Gore Goes Green

An objective truth: You can’t have skiing without snow. Many local businesses are feeling the hurt of this truth, Gore Mountain Ski Resort included. As climate change threatens the viability of winter sports, businesses that rely on snow must become leaders and take green initiatives as Gore Mountain has to combat climate change.

Michael Pratt, general manager at Gore Mountain Ski Resort, explained the massive scale of Gore’s operation, starting with the number of employees necessary to run the place. Each winter “we cut around 500 paychecks, and our annual payroll is about $5 million a year,” says Pratt. During the summer, Gore still employs around 90 workers. Energy use is also a major factor in a business like Gore Mountain’s. Chair lifts, heated lodges, snow machine – all of these things require a huge amount of energy, which totals to around 13 million kwh/year. Based on figures from the US Energy Information Administration, that is equivalent to 1,202 average US homes! To run the snowmachines, a 25 million gallon water reservoir must be used. Long story short, Gore Mountain Ski Resort is both a large and energy intensive business.

Gore Mountain Ski Resort has been successful, but relies on consistent cold temperatures to maintain a thriving business. “We’ve been on a tremendous growth curve,” says Pratt. However, he and others at Gore acknowledged that the growth couldn’t continue forever. “We thought we’d just fall short of the curve, but instead we had the legs cut out from under us,” Pratt explains, referring to last year’s notoriously mild winter. “We certainly have concerns about [climate change], but we’re trying to be a leader,” says Pratt.

In terms of green initiatives, it seems Gore is beginning to pave the way. Last spring, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) honored Gore with the Golden Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence. “We do everything we can: lighting efficiency projects, using modernized drives and lifts, analyzing efficiencies of snow guns, re-grading trails to save snowmaking here and there,” says Pratt. And although the energy required to run Gore is massive, they offset 90% of the load with solar panels. Gore Mountain Ski Resort is not only aware of their relationship with climate change, but is making a conscious effort to mitigate their impact on the environment as much as possible. Other ski resorts must focus on clean and efficient energy usage or they will become caught in an ironic feedback loop – creating snow using fossil fuels, further stifling nature’s ability to create snow.

I think I found the answer, but it’s illegal

Before this semester, my vision of recreational skiing included barreling down a ski resort hill or leisurely cross country skiing on a park trail, but I didn’t understand the concept of backcountry skiing. I had no clue that people wove through natural forests down mountainsides absent of ski lifts and snow machines. When speaking to Ron Konowitz, head of the Adirondack Powder Skier Association (APSA), it became clear that I was not the only one who was unaware of this brand of skiing. “We don’t exist with the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), the DEC doesn’t ever list us as an activity, but there are thousands of us,” Konowitz says. After my interview with Konowitz, I feel I may have found an economically viable, least environmentally impactful form of recreation. Yet, the creation of backcountry ski trails on public lands in the Adirondacks is illegal. I am not a backcountry skier, but I am indignant as an environmentalist and recreator. Konowitz and the APSA are advocating for the creation of more backcountry trails, a proposal that, in my mind should be allowed. The holdup involves a lawsuit against snowmobile trails and a constitutional amendment. Here is the frustrating story.

“Initially we wanted an open woods ski route,” says Konowitz. The route area would be 75 feet in wilderness and wild forests. Do not envision a 75 foot-wide trail cut straight down the mountain like the glades at Whiteface. Instead, envision about four trails in a “sweater weave pattern”, merging together in some areas and meandering apart in others on a naturally open landscape. In order to construct the routes “we cut only branches, some saplings, and blow down. Trees are our friends. If we didn’t have trees, we wouldn’t have naturally open areas,” says Konowitz. The routes are visible only to the skier-trained eye. Do not be concerned about open woods ski routes cropping up in any and every place – there are limiting factors. The slope must be north or east facing and concave to protect from sun and wind, and there must be a large amount of snowfall. Worried about forest regeneration? The Sundown Clause allows DEC officials to check on routes every 3 years to determine if the landscape is still naturally open or if the trail needs to be moved. “If it’s done right, [open woods ski routes] should have more of a wild character than anything that’s already allowed. We want to work with the forest, not against it,” says Konowitz. I was convinced.

