Tahoe Skiing Faces Extinction

Squaw Valley, once a mecca for winter sports fans, faces serious risks if actions aren't taken immediately.

Squaw Valley, nestled in the Sierra Nevada just northeast of Lake Tahoe, California, has been an icon of the region for nearly 70 years. With over 6,000 acres of skiable terrain [1] and host of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, it has become a go-to ski resort for both California natives and travelers from around the globe. In recent years, however, the threat of warmer weather and the associated lack of snowfall has seriously threatened its long-term viability as a winter sport destination.

Percentage of precipitation that was snow in the Lake Tahoe area [2].
Percent precipitation that was snow in the Lake Tahoe area [2].
Wait, what’s the problem?

Warmer winters mean less snow. Less snow means fewer skiers. And because Squaw Valley has always operated under the assumption that skiers will pay money to access the resort, they may be in for a rude awakening in the balmy years to come. This is especially true because its competitor-neighbors in Colorado – Vail, Breckenridge, Aspen, Beaver Creek – can easily attract would-be Squaw Valley customers in the absence of Tahoe snow, as they exist at significantly higher elevations (read: it’s colder up there).

But perhaps Squaw Valley can assuage this effect by adapting their operations and their overall model.

Is making snow the answer?

To help maintain their winter appeal, Squaw Valley has recently invested a lofty $8 million in snowmaking equipment. In 2015 alone, 17 snowmaking machines were acquired to help compensate for the lower levels of natural snowfall [2], and 50% of the runs currently utilize the artificial snow [3][4]. Now this is a start, but if temperatures are expected to continue rising (they are [5]), Squaw Valley needs to either aggressively ramp up this style of snowmaking or find a more creative and sustainable solution to keep revenues flowing.

two
Skier navigates the slopes of Squaw Valley on March 21, 2015 [8].
What else can Squaw do?

Outside of winter activities, the resort has increasingly been promoting spring, summer, and fall outdoor activities such as mountain biking, rock-climbing, scenic tram rides, and even concert series [6]. While increasing the customer base for these activities will help bring in more revenue, it fails to address the unapologetic fate of their winter business. In order for the resort to survive the impact of continuously warmer winter seasons, Squaw Valley will need to either heavily invest in new technologies that provide snow for those who crave it, or create weather-independent activities that will make up for the slow, short, warm winters of the future.

A competitor of Squaw Valley’s has taken this exact approach. Whistler Blackcomb, a premier destination in Canada for snow sport enthusiasts, announced in April 2016 their $345 million plan to enhance the four-season attractions at their resort. A significant portion of this budget will be allocated to building an indoor water park and a mountain coaster, both of which can be used year-round [7].

Example of a mountain coaster [9].
Pipe Mountain Coaster of Revelstoke Mountain Resort in Canada [9].
Really???

While this approach may help generate additional revenue streams and offset the loss associated with fewer snow-based activities, it’s hardly satisfying to think that ski resorts are “adapting” by becoming theme parks. In fact, it’s depressing.

The optimist in me hopes that resorts like Squaw Valley will find a way to permanently ensure that enough snow will always be plentiful. This would require some serious innovation in the world of snow-making technology. The realist in me, however, is in line with my gut. And my gut tells me that ski resorts like Squaw Valley will disappear as we know them within 50 years. Yes, ski resorts will still exist at higher altitudes and latitudes, but they too will steadily decrease in number and size as temperatures increase and winters shrink. I’ll have to show my grandchildren pictures of what Squaw used to be.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I hope it’s not too late. And I hope we can start treating our planet like a home instead of a junkyard. I don’t know what the next step toward recovery looks like, but I’m hopeful it exists and I’m anxious to get on board. Until then, you can find me skiing while I still can.

 

(656 words)

[1] Figure includes Alpine Meadows, the newly-connected resort purchased in 2011 by KSL Capitol Partners LLC, parent company of Squaw Valley.

[2] University of California Davis, “Scientists: Lake Tahoe Experienced a Record-Breaking Year in 2015,” https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/scientists-lake-tahoe-experienced-record-breaking-year-2015-0/, accessed November 2016.

