Ski resorts use to pride themselves on accumulating record amounts of snow as a way to prove they didn't need to bring out snow machines to afford powder hounds the chance to cut first tracks. But as times (and the climate) have changed, new thinking about snowmaking, environmental conservation and technology are changing the ski industry and the snow sports vacation experience as you know it. Here are six ways skiing is getting a shake-up in 2017.
Expect More Snowmaking and Better Grooming
According to the National Ski Areas Association, the latest snowguns are equipped with computer automation, real-time controls and monitoring systems that have optimized snowmaking so that about 80 percent of the water used is returned to the watershed. In short, snowmaking benefits communities because reliable snow means more employment, and snowmaking reservoirs are used to fight wildfires in hard-to-reach areas. Skiers also benefit because taller snowgun towers spread man-made snow more widely, allowing finer snow crystals to be suspended naturally on the slopes and reducing the need for diesel-powered grooming machines.
In snow-challenged areas along the East Coast, sustainability is at the forefront. Okemo, Vermont, uses 1,125 energy efficient HKD tower guns to cover 98 percent of trails and win awards for grooming. And at Deer Valley in Utah, a crew of 33 carve out time to groom 60 percent of the mountain each night. At Angel Fire Resort in New Mexico, two fuel-efficient PistenBully 400 snowcats allow for deeper ribs, which keeps man-made snow from hardening. Check out their fresh powder on the anniversary weekend, from Jan. 19-22, when lift tickets are only $5.50.
Resorts Will Encourage Guests to Reduce Their Footprint
A number of resorts acknowledge the NSAA Climate Challenge to minimize their impact on the environment. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent above their goals. Plus, the resort's new Teton Lift, a high-speed quad lift, makes hike-in terrain accessible to more guests.
The Alta ski area in Utah, which is beloved for its traditions and refusal to welcome snowboarding, is part of an ecosystem that provides 60 percent of Salt Lake City's drinking water. Sustainability is crucial to its skiers and neighbors. Current efforts include collecting and storing indigenous seeds at various elevations to assist in slope restoration. Alta's future belongs to the groundbreaking Mountain Accord, a public-private partnership to preserve the legacy of the central Wasatch Mountains, not only by protecting natural resources, but also by ensuring high-quality recreational experiences.
Anticipate More Environmental Awareness
Activities at Colorado's four Aspen Snowmass resorts engage visitors in environmental preservation. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies leads free Snowmass Mountain tours daily for visitors ages 7 and up to explain wildlife habits, tracking and snow science. For budding night owls, Saturday night Moonlit Treks offer a guided 1.2-mile snowshoe or cross-country ski tour by moonlight topped off with pasta and s'mores at the Snowmass Club. Even better, as part of the Very Important Kids programming in Snowmass Village, families can take a free behind-the-scenes-resort tour, and learn how snowmaking works.
Other kinds of sustainable practices reward guests. Okemo uses the Vermont Fresh Network and Ludlow Farmer's Market to source locally raised meats and produce, enhancing the resort's culinary reputation and supporting the local agriculture. Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont composts waste with local farmers. And Hotel Terra in Jackson Hole uses natural mattresses and organic linens.
Innovative Technology Will Elevate the Skier Experience
Thoughtful technology has improved the skier experience, with computer-designed skis and snowboards making sports easier to learn, and new fabrics keeping athletes warmer and drier. Plus, radio frequency ID-enabled lift tickets accept charges and activate lift gates to make the lift process more efficient. And tracking apps like SNOCRU 3.0 track vertical feet, runs skied and locations of friends and family. In partnership with Ski Utah, app users can access the state's Powder Alert alarm system, a storm tracker and morning snow report.
Vail-owned resorts such as Keystone in Colorado and Heavenly in California distribute the EpicMix app for free, so that guests can track their progress and stay connected. New this year, the app will also display actual wait times at lifts across each mountain.
Look for More Activities That Cater to Ski-Averse Guests
Resorts are becoming less reliant on snowfall by developing off-slope activities like zip lining. Smugglers' Notch in Vermont is investing $4 million to update a Fun Zone, which will have inflatables, play spaces and games for young children, along with a ninja obstacle course, a climbing wall, laser tag and slot car racing for older kids. At Keystone, those looking to steer away from the slopes can take a scenic gondola ride, which transports riders to costumed parades, ceramics classes and movies in the base village. And Breckenridge's Epic Discovery program in the summer offers rafting and horseback riding, with 1 percent of revenues dedicated to reforestation projects through The Nature Conservancy.
Skiing Will Become More Accessible
As publicly traded conglomerates absorb more mountain resorts, increasing access and interest in skiing is the new 2017 priority. Programs designed for the physically and mentally disabled flourish at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Denver and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center in Breckenridge, Colorado; the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah; and Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports in Killington, Vermont, among others.
Several areas have also elevated their guest convenience while reducing carbon emissions with shared transportation options. The free Summit Stage bus in Breckenridge carries ski and board racks in winter and bike mounts in summer for residents and visitors. Meanwhile, eight ski buses go from New York City to upstate resorts and the Pocono Daytripper runs from the Big Apple to Shawnee Mountain. On the West Coast, the Bay Area Ski Bus serves different Lake Tahoe resorts, offering breakfast on the way up, and wine and a movie on the way back. Protect Our Winters, the environmental advocacy group founded by the winter sports community, promotes carpooling and public transit.
Industry experts, travel operators and tourism bureaus across America want the sport's popularity to grow. During January, the industry's Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, beginners can take advantage of free or heavily discounted gear rental, lift ticket and lesson packages all over the country. Several resorts have also instituted a terrain-based learning system that makes learning to ski a cinch. Extra lessons are free to those who can't conquer slopes the first time around. What's more, Pennsylvania ski areas are offering a beginner package for $49 that's available all season long, assuring that the local ski and snowboard industry sustains itself by raising lifelong lovers of snow sports.