Officials in Albany were not. As an alternative to the open woods ski routes, they offered to allow 12-foot wide trails, as that was offered to snowmobilers for connector trails. The plan for backcountry trails was to be publicly announced in November 2016 – until the court granted Protect the Adirondacks, a conservation group, an injunction to halt the creation of snowmobile trails. At the center of the lawsuit lies a question – what is a tree? Currently, the state counts a tree as anything above 3 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH), but Protect argues that smaller trees should count as well. When trees below 3 inches DBH are included, Protect claims that the amount of trees removed to build snowmobile community connector trails violates Article 14 of the NYS constitution, more commonly known as the “forever wild” clause. (To learn more about this issue, read my post Seeing the Forest for the Trees) Unfortunately, Konowitz and the APSA are caught in the middle, and the November announcement was tabled until the lawsuit is over.

The conflict with snowmobilers has also dimmed the voice of environmentalist support for Konowitz and the backcountry skiers. ”It’s not that environmental groups are against us, but they haven’t helped push it over the goal line,” he says. The heads of environmental groups are “running into roadblocks with some of their board members, asking what are you opening the door to?”  Konowitz believes their concerns are invalid. “We have no fuel, we are not motorized, and move at a pace conducive to wilderness experience. We wouldn’t fit what others are looking for.”

At this point it appears as though Konowitz and the ASPA must pursue a constitutional amendment in order to expand backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks. “What we’re proposing should not trigger an article 14, which says you can’t cut trees to a material degree. We don’t even want to cut trees,” Konowitz says. In fact, Konowitz is willing to go even lower than the state currently, and consider anything at 2 inches DBH a tree. Yet, it seems Konowitz may need the same amendment that Whiteface, Gore, and the Northway Interstate (I-87) required. At Whiteface there are “snow making machines, lodges, lifts, piping, 100-foot wide trails, and trucks driving up and down the mountain all summer long.” It is astounding that what Konowitz is proposing is placed in the same box.

“It’s not like we’re doing anything new on forest preserve,” says Konowitz. Backcountry skiing dates back to the 1920s and 30s, and trails were created at those times. In the 40s, ski lifts were introduced, and by the time the State Land Master Plan (SLMP) was created in 1973, backcountry skiing had puttered out. As a result, backcountry skiing was excluded from the SLMP. Around 1985 the activity regained popularity, and today, “backcountry skiing is the fastest growing area in skiing right now.”

Due to its growing popularity, Konowitz also believes backcountry skiing could lead to economic growth in the park. “There’s a large group of people in their 20s and 30s that are big on skiing,” says Konowitz. Backcountry skiers are “people that care about this place and want to live in these small towns and raise their families here.” The growth wouldn’t be limited to the high peaks either. “It doesn’t take 4,000 vertical feet, as long as it has good snow,” he says. “It’s hard to be a resort town in the winter, and we’re an answer for that.”

“I think we’re pretty progressive,” says Konowitz. And that’s the problem. They don’t fit cleanly into any legal box. Instead, backcountry skiing is lumped into a category with either snowmobilers or Whiteface resort skiing- despite the fact that its environmental impact is much lower than either. If you want to see if backcountry skiing is successful, look at Vermont. The ASPA was created 4 ½ years ago. According to Konowitz, Vermont caught wind of what they were doing, and “in 2 years, not only did they have regulations changed, but they have a ski track. Not only do we not have any trails, but they’ve done nothing to change regulations.” Konowitz believes “the Adirondacks are the most protected place in the world,” which is something he appreciates, but finds frustrating. “In the past, the [NYS] constitution has slayed some pretty big dragons- we are not one of them.”

