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Skiing’s vanishing slopes – the existential climate crisis facing snowsports

February 29 2024

In the first of this two-part feature series on winter sports and the effects of climate change on race scheduling and more, Global Sustainable Sport talks to former alpine ski racer and BBC Ski Sunday Presenter Chemmy Alcott, as well as GB Snowsport Chief Executive Vicky Gosling.

Skiing’s vanishing slopes – the existential climate crisis facing snowsports

Chamonix holds a special place in the heart of Chemmy Alcott, who first put on skis as a child in the world-famous French resort before going on to represent Great Britain in Alpine skiing at four Winter Olympic Games.

For Alcott, the iconic off-piste run, La Vallée Blanche – carving through the glacier with a stunning view of Mont Blanc – holds particularly striking memories. 

Now a BBC Presenter for the UK public-service broadcaster’s long-running Ski Sunday programme, Alcott returned to the scene recently – and was staggered by what she found.

In the episode, which aired earlier this month, Mountain Guide and Ecologist Brad Carlson told Alcott that in 2022 alone, some 17 metres of ice disappeared at the bottom of the glacier.

However, such a change is no longer an anomaly. 

Some 100 metres of ice has been lost from the glacier over the last 30 years, and more worryingly, as Carlson explains in the episode, “the models predict, that if we continue at our current trajectory, 90-95% of the glaciers and Alps will be gone by the end of the century”.

Speaking to Global Sustainable Sport, Alcott reveals that witnessing the evident effects of climate change on a location that had brought her so much joy was heartbreaking. 

“It was really sad, because when you have something in your childhood that changes you inside, and is such an iconic moment of joy, then you’ll always remember it that way. It’s one of my earliest memories,” she says.

“I can close my eyes and visualise it, and then to return there and to not recognise it… you think ‘oh my gosh, was I imagining it?’ But I wasn’t. It was really, really sad.”

For Alcott, there is also the realisation that her two small children will not be able to experience the same run that she enjoyed when she was young.

“It feels like it was a dream before,” she adds.

“If we don’t try to use our voice to encourage changes, then the mountains won’t be there.” Former alpine ski racer and presenter Chemmy Alcott

Alcott is arguably one of the UK’s most recognisable winter sports figures, having competed in all five disciplines of Alpine skiing during her career: downhill, super G, slalom, giant slalom and combined. Aside from being a four-time Olympian, she also competed at seven FIS World Championships.

She first skied at just 18 months old, and is also the only British female skier to ever win a run in a World Cup.

However, since retiring in 2014, Alcott has turned her attention to a number of interests, including using her platform to call for greater sustainability within the winter sports movement.

“I think that we need to change the narrative massively around it [climate change], especially in winter sports,” says Alcott.

“And it has to be about a celebration and hope that we can collectively make a difference – because it’s so doom and gloom, there’s so much pressure on people to be perfect, and that actually limits the change anyone is willing to make.”

Alcott explains that perhaps the focus on sustainability should revolve around not removing the joy from something.

“We should highlight the experience that you’re still getting, while also being sustainable. For example, I took the snow train a few times this winter. It was beautiful, and during the day from Zürich to San Moritz. It opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the mountains,” says Alcott.

As a result, Alcott has committed to travelling less by air and has also switched to an electric car.

“I did 12,000km this winter with the electric car. It’s just about making changes that don’t sacrifice your overall enjoyment, allowing you to take pleasure in snowsports, while also respecting that the mountains are changing,” she explains.

“If we don’t try to use our voice to encourage changes, then the mountains won’t be there.”

A post from Chemmy Alcott's Instagram praising British skiing talent

A post from Chemmy Alcott's Instagram praising British skiing talent

Climate change and elite winter sports

Changing patterns have become a major concern in snowsports such as skiing.

Multiple men’s and women’s races during the 2023-24 Alpine Skiing World Cup have been cancelled, while few were rescheduled.

Organised by the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS), the Alpine Skiing World Cup has witnessed men’s events cancelled in Sölden, Zermatt/Cervinia, Lake Louise, Beaver Creek, Val d’Isère, Chamonix and Bansko.

Meanwhile, planned women’s events in Zermatt/Cervinia, St.Moritz, Garmisch and most recently in Val di Fassa, were also scuppered.

