natural snow both early and late in the year since this place was founded.”