A Day of Pizza

Despite enduring the brutal dumping of lake effect snow and freezing winters every year of my life, today was the first time I strapped on a pair of skis. As I stood in the ski rental shop, my first thought was, these boots make my shins feel like I’ve slammed into a small coffee table…multiple times. My second thought: dang this sport is expensive. When you add up the boots, skis, helmet, lift ticket, and the obligatory hot chocolate at the ski lodge, you’re looking at a $100+ kind of day. Not to mention the cold weather clothing necessary to keep you from freezing your buns off (thank you, Nanu and Anna for lending me your gear). Plus, since I am a total novice, I needed some kind of instruction to avoid 1. Completely annihilating my body and 2. Violating basic skiing rules. This means you must also purchase lessons or the lift ticket of an experienced and willing friend. When all’s said and done, your day of skiing could total around $200. As I swiped my debit card, it became abundantly clear why I had never skied before. My third thought: I hope this experience is worth it. It was.

With my crew of experienced and enthusiastic friends, I headed to my first slope – Whiteface’s Mixing Bowl. To get to the top of the slope, I had to conquer the chairlift. Well, actually, first I had to ski over to the chairlift, which involved me repeatedly stabbing the ground in an attempt to propel myself forwards…eventually I got there. I stood at the front of the lift loading area, nervous that the continuously rotating contraption would knock me down and run me over. Instead, the lift scooped me and my friend Nanu up, and carried us to the top. Skis planted at the lip of the hill, I was terrified. Nanu patiently coaxed me down, carving a wide S-shaped trail for me to follow. We slowly wove our way down the hill along with the other skiers – parents with their 5-year-old children. When we reached the bottom, I proudly pizza-ed to a stop (a beginner way of stopping in which you place the front of your skis together, forming a pizza shape). My other friend, Anna, filmed this experience for your viewing pleasure:

A few more runs down Mixing Bowl led to some perhaps unwarranted confidence, and I felt ready to take on a new green (the color denotation for easy) route. We hopped on what I can only describe as the “big kid chairlift,” and headed on a five minute ride partway up Whiteface Mountain. While on the lift, we passed multiple snow machines – large hoses that blasted tiny flakes into the air. It looked energy intensive. So did the chairlift. It was no wonder skiing was so expensive.

It would be an understatement to say the top of the run was intimidating. The gradual slope of Mixing Bowl was a distant memory as I stared at the steep drop. The 5 year-olds were replaced by 15-year-olds whizzing down the mountain. Perhaps this was a green plus? Did that exist? It doesn’t…in fact, it was a blue (the color denotation for ‘something you would generally not take your first time skier friend on, but circumstance, aka the closure of all other routes down the mountain, has forced you to’). I found this out halfway through the run. Only one fall later, panting from exhaustion and adrenaline, I arrived at the base of the mountain thanks to the help of my pizza stops and turns. It was a terrifying experience that demanded laser beam focus, so obviously we did it four more times. It wasn’t until we paused to eat lunch that I noticed the dull throb my boots left in my shins. I was occupied by other things.

After lunch it was decided that I was ready for another blue: Excelsior. This route required a gondola ride all the way to the top of Whiteface, and I could feel my ears pop as we gained elevation. Mixing Bowl appeared flat from this height. The top of Excelsior was unlike any other run. It was quiet, and the snow covered conifers looked like those sand dripped castles that you make on the beach. The rhythmic, curved movement down the mountain felt right. It was in that moment that I recognized the beauty of skiing. I wasn’t in love with it, but I definitely had a crush. It’s that awkward stage where you’re trying to be smooth, but instead your actions come out all clumsy and desperate and pizza shaped. That stage. On a sunny December day, surrounded by snow and friends, swerving down a mountainside, my mind was nowhere else. It was amazing.

Quads burning, shins bruised, and spirits lifted from a day of exhilaration, we stuffed our steaming bodies in Nanu’s Volkswagen. For dinner, we grabbed a most appropriately themed meal – a slice of pizza.

A special thanks to Hamilton College’s Casstevens Fund for making this fantastic (and expensive) experience possible. Without your support, I could not have done this or developed personal insight in my other skiing posts.

Photo and Video Credit: Anna Mowat