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What Does the Future of NH Skiing Look Like?

Published Friday Mar 22, 2024

Author Beatrice Burack, Daybreak

What Does the Future of NH Skiing Look Like?

Flooding. Wildfires. Power outages. These impacts of climate change keep us up at night because they can catch us by surprise. They can change our lives in an instant, without warning.

But there are other changes too—changes too slow or subtle to perceive in an instant or even in a year, but that we will look back on and note with chagrin how they’ve changed our lives. This is the case with skiing in New Hampshire.

Changes to the ski industry mirror the changes to our lives and culture caused by climate change more generally, and Granite Staters’ reactions to them provide a window into the stakes of climate change—and our potential to do something about it.

The wealthy and well-funded hang on the longest

Since the birth of New Hampshire skiing about a century ago, over 172 ski areas have been shuttered. These weren’t the big corporate resorts. They were mom and pop ski tows like Russel’s Slope in Kearsarge and the Contoocook Ski Tow.

Many pressures combined to force these areas out of business—changes to lift technology, demographics, insurance—but the availability of snow has always been a factor as well.

For ski areas and nordic centers with the means to invest in rapidly advancing snowmaking technology, this has often made all the difference.

Pats Peak in Henniker gets by despite its southern location because it has a $5 million snowmaking system.

Great Glen Trails, which had a rocky start to its opening season in 1994, installed snowmaking the following year and has been using it to plug gaps during snowless winters ever since.

But The Vets, a nonprofit downhill facility run by Franklin’s Outing Club, did not have any snowmaking until it received a government grant for two snow guns last year. While The Vets is hanging on, it can only keep its 230 vertical feet of skiing open for roughly two months out of the year.

Scarcity fuels exclusivity

Losing places like The Vets isn’t just about losing skiing. It’s about losing places where Granite Staters have gone for generations to spend time outside, together, in the cold winter months.

It’s also about losing opportunities for less wealthy or well-connected people to ski. At The Vets, parents can ski for $15 on a weeknight with their kids after work. There’s a donation room with free gear for outing club members to take. Some days, you can ski for free too. You don’t need a $1,000 Epic Pass or the ability to drive two hours north to a big resort.

Losing smaller ski areas makes it harder for people to get into the sport. That’s a problem for a ski industry that, according to New England Ski Museum Director Tim Whiton, has been struggling for years to expand its audience.

The pandemic brought a major boom to ski resorts as more people searched for outdoor activities. Still, skiing remains an exclusive sport that struggles to bring in new blood.

While many skiers dream of spending their days at bigger mountains like Loon, Sunapee, or Wildcat, local areas create a critical pipeline to these places, training young skiers who will eventually be willing to travel greater distances to ski.

Without those smaller, less expensive local areas, it’s just plain tougher to get into the sport.

Taking what you can get

For those already deeply invested in skiing, climate change often means making the best of a bad situation.

Annie Hanna, a 16-year-old competitive nordic skier from Lebanon, has traveled upwards of four hours with her Ford Sayre ski team in search of snow to train on.

Sometimes all she and her teammates found at the end of a long drive was a short, 300-meter strip of manmade snow that they had to traverse again and again in circles in order to get a workout.

“It gets kind of repetitive, but, I mean, that’s kind of what we have right now,” says Hanna. “[I’m] trying to stay positive.”

For Nate Harvey, program director at Great Glen Trails, any 24-hour window cold enough to make snow is a blessing.

Given the enormous energy and water costs involved in snowmaking, he says, Great Glen used to try to be strategic about when they blew snow so that it didn’t all melt immediately.

“But now we have to take every opportunity when we’ve got that 24-hour plus window of cold to do it, because you don’t know when the next one is,” Harvey says.

When a single, quarter-of-a-kilometer loop was the only thing open during Christmas week of 2023 at Great Glen Trails, skiers came to ski it.

Backcountry skier Ed Warren finds himself paying even more attention to the weather before planning a ski trip nowadays. If a big snowfall hits during the weekday, he tries to move his work schedule around to take advantage of it before it melts.

He also sees many of his fellow backcountry skiers taking more risks. “Low snowpack means people are desperate to go skiing,” Warren says, “and then they go ski in situations that really, you should probably wait another month or so until the snow is much deeper and safer.”

Questioning why you do what you do

How much am I willing to spend? How much am I willing to drive? How much am I willing to risk?

Given shifting costs, travel times, and increasing risk, skiers and ski area operators are asking themselves questions like these a lot more often. The answer, for each individual, depends on how much skiing means to them.

Lifelong skier and New Hampshire native Torey Brooks, who skied Vermont’s 300-mile Catamount Trail last winter, had many hours alone on the trail to ponder her ‘why.’

For Brooks, skiing is “time outside, it’s time appreciating nature, seeing the beauty of nature. It’s [...] just an honest expression of play.”

Skiing has long required manipulations of the natural world. It’s meant cutting down trees to build trails, constructing rope tows and ski lifts, and making snow. But the more ‘unnatural’ skiing becomes, the less it feels like the sport Brooks grew up loving.

