Is it possible for winter skiing holidays to the Alps to be green and still be fun?


“No more of parental rules!
We’re heading for the snow!
Good riddance to those grown up ghoul
We’re leaving! Yukon Ho!”

Calvin and Hobbs

Few head to the mountains and come back disappointed. After months of drudge and commute, what can beat the exhilarating freedom of the slopes, the joy of a cold beer at 3000 metres, the unguent messiness of a fondue with friends and tall tales at the end of a muscle aching day?

No wonder that each year around one million British people and many millions of other Europeans go skiing for their holidays. In the Alps alone, where 13 million people live permanently, 100 million visitors descend (or rather ascend) the mountains each year – accounting for one tenth of the world’s total tourism market.

And in the days of short haul flights to places such as Lyon and Geneva often costing under £10 those numbers are set to grow and grow – with a predicted 250 per cent increase in airline traffic by 2020. Easyjet alone already runs 20 flights from London to Geneva in the peak winter month

Unfortunately, while the joy of skiing may be the liberation from daily cares through closeness to nature, being bathed in dazzling whiteness does not mean that our winter holiday is clean.

Going, going…
When we think of an image that typifies the effects of climate change we may imagine a forlorn polar bear isolated on a floating ice sheet, or the side of a glacier crashing into the sea. Add to that a rusty ski lift, engine stopped, chairs swinging emptily above a grassy hill below.

All across the world’s ski resorts, global warming is hitting hard. Alpine temperatures have risen by 2C since the 1970s. Each year the season seems a little short, the runs a little less. Already European banks are refusing to offer loans to resorts under 1,500 metres, doubtful they will have enough snow to be viable before long. Closer to home in 2003 Glencoe, the first commercial ski resort in Britain, did not open at all.

Further warming in coming years is predicted to cause a 30% reduction in snow cover by 2020, rising to a 50% decline by the 2050s. As this happens, the snowline will recede higher and higher up the mountains, closing low lying resorts altogether and pushing skiers higher and higher up the mountains, which itself brings along a host of problems.

For one, the higher up the mountain everything is sited, the more expensive it is to get people there, bring food and drink up to them, and for staff and guests to travel to resorts and hotels. And so, just as the discount airlines make traveling to ski resorts cheaper, so in matter of years it may once again become the reserve of the few.

Furthermore, the higher up you go, the less affected by mankind the ecosystems are. All this would change for ever. Meanwhile moving the ski slopes uphill will also increase the risk of avalanches, already becoming more frequent due to climate change.

And the most common alternative to solution to loss of snow on lower slopes, namely using snow canons to create artificial snow, is no solution as far as the environment is concerned. One ski resort in the US estimates that running its snow machines uses as much power as the town’s 15,000-strong population.

Climate change may be the worst problem confronting the ski industry’s future, but it’s not the only problem skiers are causing today. For example, the nightly sight of snow machines rolling up the pistes may mean well maintained slopes for the following morning, but the noise of their engines and glare of their headlights disturbs mountain wildlife, much of which is already threatened and living in reduced habitat thanks to the spread of ski resorts. Being dropped from a helicopter onto an untouched mountain may seem the ultimate in romantic adventure, but it is one hell of a lot of petrol to burn into the atmosphere for an empty ski run. Even skiing off piste means cutting across habitats and feeding grounds of mountain wildlife.

Thankfully, as well as being more mindful ourselves when on the mountains, there are also increasing signs that the industry itself is waking up to the threat that climate changes poses to its own existence and also the opportunity that ‘green skiing’ provides. Skis made from renewable bamboo, Lift systems running on renewable energy, the banning of cars from certain mountain villages, solar panels heating our showers when we get back to the resort. By supporting these ventures and the many more on the following pages those of us who love to ski give us and our children the chance of doing it for many years to come.

What you can do

• Downhill skiing has the most negative impact as slopes take the most preparation, from the original clearing of trees to the nightly bash by the snowmachines. Consider a lower impact alternative such as cross country, skitouring or snowshowing.

• When you are skiing downhill, stick to the piste and leave the wilderness to the wild animals.

• If you are going to alps, take the snow train. It’s more comfortable, more fun and you’ll get longer skiing for the same time off work.

• Stay in locally run establishments and spend your money at locally run shops and restaurants

* Don’t buy expensive new ski-gear every season. Borrow from a friend, buy secondhand, use clothing you’d wear off the slopes.

• While in the UK, avoid skiing in snowdomes, which are environmental disaster zones. If you feel the need to ski on an artificial slope, go to the old fashioned ‘dry ski slopes’ or the newer ‘snowflex’ type.

  • Moonlight

    Absolutely spot on. But I still want to holiday in the Alps and to enjoy the snow. What of places to stay in the Alps that are not so environmentally damaging? Can you recommend any? Or is it time to stay at home and cuddle up under my hessian sack cloth…

  • Jmcsmith

    There are places in the Alps – I spent new year last year at Whitepod in Switzerland – It was the most amazing holiday I’ve had. Took the train to paris from london, arriving at lunchtime with 4 hours till my connecting train to Switzerland. Had a long Parisian lunch. Took train to Aigle. Arrived for dinner relaxed, refreshed having read magazines and books in comfort while looking out the window at snowy hills and lakes. Also, try Vigilius in Italy –

    These places lead the way as far as staying in the Alps. For actual resorts The Green Resort Guide on the Ski Club of Great Britain’s website ( lists the green initiatives of over 200 resorts worldwide, so you can see which ones are doing their bit for the environment and which ones offer little more than tokenism.

    Hope that helps – let us know if you find anything else out.

  • Moonlight

    This is great! Both places look fantastic – why bother with conventional ski resorts when places like this exist. Really there needs to be a good book written on this…why don’t you? (and if you do, please let me know)

  • Well done for this, I live in a ski resort in the Alps, and I have to say that it is the most spectacular place I have ever lived. The problem IS its beauty and excitement and this is hammered home to me on a Saturday when our local supermarket is jam-packed with every foreign language speaker you can imagine, the roads are full and the slopes are too.

    I fully support local businesses, I even buy raw milk, butter and cheese direct from the valley’s dairy, which supports the cows that keep the alpages clear during the summer, enabling them to become pistes in the winter. It is a double-edged sword, but along with the destruction of pristine habitat, I really think that tourists support the local economy, which has dwindled since the industrial revolution, when the valleys here were throbbing with heavy industry; mining and quarrying. A tenth of the population lives here permanently now, compared to the late 1800’s. Since then, the slopes have become a tangle of unmanageable forests and alpages have dwindled in number. Supporting these local initiatives, like forestry management and dairying is done indirectly through tourism.

  • Good article, especially the bit about not travelling by air, which is the most ridiculous thing to do as it will cause the snow to melt big time this century.

    And here’s a thought: if you find a greener way of getting there (Eurostar or car sharing is a good start), France generates 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, so all the ski lifts have a lower carbon footprint.

    Although I’m not sure I agree about the ‘not going off-piste’ bit – does that mean that in the Summer you also can’t walk off the footpath into the woods because you might disturb an animal? I don’t think this has a significant impact compared to using an aeroplane to get to the Alps, or a helicopter to get up the mountain! Besides, I love fresh powder…

    Oh and when it’s not windy, why don’t they use air balloons to get up there instead of helicopters?