January 4, 2010

Ski Green This Season: Top 10 Green Ski Areas. ~ Pippa Sorley

When winter finally rolls around, I’m like a kid on Christmas eve. I can’t wait for the white powdery “freshies” to fall. I wake up eagerly to check the daily snow report to learn where the best powder stashes might be. Sometimes I wonder: am I a hypocrite for supporting an industry that requires so much energy and land-use to operate? I admit it: I love skiing chairlift-operated ski hills. I thrive on rippin’ it down the Vails and Aspens of the world. But, is it possible to be an environmentalist and simultaneously a downhill ski addict?

Sure, I also love the more adventurous back country hut trips, but there is nothing like carving through freshly groomed “corduroy” ski runs first thing in the morning. It could be the security blanket that patrolled ski hills offer to me, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m a weekend warrior who doesn’t have time to hike 3 hours every time I want to make steep turns. But, if this makes me a hypocrite, then the least I can do is to try to be a mindful hypocrite.

So, how can I be more mindful? I can take the time to give gratitude to the majestic land and sublime beauty around me; I can take the time to honor the massive swaths of trees that were cleared just so little ‘ole me – and 12 million other Colorado snow riders – can have the privilege to barrel down powdery slopes with pure ecstasy. But perhaps most importantly, I can vote with my dollar : by supporting ski resorts and businesses that are leading the path toward “skistainability”.


When it comes to environmental policy, Aspen Skiing Company (ASC) blows other ski resorts out of the water. Driven by the arson episode in Vail by eco-activists, Aspen and other mindful ski businesses started to question the lack of environmental scrutiny within their $4 billion dollar industry. The “point” finally “tipped” in 1997, when ASC President & CEO Patrick O’Donnell – who previously ran Patagonia – installed its very first “Environmental Affairs” department, directed by Auden Schendler, who has spearheaded programs and initiatives that go way beyond green. In fact, his “Sustainability Report” was the first of its kind within the ski industry, and has garnered attention from consumers and competing ski resorts alike. ASC is one of the first businesses in America to be ISO-14001-certified. To me, this sounds like a type of oil change, but it represents one of the most stringent third-party certification programs that demand strict criteria for environmental responsibility.

“Climate change should drive everything we do,” says Schendler, who previously worked at the Aspen-based think tank, Rocky Mountain Institute. “We make our living off the environment. The least we can do is take care of it.” In light of this commitment, Aspen Ski Co has taken a plethora of steps to reduce their impact, and, in doing so, have managed to impress such environmental watch dogs as Natural Resources Defense Council and United States Green Building Council.

A massive new base village in Snowmass – a $400 million dollar project – is in development, in which all buildings will be 30% more energy-efficient than required by code. And, Aspen Ski Co is one of the first ski resorts to offset 100% of its energy use with wind power. According to their web site, here are some other impressive examples of how Aspen Ski Co is leading the way:

• 70 of their 95 snowmobiles use clean four-stroke or direct-injection engines. These machines significantly reduce emissions of hydrocarbons and particulate matter. Four-stroke engines are cleaner, quieter, and three times more fuel efficient.

The Cirque Lift, dedicated in honor of the late John Denver, is Colorado’s first wind powered lift, using wind-generated electricity purchased from Ponnequin Wind Farm in northern Colorado.

• Aspen Ski Co has the only green building policy in the snowsports industry, resulting in projects like the LEED Silver certified Snowmass Golf Clubhouse.

• Approximately 40% of facilities have been retrofitted for energy efficiency, including snowmaking guns at Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Mountain.

• The company established one of the largest solar photovoltaic systems in the ski industry.

• They use B20, a bio-diesel blend, for 100% of their snowcats.

So, how do other ski hills compare?

Vail Resorts, which runs Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail in Colorado and Heavenly in California is currently the largest ski area buyer of green energy credits in North America. Vail Resorts also claims to recycle or re-use more than 70 per cent of the material on the mountain including cardboard, aluminum, glass and even chairlifts and mechanical parts. Water efficient toilets and restrooms conserve almost two million gallons of water annually compared to the company’s previous usage, and installing compact fluorescent bulbs has already saved the company more than $25,000.

Mammoth Mountain ski area in California sits on geothermal volcanic cauldron from which they will tap their energy use required for new development. They also run bio-diesel throughout their operation.

Alta, Utah recently rebuilt their mid-mountain restaurant – the Watson Shelter – green with low-flush toilets, fluorescent lighting, and energy efficient windows.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming runs two chair lifts on wind power.

Whistler Blackcomb has won numerous sustainability awards, including the ski industry’s top prize in 2003 and 2005 for environmental excellence in ski resorts across North America. With the 2010 Olympics just around the corner, Whistler has been working proudly to improve their operations since 1998, including the conversion of 11,000 light bulbs to a more efficient model, improving their new grooming fleets by 18 percent of fuel saved per hour, and saving 4.5 kilowatt hours of power each year through Power Smart partnership with BC Hydro.

For a ranking of sustainability efforts made by ski areas in North America, Ski Area Citizens Coalition has created a sustainability scorecard for ski areas across the country based on criteria such as environmental performance, watershed management, and education.

Pippa Sorley is a writer, entepreneur and sustainable brand consultant based in Boulder, Colorado.

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