St. Leonhard im Pitztal, Austria In the crisp, bracing air at 11,000 feet, skiers on the Pitztal glacier in Tyrol can see on a clear day as far as Switzerland and Italy, across a breathtaking landscape of snow-capped Alps.
This season, however, few skiers get to enjoy the view. Though Austria is re-opening its ski lifts on Christmas Eve—two days before the whole nation goes into another lockdown against COVID-19—hospitality services remain closed. Effectively, only locals will be leaving their tracks in the fresh, powdery snow, while hundreds of thousands of foreign skiers are shut out.
The peace and quiet—and the pandemic with its associated economic crisis—are coming at a time when many people here and across the Alps are thinking about the future of their region.
Over the past decades, ski lifts helped transform impoverished, isolated mountain villages into lucrative tourism destinations. Now, their economic dependency on the upscale sport could be their ruin. Billions have already been lost since the resorts were closed in March. Should Tyrol’s entire ski season falter, as much as 3 percent of Austria’s Gross Domestic Product could be wiped out, according to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research.
In some ways, the pandemic’s impact on ski resorts offers a glimpse into the future of a climate 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (2 degrees Celsius). By that time, about a third of the Eastern Alps’ resorts won’t be able to open ski lifts by the Christmas holidays, the highest-earning time of the season. For skiing to be viable at all, other resorts will have to produce artificial snow throughout the season.
On top of climate change threatening the future of Alpine skiing, a growing grassroots movement is standing up to the powerful ski industry, arguing that it sacrifices untouched landscapes for ever grander projects that ignore the looming climate crisis.
The conflict has come to a head here at the Pitztal glacier, the highest ski area in Austria’s Tyrol state. With more hotel beds than Portugal, Tyrol annually draws six million skiers from across the world—roughly eight for each local. Skiing is part of the heritage, the culture, and lifestyle, as well as being the region’s main economic driver. But Pitztal’s narrow valley hasn’t cashed in as much as it would have liked.
A sleepy valley with a few family-run hotels and bed and breakfasts, it’s too small for a gas station or a grocery store, not to mention bars or clubs.
Skiers often overlook Pitztal, instead opting to spend their money in areas linked by cable cars, which connect villages and valleys to a network of wild aprés-ski partying, concerts with Mariah Carey or Robbie Williams, spas, and fine dining.
The solution? More growth, Pitztal’s developers say. And if the valley doesn’t have what skiers are looking for, it could be merged with a place that does: Sölden, an Austrian ski resort partially built on nearby glaciers, so large it can accommodate more tourists than the historic city of Salzburg, home of Mozart.
In order to make that happen, they’d need to demolish part of a mountain ridge between the glaciers, fundamentally altering a natural skyline that has stood for tens of millions of years, in what is being called a “glacier marriage.”
Blasting the skyline
By anyone’s account, it’s a mega-project. Linking the two ski stations and adding three new lines of cable cars, a massive water reservoir, a ski tunnel, and bars and restaurants for 1,600 skiers would create the largest ski resort in Europe. For locals, the project holds the promise of luring more affluent tourists to Pitztal.
But the price would be a chunk of nature’s skyline. To lower a ridge by 120 feet, about 10,000 truckloads of rock need to be blown off the mountain. A glacial landscape the size of 90 soccer pitches would need to be planed flat.
“It’s ludicrous,” Tina Estermann, a 28-year-old elementary school and yoga teacher, says. Together with her father, Gerd, she helms an increasingly influential grassroots movement that fights ski developments in a region shaped by it.
Skiing here is not just part of the lifestyle—like most children in Tyrol, Estermann was pushed onto the slopes as soon as she could walk—but skiing also secures about every fourth job in the area, including that of her mother, who works in a hotel.
“We are not against skiing in general—that‘s part of people’s lives here,“ she says as she hikes through the fragrant pine forest of Feldring Alm, one of few places that remain untouched by ski developments. “We already have so many ski resorts, and blasting off part of a mountain for yet another one…“ she trails off, shaking her head.
Despite sheltering threatened wood grouse and Alpine newts, Feldring was once slated to become a skiing area—until 2019, when a petition, launched by the Estermanns, drew about 18,000 signatures.
A few months after, when plans for the glacier marriage became public, the father-daughter duo tackled it with another petition. This time, more than 160,000 people signed.
“We never thought that support would swell like this,” she says. The development’s scale and operators’ brazenness, the Estermanns say, let loose seething resentment.
The son of a skiing instructor, Reto Knutti understands the emotional bond people in the Alps have with skiing. As a climate scientist at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, he also understands the futility of clinging on to it.
Already, a vast network of more than 1,100 ski resorts spans from the foot of France’s Mont Blanc and Switzerland’s jagged Matterhorn to lower-lying peaks in Germany, Austria, and Italy. If the length of the slopes of its 10 largest resorts were placed end to end, you could ski from New York to Los Angeles.
Once the pandemic is contained, villages of just 1,000 residents will again be overrun with 10 times as many tourists—the question is just for how long, Knutti says. Hundreds of small ski stations popular when he used to ski with his father have already been abandoned. Some were completely demolished.
As the climate has warmed, the altitude at which temperatures are generally cold enough for snow to stick has risen by over 1,300 feet over the last century. Knutti’s models predict that will double in three decades. “Every resort below 1,000 meters has already gone bankrupt, and those above are highly problematic,” Knutti says.
