360 degree review of the impact of ski resorts
and what can we learn from mountain villages about sustainability
Skiing is an energy and water intensive sport. Not to mention the impact on eco-systems. While very few people are aware of these facts, resorts are staring to understand that they must strike a balance between profit and planet-people.
Zermatt is probably one of the pioneers in conducting systematic environmental impact assessments and innovating in terms of alternative energy use. We have used them as an example to show the impact of ski resorts and some of the things they are doing to keep green and white.
What do mountains have to do with climate change? The harsh reality is that mountain resorts are highly vulnerable and dependent on climate. Too much and not enough snow can be a blessing and a curse. In 2017 on New Year’s Day Zermatt slopes were a sad image of brown grey hills with thin white lines of artificial snow. While in the winter of 2018 the village was cut off the rest of the world for several days due to heavy snow falls. People were evacuated by helicopter. This year part of the mountain was closed due to avalanche damage. “Some experts say that snow will be a thing of the past.
Water, what comes to your mind when you think of water? A pristine lake, a river? A shower, a bath? Drinking Water?
Hands up for whoever thought of a ski slope? Zermatt is fortunate to have an abundance of water. However, meeting increasing guest demands doesn’t come easy.
Imagine a village of 6’000 having to ensure a warm shower and constant water supply for up to 65’000 guests? Most of them what to have a shower after a full day of skiing. This puts an immense strain on the place’s water infrastructure.
And speaking of skiing, millions on litters of water are used to make artificial snow at the beginning and end of the ski season and whenever the snow levels drop critically and need to be replenishes fast.
Do you ever thinking what happens to your waste when you go up a mountain? Be it hiking, mountain climbing or skiing.
There are no waste collection facilities up in the mountain so each one of us is responsible to take down our rubbish and yet 100s of thousands of tons of waste remain in the mountain worldwide each year. The problem with toxic/dangerous waste is even more acute as it might end up in rivers traveling downstream up to 700km and end up in drinking water supplies.
Red trains are a Swiss specialty, from the Glacier Express to the Gornergrad Bahn. And the views are truly spectacular. They are also one of our preferred way of travel. Slow and eco-friendly.
But have you ever asked yourself what is the source of energy for the train you are riding? After all this is what defines how sustainable they are.In the case of Zermatt 70% of energy is produced by its very own hydro power plant.
Since the 1970s Zermatt is a car free village. Today they have about 500 electrical cars and 8 public buses. There are only 5 petrol cars and all of them are for medical use. Even the police drive in electrical vehicles. You will notice that many of the locals are on bikes, even during the winter season. In addition, Zermatt is mainly accessible by train, which makes its transport infrastructure virtually green and clean. So, the question is, if a “village” of up to 50’000 inhabitants in pick season can have a green transport infrastructure, why not other places?
The flip side of the coin is those nice ski slopes you see next to the train tracks. Zermatt has an arm of pistenbullies and other machinery and equipment that use millions of tons of diesel each year.
Is this a Heidi house? Did they build it to fit perfectly the shape of the Matterhorn? We doubt it!
This building is the back end of one of Rifelalp’s restaurants. In Zermatt there are over 50 mountain high altitude restaurants. None of them are accessible by road, at least not in winter.
Have you ever asked yourself how these places get their supplies? Food, drinks, even toilet paper.In a restaurant we take a full and readily available menu for granted. But the logistics behind serving fresh, warm and tasty food in altitude are mind-blowing. Restaurant supplies are brought in by foot, cabins and chair lifts, slow scooters and event helicopter.
“As we were sitting in the Tests Grigia Refuge at 3480m altitude trying to work up from the bitter cold outside, we met an Apachi Indian who sits next to us.”
He is a mountain patroller. On the slopes all day, he is looking out for people suffering from hypothermia, accidents and potential avalanche danger. His story was amazing and inspiring; about his love for nature and the country, about how he got to Switzerland and eventually to Zermatt.
And he is not the only one with a story. Mountain people are a resilient and though folks. They have an amazing energy and motivation, as well as a special connection to nature. Take the owner of the Du Pont Café, Zermatt, who grew up in the mountain. He serves customers in the evening and is up in the mountain at 5am to check for and dynamite potential avalanches.
So, next time you go to the mountain think of all the amazing people who keep us safe up there.
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By Ellie Cleary   |27th February 2020