“I don’t remember this many events being cancelled, especially so early on in the season,” says Alcott.

“Everything is becoming unpredictable, but we need to be flexible to the weather. I know how important the fans are, and how important TV broadcasting rights are for the races to run, but when a huge amount of infrastructure and cost has gone into setting the races up, I feel like there should be an option of running the races during the weather window – which we have done in other sports.”

Alcott explains that in freestyle skiing and in surfing, these sports employ a seven-day window so that they can opt for the best weather to host the session.

“I know that there are increases in the cost, but it means that the events happen because they choose the day most likely with the best weather. They are reacting to the weather system,” she says.

“We are forced [to stick to specific dates] because it is such a popular sport, and the broadcasting and fans are so important, that we must have it on a weekend. This does limit the number of races we get.”

However, some changes are happening. As Alcott explains, organisers are looking into night races, which can be held during the week while still welcoming local fans. Additionally, renewable lights and energy sources are being explored to make night races more sustainable.

“This is good for the community and obviously for the economic side,” adds Alcott.

Last month, FIS published its Impact Programme, providing stakeholders with a roadmap to work together on sustainability issues.

The programme covers the next couple of years, with mid- and long-term goals to reach the eventual target of “reducing the carbon footprint of FIS activities by 50% by 2030” and achieving “net zero by 2040”.

The development came after hundreds of high-profile skiers last year signed an open letter demanding more action over climate change from FIS.

“I am passionate about the continued continuation of our sport and I just want there to be someone who just says listen we can hear you. We hear you,” says Alcott.

“It’s challenging, but we’re trying to make change. No one wants perfection, and no-one expects perfection, but they just want that purpose to filter through. They need to understand that this is really important to everyone.”

GB Snowsport Chief Executive Vicky Gosling

GB Snowsport Chief Executive Vicky Gosling

Addressing climate change

According to GB Snowsport Chief Executive Vicky Gosling, snowsport can play a vital role in drawing attention to climate change.

“I think it’s right that we’re all asking the question about what the climate crisis means for sport, and I don’t think anyone in snowsport would shy away from the reality that a changing climate is already having a profound impact on our sport right across the world,” says Vicky Gosling, Chief Executive of GB Snowsport.

“I would argue that our sports can play an enormously important role in highlighting the immediacy of the climate crisis.”

Gosling also rubbishes suggestions that financial support for snowsport could ultimately be jeopardised by the issue.

“I don’t think the idea that the solution is to defund British snowsport athletes stands up to any intellectual scrutiny,” Gosling says.

“Of all sports, we’re probably the most impacted right now by the pace of change in the climate, and I believe we have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to use our voices to show how important it is that there’s a significant course correction and a wholehearted global effort to protect our mountain environments.

“When you take those two things together, I actually think the case for funding British snowsport is stronger than ever.”

“Of all sports, we’re probably the most impacted right now by the pace of change in the climate." GB Snowsport Chief Executive Vicky Gosling

Additionally, Gosling notes the current crop of British winter athletes who have experienced major success over recent years.

“Athletes like Mia Brookes, Zoe Atkin, Dave Ryding, Charlotte Bankes, Menna Fitzpatrick, and Kirsty Muir are right up there with the very best in the world – I can’t think of any other sport where, with that level of recent success, we’d be questioning the validity of funding.”

From another perspective, Alcott believes that winter sport is about more than just producing elite athletes.

“I think all and any sport should be encouraged. The attraction that winter sports have to many young people is that there is a risk involved. It’s exciting, it’s different,” she says.

“Running and walking is accessible to many, but with those sports, you don’t learn the life skills like winter sports. In winter sports, whether you are learning or if you are elite, you are falling over and picking yourself up.

“You’re learning a huge amount of resilience, which is imperative to life. You are learning the will to keep going when things are challenging.”

She adds: “In the UK, we’ve got dry slopes. We do some community coaching at an eight-second dry slope. Are we going to make world champions on it? No, but we are going to teach children a brand-new sport that excites them and gets them out the house, gets them away from technology and teaches them to be a better version of themselves. So I think it’s really limiting to band it just under one umbrella.”

Make sure to check back in with Global Sustainable Sport next week for part two of this winter sports series, which will focus on snowsport from a tourism perspective

Main Image: Simon Fitall on Unsplash

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