“Idle speculation,” says Franz Hörl, who leads the cable car operators lobbying group. He also owns a hotel in a ski resort, votes on legislation as a member of national parliament, and holds the office of deputy head of Tyrol’s economic chamber.
Though he recognizes the threat of climate change more broadly, he doubts forecasts for specific locations.
In the 1990s, he says, a scientist had warned that the daredevil skiing races at Kitzbühl’s Streif piste, some situated as low as 2,600 feet, would no longer be possible by 2015.
“I think of him every time I watch the race,” Hörl says.
The races still take place, but hardly ever on snow that has fallen from the sky. Last winter, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria invested $1.5 billion in skiing infrastructure, much of it around snow cannons, which spit man-made snow onto slopes. For roughly $8.5 million, even lower-lying, mid-sized resorts are creating powdery trails that snake through brown landscapes.
But the army of snow cannons holding the line against climate change still requires temperatures around 25°F (-4 °C) to work. In warmer winters, helicopters have fetched snow from higher altitudes and dumped it on the Kitzbühl race course.
Though less affected by lack of snow, glaciers won’t offer skiers refuge either. Even in the best-case scenarios, the Alps’ 4,000 glaciers will lose half of their ice by 2050, according to models published in a journal of the European Geosciences Union. By the end of this century, that study found, at best a third of the ice will be left—and that’s assuming the world’s governments get greenhouse gas emissions under control.
Knutti says he’s often amazed at the vehemence with which ski operators keep investing in the industry. “In the long run, you can’t outsmart physics.”
Skimming the cream
With the glacier marriage, Jakob Falkner, the manager of Sölden ski station, doesn’t want to outsmart climate change; he simply hopes to escape it at an elevation of well above 9,000 feet. “The height will help us,“ says Falkner, the son of one of the first ski-lift pioneers.
Falkner has also invested in a thermal spa, an outdoor adventure park, and a cinematic installation centered around the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, in which Bond chases villains over Sölden’s powdery slopes—all built to lure discerning skiers.
Because laws allow only for existing ski stations to expand or merge, the $140-million glacier marriage is one of few ways Sölden can grow. “Logic demands it,” Falkner says.
Even without the sweeping opposition, the project was on thin ice before it even started. When government experts visited in 2019, just three years after the plans were submitted, some ice slated for pistes had already melted.
Falkner says it was necessary to adapt in the past, and will be again in the future. The glaciers around Pitztal were still growing until the early 80s, he says, so much so that “we had to hack the ice away because it was pushing toward our lifts.” Now that they are shrinking, “we‘ll handle that pragmatically, too.“
Locals have a different idea of pragmatism. Germans and Italians are also protesting ski tourism, and in some villages, long-serving mayors have been ousted and replaced with independent candidates who campaigned to rein in ski operators.
Sölden, too, is beginning to see ski tourism as a bane. Catering to Europe’s upper middle class, Sölden is known for wild, affordable partying; strip clubs catering to tourists outnumber schools. Wealthy Russian real estate investors price out the next generation of locals.
Across the province, 70 percent of residents oppose the glacier marriage, a local newspaper survey found. In a nationwide survey by WWF Austria, close to 90 percent opposed the expansion of ski resorts at higher, still undeveloped elevation—an extent of rejection that surprised the environmental nonprofit, but not the locals.
“We’ve reached a point where the decision-makers in tourism are seen critically, where they are no longer seen as creating jobs, but as skimming the cream off the top,” says Markus Pirpamer, owner of an inn high in the mountains, in the area where Oetzi the Iceman was found.
For now, Falkner says, the glacier marriage is on hold while plans are reviewed by new management in Pitztal.
Taking off the blinders
When Pirpamer leaves Sölden, where he works as a councilman, he drives up a narrow Alpine road for half an hour until it ends. Vent, his home village, is one of the most remote pockets in the country.
More than three decades ago, its fewer than 200 inhabitants fought over whether to expand its ski area or maintain the two small lifts and the natural landscape around them. They opted for the latter.
“In hindsight, that was a blessing,“ Pirpamer says. Unspoiled nature draws more tourists than the village could ever wish for—winter and summer.
Christophe Clivaz, an associate professor at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability at University of Lausanne in Switzerland and a Swiss Green party parliamentarian, says that Alpine resorts would be better advised to invest in more than skiing.
“It’s really hard for people to accept that this is the end” of skiing, Clivaz says. “But the resorts need to diversify if they want to survive.”
Mountain biking, hiking, culinary and cultural events, and the sheer beauty of the landscape—“that can be enough,” he says.
Pitztal still offers that. This summer, it opened a vistors’ center to view Alpine ibex, a species of wild goat with curved horns that lives in the Alps, one of the first attractions unrelated to skiing. It’s a step in the right direction, say Benjamin and Olivia Wroblewski, who run a small hotel here.
The couple had at first supported the glacier development, until learning more about it. “We’re increasingly doubtful that this is the right path for us,” Olivia says. “These developers have blinders on; all they ever think of is developing the ski area,” says Benjamin.
“Look how beautiful it is, how quiet and peaceful,“ Olivia says. She takes a step with her toddler in the midday sun, the rugged mountains with rustic cabins, waterfalls, and Alpine lakes rising around her. “Isn’t that what people are looking for?”