I dropped the visor on my old truck to block the annoying midwinter glare but I could still see the local mountains: brown from the bad winters and the trees, red from Bark Beetle invasion. Damn, I thought, this used to be some kind of place with snow stacked thigh high on the side of the road and the evergreen lined slopes covered in snow, spotted sparsely with locals and tourists in the endless terrain and powder snow. Not anymore. ‘What a shame’ I thought, I’ve devoted my life to this ski-town and this lifestyle, only to have it fade away from the lack of foresight and courage, or because it was inconvenient. Winter was changing, fading, dying. Greed trumps fear most often, but in the end, they are the same release.
The day before I had woken up early on a huge powder day to ski with my step-son at a high profile local resort in an adjacent canyon. The crawling traffic jam started 20 miles from the hill indicating a 2-4 hour get, so I apologized and excused myself and turned around despite the boy’s devotion to me and good family powder skiing. I went to our local hill to find my friends and it was a similar cluster with a full parking lot, long lift lines and over-crowded slopes, while half the mountain still remained closed, waiting for more snow, the ski patrol’s approval or the management’s corporate fiduciary duty to open. Despite my local knowledge of the weather, the hill, and its operation, another simple powder day was ruined. I felt disenchanted, disenfranchised and downtrodden with my metaphorical First World issues.
They told me it would take fifty years for this ski-bum lifestyle to fade away with the new climate and changing vegetation but it had been less than 30 years. Unfortunately, since we spent the first 25 years in denial, so it is difficult for us to adapt. In the early days it used to snow two feet every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night and we prayed for a break so we could rest our legs, weary from pushing long straight skis thru bottomless powder. The latter-days were almost as good but not as reliable as slopes became more prosaic and predictable and we escaped into the back country. They built new ski resorts and expanded the old ones into our side country despite the dwindling snowpack and the shrinking skier base. Despite the rising expense, people still came and they still spent lots of money so our town kept growing, like a cancer, against all hope and reason, for a while. Years ago, we hosted the Olympics and the ‘World Was Welcomed Here’. Now, not so much so. Various multinational ski companies took over after that, corporatized it, mechanized it and bled it dry before systematically taking the money and running.
Our mountain climate had gotten consistently warmer, despite the high elevation and prime mountain desert location at the top of the Colorado Plateau. At first the ski seasons were shortened imperceptibly and incrementally, like boiling frogs. Then it started to rain, first in March and October, then in November and February, and now in December and January. A white Christmas is a thing of the past now and only possible with copious snowmaking, if it is cold enough. As our carbon footprint grew, the town struggled and our property values plummeted.
The trees started off with a tinge of red years ago that spread, slowly at first, and then much more quickly, until the hillsides were covered with ‘Dead Red’ Bark Beetle that killed all of the trees. The sustained drought became the new normal and we didn’t have those long cold spells, below zero, that kept the beetles from decimating the forest. There are places now where everywhere you look all you see is grey and red, in every direction. Then came the fires that burnt fast and hot in all that standing dead and downed timber. The trophy homes built in the wildland-urban interface without proper defendable space were threatened and several of them burnt to a crisp despite our best efforts. Some of the wood was harvested but it was crap and only good for particle board and not really worth the trouble.
They say that rain follows fire and it sure did around here, sparking mudslides and turbid stream flows that killed all the fish. Related riparian species died out as well as the other indicator species such as the Pica and Potguts. The bugs and bunnies as well as the mega-fauna, like the Moose and Lions, just up-and-left, voting with their feet. We used-up all the available surface water and over-pumped the groundwater, lowering the water table and causing aquifer subsidence that forced us to go far and wide and import other people’s water to our basin. Water flows towards money, weather doesn’t.
This was a natural cycle, accelerated and exacerbated by man and ignored by the stewards of our lands, given dominion over all and responsibility for nothing. As usual the poor suffere the most with mass migrations, famine, wars, pestilence and chaos. What started as a First World inconvenience turned into a Third World disaster as we are encouraged to be sustainable, resilient and adaptable. Whatever the hell that means. Where have our winters gone. What have we done with our planet.