Gregory DelliCarpini Jr. knew something was amiss as soon as he stepped off the train in Grindelwald, a village in the Swiss Alps.
“The landscape was green,” he said. “There was actually no snow on the ground.”
DelliCarpini, 34, a digital creator and writer in New York City, has been visiting the Swiss Alps for 10 years, always at the beginning of January. Along with his partner and friends, he spends a week frolicking in winter wonderland scenes, skiing down perfectly groomed trails to chalets naturally adorned with ice crystals. In the evening he soaks his legs in the hot tub or sauna and then heads out to dinner, ravenous after a day on the mountain. (He also knows how fortunate he is to do so.)
Every year he looks forward to that feeling of escape. “Being in the snowy mountains allows you to feel like you’re in this perfectly removed world,” he said. “Like you’re existing in a painting.”
But this year, that was impossible. Europe’s climate crises include a winter so warm that it has set records — in Switzerland especially. Temperatures have been too high for many resorts to produce snow, and the lack of natural snow in many areas has meant a decline in sledding and snowshoeing. Even Grindelwald’s annual World Snow Festival, held every January, where artists make what’s billed as “ice-cold art,” was canceled.
At first, DelliCarpini chased the snow, seeking out higher altitudes. He took a 45-minute train ride to the Top of Europe, a sightseeing attraction in the middle of the Swiss Alps. “It was like a different universe,” he said of finally finding flakes. Another day he went to Wengen, a nearby village (with no snow), for shopping and fondue.
He frequented all his favorite après-ski spots, like Avocado Bar, known for its live music, and Cafe 3692, a cozy cafe with sprawling views. He dined and danced alongside other would-be skiers. “The lack of snow was a popular conversation people were having,” he said.
He made the best of it. “Having no snow pushed me to explore new areas I wouldn’t have,” he said. “Sometimes you get into habits, and this was just a different kind of trip.”
An impact on everything
For many people across North America and Europe, this has been the winter of ski vacations sans skiing.
In some places, it’s because of the lack of snow. Half of the 7,500 ski slopes in France were closed the first week of January because of the rise in temperatures, though many resorts got snow later in the month.
The North American west had the opposite problem, with too much snow shutting down resorts for hours or days at a time. Alta, in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, closed for a day in January after getting 37 inches of snow; the avalanche risk was too high. The same week, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia opened hours late one morning after getting pounded with snow overnight.
“Climate change is impacting where, when and how much snow falls, if at all,” said Elizabeth Burakowski, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies how landscapes interact with surface climate. “Winter temperatures are warming unequivocally in regions with seasonal snow cover, where most ski resorts are located.”
“A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture,” she added. “When below freezing, that excess moisture can deliver abundant snow, as seen in Utah this winter. Warmer winters above freezing deliver rain instead of snow and melt any existing snowpack, which has been the case in New England and the Alps this ski season.”
And, of course, it goes without saying that people jetting off on these ski trips aren’t helping matters. Air travel, according to at least one study, is responsible for about 4% of human-induced global warming,
When ‘shotskis’ are the only skis in sight
Despite these conditions, many ski resorts are noting an influx of people who have no intention of skiing at all.
“I think something happened during the pandemic where people realized the mountains are a place where you can get away from whatever craziness you have in your life,” said Travis Holland, the communications manager for Solitude Mountain Resort in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.
For many, part of that escape extends to partying, and some of the newer spots, especially, are recruiting this crowd.
The Vintage Room is a clear structure set up at the St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City, accessible by skis, but also by road or funicular (cable train). On a Saturday in late January, hundreds of millennials packed into the tent, dancing to Abba hits and taking “shotskis” (shots off a ski, for those who haven’t, or won’t).
Reservations have been selling out weeks in advance, and a line to get in forms every day it’s open, said Chris Okamura, the director of operations. He estimated that 25% of the customers have never put on ski boots. “They want to enjoy après-ski without having to deal with rental equipment, the ski passes, the lift lines,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the crowd doesn’t resemble skiers. “A lot of them dress up and have fun in those ‘80s, colored onesies” intended for skiing, said Patrick Lacey, the public relations manager of Palisades Tahoe in California. (One skier in New York City recently complained about ski clothes being unavailable on Rent the Runway, taken, she was sure, by women who weren’t even skiing.)
Jayma Cardoso, founder of the Snow Lodge in Aspen, Colorado, the sister property to the Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York, that opened in 2019, said half the crowd consists of non-skiers. “Over the past several years, Aspen has significantly transformed into so much more than a ski destination,” she said. Diplo and Bob Moses have both played the Snow Lodge this season.
This year, the Little Nell, a boutique hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain, got access for its guests to the Aspen X Beach Club on top of a mountain plateau. It’s accessible by gondola so no skiing is required to reach it. At “the beach,” guests can lounge on striped chaise chairs and order a three-course meal with unlimited Dom Pérignon, with a DJ spinning tunes.
The hotel’s parent company, Aspen Hospitality, is introducing skiing alternatives like art talks and climbing walls at Limelight Hotels, its other properties. “We are growing in ways that are less risky from a climate perspective,” said Alinio Azevedo, the CEO. “We are creating opportunities for people to do things that are not snow dependent.”
For some, however, the idea of a ski trip without skiing is a non-starter.
In early January, Laetitia Hirschy took her annual pilgrimage from New York City to Megeve, a ski resort village in the southeast part of France. She has been going there for 10 years with friends and has experienced less-than-ideal snow conditions before.
But this year shocked her. “Usually even if there is only a little snow you can still ski because they make fake snow,” said Hirschy, the founder and CEO of a public relations company. Not so this year.
Hirschy, 43, said she tried to make the most of the situation, dining out and dancing against the backdrop of beautiful, if barren, mountains. “We also went for walks through the mountains,” she said.
Given the uncertainty of ski conditions, which she acknowledges will only get more extreme with climate change, she guesses she and her friends are pretty much done with ski trips altogether. “Booking a ski trip now,” she said, “is a little bit like the lottery.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.