[3] Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, “Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows Invests over $9 million in Capital Improvements for 2015-16 Ski and Ride Season,” http://squawalpine.com/explore/blog/squaw-valley-alpine-meadows-invests-over-9-million-capital-improvements-2015-16-ski-and, accessed November 2016.

[4] Figure includes Alpine Meadows runs.

[5] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Future of Climate Change,” https://www.epa.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change#ref, accessed November 2016.

[6] Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, http://squawalpine.com/, accessed November 2016.

[7] “Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. Announces Whistler Blackcomb Renaissance Long-Term Strategic Plan,” press release, April 5, 2016, on Whistler Blackcomb website, https://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/about-us/media/apr-5-2016, accessed November 2016.

[8] Amy Graff, “Melting away: Spring skiing photos from Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows,” SF Gate, March 24, 2015, http://blog.sfgate.com/stew/2015/03/24/melting-away-spring-skiing-photos-from-squaw-valley-and-alpine-meadows/#photo-611406, accessed November 2016.

[9] Family Fun Canada, “Pipe Mountain Coaster Alpine Roller Coaster Opening Soon!” http://www.familyfuncanada.com/pipe-mountain-coaster/, accessed November 2016.

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5 thoughts on “Tahoe Skiing Faces Extinction

  1. Interesting article Chris! As a California native, it is disappointing to hear that Squaw Valley is looking to “adapt” itself as a year-round theme park when we know it best as a ski resort. I’m hesitant that making snow is really the answer versus a temporary patch up solution. Has this ever been done on a large scale in areas that don’t have enough natural snowfall? I’d be curious to know how other areas like Squaw Valley are adapting.

  2. As someone who skis in Tahoe during the winter, this is a very sad reality to come to terms with. However, I am in favor of Squaw’s production of artificial snow, even if it ends up needing to become a long term solution. While it is not as ideal as natural snow, I believe it will still do the trick. Serious skiers that normally go to Tahoe will definitely go elsewhere (Colorado or Utah), but there is still a massive market of casual skiers from the SF Bay Area and other nearby areas that will flock to Tahoe each winter (natural snow or not). I also like the idea of augmenting their winter sports with four-season activities in order to keep their business afloat. If the world can band together and curb climate change, by promoting four-season activities, at least Squaw could still be around to reap the benefits.

  3. Seize the winter while it’s here.

    Even if resorts like Squaw can produce artificial snow, I wonder if they’re still looking at a future of fewer skiers who won’t get the chance to grow up rushing to be first on the mountain for first tracks after a storm dumped lots of power.

    Though it’s a ways off, perhaps some companies are trying to open ski resorts at higher elevations that will be less affected by climate change when resorts at lower elevations go dry? Though there seems to be lots of risk that the secular forces of worse weather will outweigh the relative advantage over other resorts.

    Lastly, the increase variability in weather due to global warming seems like a strong argument for consolidation of ski resorts across geographies to create a portfolio of ski resorts with lower overall risk than operating one individually.

  4. Great read, Chris! I’m with you on this one – I’m skeptical on the concept of artificial snow sustaining ski resorts going forward. I’m curious, is this issue affecting all winter resorts and snowy mountains, or are there mountains farther up north that will avoid the effects of climate change for a few decades? I’d imagine that there are mountains up North, closer to the Arctic circle, that might end up getting developed as ski resorts, which would help solve the ski shortage in the next century. Do you know whether there have been developments up there? From my research in the cruise industry, I saw that many cruise operators are now looking into navigating around the Arctic Circle as that area is getting warmer and glaciers are melting. Perhaps it’s not the end of ski as a sport, but rather a shift in where skiing occurs.

  5. There is a huge market for eco-tourism and it gets bigger every year as people realize a vacation to nature can provide something different than a trip to a luxury resort. Several companies have opened “Glamping Resorts” (Glamorous Camping) in Michigan, and they are seeing great results. They key driver is to use the natural landscape, while providing the customer with a range of tent -camping to luxury accomodations. Glamping may be a great opprotunity for Tahoe. It would allow them to use their natural beauty, while they could reduce their need modern mechanical gimmikcs, like a loud and eye-sore rollercoaster.

    Here is a link to a Glamping site Bella Solviva: https://bellasolviva.com/

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