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The Responsible Traveller: responsible skiing

Posted by Richard Hammond at 11:22 on Wednesday 11 November 2009

With climate change already shortening ski seasons, it’s hard to ignore the fact that indulging our love of snowy holidays is hastening their demise. But there are ways to lessen your impact. Richard Hammond suggests how to make your next winter trip as pure as the driven snow...

Ski-touring's footprint is only snow deep. Photo: Klaus Tscherrig, courtesy of SCGBSki-touring's footprint is only snow deep. Photo: Klaus Tscherrig, courtesy of SCGB

Filling your lungs with crisp, clean Alpine air, you glide down through pristine, fluffy powder snow, marked only by the delicate footprints of a mountain hare, passing white-cloaked pines and naked birches. What could be more natural? Unfortunately, the purpose-built infrastructure that’s making your ‘back-to-nature’ ski holiday possible isn’t exactly doing the mountain ecosystem a favour. Wildlife-friendly pine forests have been levelled in order to make way for long, flat pistes, artificial-snow-making machines are draining local water supplies, vast amounts of energy are required to operate the chairlift and keep your accommodation comfortable – and then there’s the carbon dioxide emitted in the process of actually getting there.

So how can skiers and snowboarders minimise their environmental impact? The Ski Club of Great Britain’s (SCGBRespect the Mountain guide provides a checklist of key things you can do, such as not leaving litter on the slopes and respecting areas that are marked out of bounds – to protect the natural habitat, as well as for safety reasons. The guide also urges skiers to choose a resort that has environmentally friendly practices. ‘Many resorts now use biodiesel fuel in piste-bashers, solar panels for heating, hydro- or wind energy for power and a host of other initiatives,’ says the SCGB’s Betony Garner. ‘Some resorts use the International Standards Organisation (ISO) 14001 as a mark of their environmental credentials.’

A good source of information on which resorts are doing their bit for the planet, and which ones offer little more than tokenism, is the SCGB’s Green Resort Guide, which rates more than 200 ski resorts on their environmental credentials. Two of the best-performing resorts are Lech in Austria, where 90 per cent of heating energy comes from a biomass communal heating plant, and Switzerland’s high-altitude resort Saas-Fee, where cars are banned and there’s a free bus service around the resort. Saas-Fee is also home to several chalets and apartments that have been certified by the European Eco-label for their commitment to reducing energy use, recycling and waste management.

Ski touring in the Alps. Photo: Robert Farquharson, courtesy of SCGBSki touring in the Alps. Photo: Robert Farquharson, courtesy of SCGBChoosing snow sports that aren’t dependent on large groomed slopes and ski lifts, such as snow-shoeingand small-group ski-touring, are also more environmentally friendly ways to enjoy the winter wonderland. Both will allow you to reach otherwise inaccessible places in thick forest and climb up to some of the most remote alpine summits, where your footprint will be only snow-deep. The fact that you’re not hurtling down a manicured slope also means you’re much more likely to encounter wildlife.

Getting there
According to Stewart Sheppard of the French environmental ski charity Mountain Riders, the single most environmentally friendly choice skiers can make is to reduce the carbon emitted as they travel to their holiday. Mountain Riders has carried out a carbon audit of three resorts in the French Alps (Val Thorens, Les Menuires and Saint Martin de Belleville) with the help of the French Environment and Energy Management Agency. They reported that while 20 per cent of the carbon emissions are associated with heating tourist accommodation, a whopping 74 per cent of the carbon emissions are from transporting skiers and boarders to the destination. According to Sheppard, the imbalance is due to the fact that large numbers of skiers drive to the resorts, often alone or with just one passenger. It would be far more eco-friendly, he says, if more people shared their lifts. And then there’s the British visitors, the vast majority of whom fly out to the Alps.

According to Daniel Elkan of snowcarbon.co.uk, a new website that provides information on how to travel by train to 30 European ski resorts, travelling by train rather than flying offers huge environmental benefits. ‘The carbon footprint of a trip by plane to a ski resort is typically eight to ten times greater than the equivalent rail journey,’ he says. Elkan claims that flying one-way from London to Sauze d’Oulx in Italy, for instance, emits 96.8 kilo grams of carbon dioxide, while taking the train emits just 11.1 kilograms. Travelling alone by car is the worst for carbon – emitting 227.1 kilograms for the one-way journey.

However, the SCGB’s Garner says there is reluctance among skiers and boarders to travel by train. In 2005, the club offered a ski holiday by train but had to withdraw it because of a lack of bookings. ‘The demand for travelling by train just wasn’t there,’ she says.

However, Garner says there has recently been an increase in interest in train travel, albeit piecemeal. The 2009 Snowsports Analysis produced by the SCGB reports that of the 1.27 million people who went on a winter sports holiday this year, 72 per cent went by air, 12 per cent travelled by car, six per cent by coach and just six per cent by train – up one per cent from last year.

Rail Ways
‘People don’t realise how easy it is to travel by train once you have the correct information on how to plan the trip – it’s all about knowing where you can go and how to do it,’ says Elkan. The quickest rail route to the slopes from London he quotes is on Eurostar’s dedicated services to the Trois Vallées in the French Alps – the world’s largest ski area. The train leaves London St Pancras at 10am and arrives in Moutiers at 5.30pm, where you catch a connecting bus to Les Menuires, arriving at 7pm.

Other convenient connections recommended by Elkan include travel ling to Bardonecchia in Italy and the overnight sleeper from Paris to Andorra. Many of the overnight serv ices, explains Elkan, arrive in resorts early Saturday morning (returning the following Saturday evening), enabling you to fi t in two extra days’ skiing on the relatively quieter Saturday change over days – without having to pay for the extra nights’ accommodation.

‘The journey by plane is very stop start: you spend most of your time moving from one queue to another,’ he says. ‘Whereas the daytime train services are nearly as fast door-to-door, but the quality is much better – you have space to move about, comfortable seats and it’s much more scenic.’

An edited version of this article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in his column ‘The Responsible Traveller’ in the November issue of Geographical magazine, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also Five Responsible Ways to Enjoy the Snow
For information about getting the train to ski resorts see our Guide to the Ski Train

See previous articles:
The responsible traveller: responsible scuba diving
The responsible traveller: responsible volunteering and the reality gap
The responsible traveller: responsible trekking

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