“The more we go away from skiing in a traditional sense, because of climate change, and the more we have to kind of fabricate that experience, the less I feel that I get the experience I’m looking for, the less connected we are to nature, the less connected we are for local communities,” she says.

Tim Whiton, also a lifelong skier and the Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum, takes a historian’s approach to defining what skiing means for him.

“Sliding on snow has gone through so many iterations and so many changes. We often think of it as, the previous wave was the best wave [...] But for a new generation that doesn’t really know that? Sliding is still sliding,” he said. “I’m not too depressed about it, I guess. And who knows? Maybe there’ll be something else.”

Motivation to save what matters

Avid backcountry skier Tyler Ray is hesitant to bet on major technological changes. He believes political change will be a critical component of the path forward. He hopes to raise his children “with a mentality that they need to do something, and that their winters are not going to be the same, and I feel like we’re needing turnover from a political perspective, from a policymaking perspective.”

Backcountry skiers Torey Lee Brooks and Andrew Drummond, too, believe political change will be essential. Both are involved with the environmental lobbying group Protect Our Winters.

Brooks sees skiing as a way to get people thinking about climate policy. Talking about climate change in the context of skiing, she says, is “a nice way to ease into that conversation that might be a little intimidating in other settings.” 300 Miles Melting, a short film chronicling her traverse of the Catamount Trail, is an attempt to raise the thorny climate question through the more comfortable medium of a ski film.

Drummond, who owns the White Mountain Ski Co. shop in Jackson, thinks another way to address that intimidation factor is through collective action. “That’s where supporting organizations like Protect Our Winters” comes in, he says. He appreciates that they promote “voting on bills and reaching out to people in power to let them hear your voice. If we can rally everyone around to have a voice, then hopefully we can change politics that will help stop or reduce climate change.”

For Ski NH President Jessyca Keeler, also intimately familiar with the challenges facing outdoor recreation in a changing climate, enacting state and federal policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.

“Tourism is such an important part of our economy that we should be doing what we can do to protect the environment, to try and maintain our climate,” she says. “Fingers crossed (that) we’ll all do the right things and save winter, so to speak.”

‘Saving Winter’

But what does saving winter mean?

A 2022 study on “The Future of Winter in Northeast North America,” found that if climate change continues as usual without major actions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, the state is projected to see roughly 40 percent less snowfall, and a 20 to 50 percent reduction in days cold enough for ski areas to make snow by the end of the century.

That’s a scenario in which the world warms roughly 7.7 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial levels—state climatologist Mary Stampone calls it the “worst-case scenario.” But another path, which Stampone thinks is more likely, is a roughly 4.3-degree warming scenario.

That path would mean about a 22 percent reduction in snowfall, as opposed to 40 percent, and a 10 to 30 percent reduction in snowmaking days—instead of 20 to 50 percent.

Stampone stresses that there’s still time to land on that path. “These are, basically, choose your own adventure. These are the two pathways that we can fall within. Where would you like to be?” she asks, rhetorically.

It’s clear that New Hampshire winters are, on average, warmer and less snowy than they once were. But the actions that individuals, corporations, and governments take—or don’t take—to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years will determine just how much change is yet to come.

Asked what the difference between the lower and higher-emissions scenarios would mean for her industry, Ski NH President Keeler says “I think it’s the difference between people choosing to do other things besides ski.”

And that, Torey Brooks believes, would mean losing much of the state’s identity and economy. “There will be other recreational options,” she says. “But they don’t just come in and replace that culture and that community and that economy and that joy that something like skiing has.”

Beatrice Burack is a Granite State native and a junior at Dartmouth College working as a freelance journalist in the Upper Valley. Her work has appeared in the New Hampshire Bulletin*, NHPR,* NH Business Review*, and the* Valley News*, among other publications. She can be reached at Her exhibit on NH skiing in the age of climate change opened in Reiss Hall in Dartmouth’s Baker Library on Monday, March 11th. It will stay up through May.*

This is the conclusion of a five-part series on New Hampshire skiing in the age of climate change. You can find the rest of the series here:

Intro: New Hampshire Skiing in the Age of Climate Change

Snowmaking is a Matter of Survival for Small NH Ski Areas

Skiing on a ‘Gerbil Loop’: Warming Winters Constrict the Nordic Ski Experience

New Hampshire Skiing’s Uphill Battle: Backcountry Skiing in Warming Winter

Banner photo at the top, an aerial view of nordic skiing in Jackson, NH in December, 2023, is by Andrew Drummond/White Mountain Ski Co.

This is the fifth in a five-part series on New Hampshire skiing in the age of climate change. You can find the introduction here and the second article, on the challenges facing the state’s smaller downhill areas, here. The third installment, on nordic skiing, is here.

These stories were first published in Daybreak, an email newsletter focused on the Upper Valley, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and are being shared with the partners in The Granite State News Collaborative.

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