In a bowl below some of the highest peaks in the Austrian Tyrol, three skiers pause to take in the view. They’re making their way across a glacier that is covered in a perfect blanket of snow, save for their own zig-zagging tracks and the occasional streaks of blue-grey ice that ripple on the surface. The patterns remind me of sharks’ gills, as if the glacier were somehow breathing.
I’m sitting beside a piste on the other side of the valley, watching the skiers’ steady progress. The setting is almost impossibly pristine. This is one of the last true high Alpine wildernesses in Europe, home to rare wildlife including ibex, mountain hares, black vultures and golden eagles. The glaciers here are 10,000 years old and took millennia to form. Now, mirroring the trend elsewhere in the Alps and beyond, they will vanish in a matter of decades.
If developers get approval from the state government, Pitztal Glacier, the small resort with just six lifts where I’m sitting, will be transformed into one of Europe’s biggest glacier ski resorts. Through the creation of new ski areas and cable-car routes, this project will cover the Ötztal glacier, linking Pitztal to Sölden, a far bigger resort on the other side of the bowl. Once 4.2m cubic feet of rock have been blown out of the mountain to build the cable-car station and diggers have bulldozed through swathes of ice, a new mega-resort will emerge. Sixty-four hectares – equivalent to 90 football fields – of this wild landscape will be replaced by bars, restaurants, roads and busy pistes ferrying tens of thousands of snowsports enthusiasts around the mountain every day.
As a keen snowboarder, I might once have been excited about this development. But it’s impossible to spend time in the mountains and not witness the impact of climate change. Erratic seasons have meant I’ve avoided low-altitude resorts for years. Last February (and the one before it), my family held picnics on the slopes in Alpe d’Huez in blazing sunshine. This February a resort in the French Pyrenees used a helicopter to move snow from higher up the mountain so it could remain open. As Bastien Ho, secretary of the French Green Party, put it to the media: “It is the world upside down.”
The changes are coming quicker than even the scientists expected. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report underlines what anyone who lives near a glacier already knows from their own observations: the shrinking of these vast ice formations is at its quickest for any five-year period. Soon they could be gone completely. A study published last year in the Cryosphere, a science journal, warned that greenhouse-gas emissions could see more than 90% of glaciers in the Alps disappear by the end of the century. It may not be long before there’s simply nowhere left to ski or snowboard at all.
I take a chairlift to meet Josef Schrank, a landscape ecologist working for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), at the country’s highest coffee bar (yes, they sell t-shirts). Inside the cafe, which is shaped like a UFO, well-heeled families snack on strudel. Schrank is friendly but serious, steering any small-talk back to the issue at hand. He’s come up here on foot without skis and I feel almost frivolous to be discussing the destruction of the landscape while dressed in my brightly coloured snow kit.
“It’s a tough environment,” says Schrank, as we look out across the mountains. “But a highly sensitive ecosystem.” He tells me how plants develop slowly here, growing as little as one millimetre a year. Once this landscape is built over, it will be nearly impossible for vegetation to survive or regenerate. Destroying a glacial landscape, he says, is “like felling ancient woodland”. (I contacted the developers for comment, but they did not respond.)
What is astounding about the planned development is how short its life will be. Schrank tells me that the latest data from the University of Innsbruck suggest that by 2050, 80% of this glacier will have retreated anyway. The building work is estimated to take six years. Even if construction started today, the resort would only run for 24 years.
But the real kings of the valleys are not the glaciers, but the lift companies. In Austria, these are part of complex business networks that include not just the lifts, but resort hotels and ski-rental shops too. Many are still within family dynasties. Sölden, one of the two resorts behind the Pitztal-Ötztal merger, is one such operation. It is part owned and managed by Jakob Falkner, aka the “Snow King”, who reigns over the resort his father founded in 1955, according to Addendum, an Austrian investigative news site. Falkner likes to court international publicity through grand marketing gestures. The James Bond movie “Spectre” was filmed here in 2015 and now has its own visitor experience at the summit of one of the mountains. One of his favourite mantras is: “tourism never stands still”.
