STEVENS PASS, Wash. Skiing is an endangered sport, caught between a warming planet and a global pandemic. But there is a boom in a remote corner of the ski world that is driven, at least in part, by a combination of climate change and Covid.
The unexpected revival shows how skiers are adapting to the twin crises and how one winter sport is evolving as snow cover decreases around the world.
Ski touring or uphill skiing, a hybrid style that combines elements of cross-country skiing and downhill, has been popular in Europe for decades. In the United States, however, it has traditionally been a sport for mountaineers and extreme athletes, who use the special skis to trek uphill and backcountry in search of pristine powder.
That changed when the pandemic closed ski resorts in 2020. Touring equipment sales in the United States spiked as recreational skiers looked for ways to get uphill without lifts. More than a million people in the United States used touring gear last year, even as most ski lifts reopened, with sales of the specialized gear increasing 260 percent 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, a skier and forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center. “It’s exponential.”
Tour skiers use removable traction strips called skins on their skis and adjustable free-heeled bindings that allow them to walk. To descend, they remove the skins and lock the heels for descents.
The sport was born in Europe as a practical means of transport in winter, with the predecessors of today’s touring skis as early as the 16th century. Uphill skiing is “part of the culture” in Europe, according to Drew Saunders, senior manager at Oberalp Group, the mountaineering company that owns the ski brands Dynafit and Pomoca. “The European market is almost a generation ahead of us in terms of maturity and sophistication and ski touring in general,” said Mr Saunders.
Ski touring began trickling into the American mainstream in the mid-2000s, when videos of wild backcountry descents in places like the Himalayas, the high Andes, and the Arctic began circulating the Internet. “Back then, hardly anyone was doing it,” says Ingrid Backstrom, a professional skier who helped popularize backcountry skiing in the United States through films of her runs on remote slopes. “The equipment was harder to find, more expensive and didn’t work as well.”
In recent years, with dwindling snow cover and pristine powder becoming increasingly difficult to reach, skiers like Ms. Backstrom have been pushed onto groomed trails more often. That increased visibility, coupled with the pandemic shutdowns, has prompted more skiers to try touring gear, she says. “It always helps to have a visible example,” she said.
Ms Backstrom also said more skiers are choosing to avoid the backcountry and ski uphill on managed slopes because it’s “safer given extreme changes in climate and weather.”
One of the main reasons is that, as the weather becomes more changeable, avalanches are harder to predict. Much of Mr. For example, Hardesty, the predictor, is based on his previous observations and scientists’ computer models of past avalanches. But, he said, “the old hard drive won’t necessarily be accurate in looking at the avalanches we’re about to see.”
He also said avalanche threats were amplified by wildfires, which are exacerbated by extreme heat and drought linked to climate change. “Elevated layers of ash and dust in the snowpack create weak layers” that can break up in avalanches, Mr Hardesty said, accentuating melting of the snowpack in general.
For Mrs. Backstrom, whose brother was killed in a skiing accident, safety concerns are becoming increasingly important. “Now that we have two small kids, I’m very picky about my backcountry days because of the risk of them and the risk of avalanches,” she said.
She now sometimes chooses to stay at resorts, even if the snow conditions would allow her to traverse the backcountry. “It’s an uncomplicated way to hike up and exercise, have that freedom and feel the joy of skiing back down,” she said.
In addition to making backcountry skiing less safe, climate change is also making it more difficult to travel through unattended terrain for a growing portion of the season as snow cover decreases.
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Many North American ski resorts have largely relied on artificial snow this season. “Normally there would be enough snow to at least attempt a backcountry touring,” Tristan Droppert, United States chief of marketing for Black Crows, a ski manufacturer, said in late December. “And this year it’s still almost impossible.”
In Colorado, where ski touring is especially popular among endurance athletes, skiers are limited to a very limited range of terrain. Copper Mountain, the training ground for the United States ski team, was only open 50 percent in the days leading up to Christmas. The resort has quadrupled the number of uphill ski trails for ski touring, but most of the trails are supplemented with artificial snow machines. And at the nearby Bluebird Backcountry, a ski resort founded last year devoted solely to uphill skiing, there wasn’t enough snow to open up for Christmas.
Between 1982 and 2016, the U.S. ski season shrank by an average of 34 days a year, and snow cover dropped an average of 41 percent, according to a study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“We will see the continued shortening of the snow season,” said Xubin Zeng, director of the University of Arizona’s Climate Dynamics and Hydrometeorology Center and lead author of the study. “My best estimate is that by 2050 it will be at least double what we have already lost.” This trend will continue to affect not only skiing, but also agriculture, fishing and wild ecosystems that depend on regular snow cover.
With that in mind, the industry is grappling with whether to adapt to 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 in venues that are very likely to use 100 percent artificial snow. About 49 million gallons of water are needed to create the conditions needed for the events, according to a 2019 estimate, a decision some have criticized as untenable.
A growing number of uphill skiers say they use touring skis on natural snow as a reflection of their values. “Powder is one of the natural wonders of the world,” said Ms. Backstrom. “It’s just a pure natural wonder, and you can’t imitate that in any way, shape or form.”
To maintain those values, further adjustments may be necessary as the snow cover is getting thinner.
“We’ll probably have to walk in the sand and our boots for a while,” Mr. Droppert said of ski touring in the coming years, “and then put on the skis and skins.”
“But we always go skiing, even if it means walking in the mud.”