Although there is a state law preventing new ski resorts being built on glaciers, an exception was made in 2006 for resorts that join up with each other. What followed has been described by Schrank as an “arms race”, with Austrian ski resorts seeking to merge in order to offer tourists the largest amount of skiable terrain. Now most of the biggest resorts in France and Austria are the results of mergers, with the lifts connecting previously separate ski areas. Austria has 433 resorts: recent lift-connection projects mean it now has 16 resorts that generate over 1m visits per season – more resorts of that size than anywhere in the world. The retreat of the snow gives another incentive to expand onto higher ground, where precipitation is more likely to come in the form of snow rather than rain and temperatures are lower.
Historically, expansion has generally been welcomed by the locals for the boost it gives to the economy. I visit an après-ski bar in the valley that seems to be stuck in a time warp. Disco lights and Euro-beats entertain an empty dance floor, while goat skulls, stuffed bears and promotional literature for the Pitztal-Ötztal development adorn the wood-carved walls. You can see why some people would want a mega-resort to lift things up here. Yet public opinion appears to be firmly against the plans. A recent poll by a Tyrolean newspaper found 70% of locals were against the resort merger. One local snowboarder told me there is a growing movement against mass tourism in the Alps. Like a growing number of sports enthusiasts who are acutely aware of the fragility of the mountain environment, she feels locals have plenty of ski resorts already and that these developments only serve those in the tourism industry. “Enough is enough,” she said, describing how for her, snowboarding is about connecting with nature.
This backlash against big developments has been seen elsewhere. An expansion at nearby St Anton was refused last year by the courts on the grounds of landscape protection. Opposition against Pitztal-Ötztal hasn’t just come from environmental NGOs such as WWF and Friends of Nature. The coalition includes the Austrian Alpine Club, the country’s biggest organisation of skiers and snowboarders, who are the very people the development plans to attract. For now, the development is on hold, pending an environmental impact assessment, a condition of EU. “But it’s not over,” says Schrank. “The area isn’t saved yet.”
In Damüls, a resort in the neighbouring state of Vorarlberg, I spend the day with Jeremy Jones, a professional snowboarder from America. Damüls is popular with German and Dutch holidaymakers, who like its traditional wooden huts with kitsch interiors, though locals come here for the off-piste. It’s relatively low-lying but boasts a great snow record. In 2006 it was named “the snowiest village in the world”, yet we find ourselves dodging patches of grass as we climb a ridge that should have been thick with the stuff.
“We used to talk about doing first descents of mountains,” Jones tells me. “But now we’re starting to use the phrase ‘last descent’.” He is well aware of the existential crisis facing snowsports but is determined to push for systemic change. He set up Protect Our Winters, an environmental NGO, that lobbies politicians to act on carbon emissions while working to engage the outdoor-sports industry to meet its obligation to the planet. “20 years from now,” he says, “am I going to look back and say: ‘You know what? The issue wasn’t as big as I thought it was, I probably did too much. Or am I going to say: ‘Fuck I didn’t do enough’?”
On chairlifts, holidaymakers don’t want to talk about the environment with me (it’s a definite vibe killer), but those living here bring it up all the time. The Alps is the largest inbound ski market in the world and Austria takes in more foreign ski visitors than any other country, while locals make up less than 10% of visitor numbers. The country is looking to attract even more skiers in the future from China and other parts of Asia. To keep up with the demand amid poor snowfall and mild temperatures, a growing number of resorts rely on snowmaking machines throughout the season or close certain pistes altogether. The Climate Change Centre Austria estimates climate change could cost Austrian tourism €300m ($327m) a year.
But even for those in the midst of the thaw, the future can be hard to glimpse. That evening, I run into Hans, the manager of my hotel in Damüls. A lifelong skier with a wardrobe of eye-catching waistcoats, he built this wooden guest house himself in 1987 and owns the scariest bottles of Schnapps I’ve ever seen. I ask if he is worried about climate change. “No,” he laughs. “I don’t believe in it. We’ve always had warm weather here, lots of snow there. It’s always been like that,” he reassures me, “and it always will be.”