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“In the ski resorts that don’t have many snow days anymore, they took the lifts away and now people ski tour where the slopes used to be.”
An interview with snowboarder and environmental advocate Mitch Tölderer, who is based in the Austrian Tyrol
“In the ski resorts that don’t have many snow days anymore, they took the lifts away and now people ski tour where the slopes used to be. It’s not even a bad development if you’re a local guest house or restaurant, as you can really profit from the touring people, and it has way less impact than running a ski resort.”
I first heard about Mitch when he was making the film Vanishing Lines, about a controversial ski resort merger on a glacier in the Tyrol, which has now thankfully been abandoned, though these stories never quite end, as we’ll get into below. I also spent a super fun day snowboarding with his wife Bibi and Jeremy Jones in Damüls, Austria, while I was writing this piece about the same development.
Mitch and I chatted about crazy resort expansion, how to ski and snowboard tour responsibly, and how people are coping with this not-great winter. I hope you enjoy it.
Hey Mitch, how’s the snow at the moment?
Overall, it’s been incredibly bad this season but at the moment it’s ok, we have a little bit of powder so we could find some good turns. But generally, it’s been the driest winter in 50-60 years or something, nobody can remember, and we have one of the smallest snow bases we’ve ever had. But, on the odd day, and at some spots, we can still enjoy it somehow.
Are the snow conditions dominating the conversations over there?
Yes of course, it was a really weak winter last year and then a very hot summer, which led to the biggest glacier disappearance we’ve ever had, so now everybody is afraid it could happen again with another dry summer. The Alps have a warmer average temperature than everywhere else, so that’s affected everything. It’s accelerating and the ski resorts are worried, especially as Tyrol depends a lot on tourism.
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Are these changes making people who might not have been interested in the climate crisis before think more about it?
I think so. I saw a documentary yesterday on Austrian television about Austrian ski tourism and the immense effort they put in, in terms of energy and money, to make it work. They featured the guy responsible for the snow machines in Hintertux, and he was sitting there with his super modern PistenBully [snow groomer] and he almost started crying in the interview. He’s been doing a job for 40 years and with what’s happened in recent years and this winter, he feels like the world is starting to break. So, yes, I think a lot of people are seeing it from a very close perspective now.
You seem like someone who has cared about the environment for a long time…
Yes, I’ve always been interested in it, even at school [Mitch grew up in Carinthia but now lives in Innsbruck]. I had an older friend who worked for Greenpeace, and after a while I realised I wanted to contribute something more.
Your film, Vanishing Lines, which was released last winter, shone a big light on the proposed merger at Pitzal-Ötztal which would have involved building on a fragile glacier…
Yes, that was a very personal topic for me because the concept was around for 10 years or so and there was a chance for me to do something from a snowboarder’s perspective, and with Patagonia, so it was a good chance to contribute something valuable.
The development was refused after a public referendum in what was a rare but very welcome win for wild places…
Yes, there was a lot of work done by NGOs [including WWF Austria and the Austrian Alpine Club] and maybe the film contributed a little bit. The vote was very tight in this village and so I like the idea that maybe the movie helped to get one of these five votes that were against the development.
Though just last week, we heard they have plans to build a new lift. Not the connection that was voted against but a lift that goes really close to Solden that would use untouched glaciers. The NGOs can’t believe it’s all starting up again. And it’s not just the lift on the glacier but the machines up there every summer to make the glacier ready for skiers, the snow farming they do, it’s industrial, with thousands of machine hours. All these pipelines under the glacier to run the snow machines, billions of euros of investment all the time, it’s crazy.
Why do you think the film’s premise resonated so much with skiers and snowboarders? The idea that we have enough ski resorts already, we don’t need to keep expanding…
Here in the Tyrol, we have some of the most intense and crazy infrastructure when it comes to skiing. But it’s a crazy balance because these valleys where tourism happens would be really poor mountain farms without it. It’s brought a lot of money here.
But at the same time, people don’t like the tourism so much, which is crazy, as they all profit somehow, even small farmers might have a sports shop in town. They grew up there but then built a big hotel and moved out of the valley, so they don’t live there anymore.
Tourists need ski lifts, but we should not put any more ski lifts where it’s wild or untouched, because there are already a lot. The argument is always that we need to go on and on to keep the tourists happy but is it necessary? Do we need bigger resorts with more kilometres of slopes? All these things that work for the marketing of the ski resort, but we don’t really need to do it. We could do it a different way.
Hintertux is the only ski resort in the Alps that guarantees it will be open 365 days a year, so last summer we had these pictures of black, dirty ice with a little slope and people skiing with their skis and ski boots in the water and everybody is like: “Why are you doing this?” Every resort in the whole of the Alps was closed and they’re still there working the glaciers with their machines for this promise. Even the locals in Zillertal valley were shocked they were still opening.
Yes no one needs or expects it…
Though in the documentary I watched yesterday, they interviewed a British dad and his boy, who had come there to ski as every other ski resort in the Alps was closed, so he went to Hintertux to slip on this black ice. People are still coming, and the tourists appreciate the craziness or they don’t care.
It’s the same in Austria. A lot of people really don’t care, especially if they have money, they’ll just buy a bigger car or a bigger SUV. Some people care and for sure there are some resorts who care, like Kitzsteinhorn in Salzburg, which is a good example of really trying to be a sustainable glacier resort. They have lifts but they would never open up in the summer for ecological reasons, and they try to get their own renewable electricity to run things, they put a lot of effort into doing that well. In Tyrol, not so much.
Do you try to visit resorts that try to limit their impact?
I don’t really use resorts much anyway [Mitch splitboards a lot]. But for us the more interesting ones are the little ones, our home resort doesn’t have artificial snow, so if there is no natural snow it doesn’t open. And we use the lifts to access the backcountry.
That’s another problem with continually making the resorts bigger. If you go to the next valley, you also bring the ski touring and backcountry people, who then go one valley further and everybody knows this is not good for the animals and plants and natural balance there. We’re not good for the mountains, it’s not good for us to be there, we have to try to be respectful, but in fact we shouldn’t be there.
If you’re always expanding the borders, you keep on pushing the ski resorts further, and in Austria, there are a lot of mountains but it’s small not like the US. There is hardly a peak where you can’t see human infrastructure, a road, or artificial lake, or electricity pylons, or a ski resort. We all like to get out into the wilderness and nature but these spots are getting harder and harder to find in Austria. Everything is getting tighter and closer.
Should we be taking lifts out rather than expanding?
That’s what’s happening in the east of Austria. In the ski resorts that don’t have many snow days anymore, they took the lifts away and now people ski tour where the slopes used to be. It’s not even a bad development if you’re a local guest house or restaurant, as you can really profit from the touring people, and it has way less impact than running a ski resort.
Is the growth of touring a positive thing in terms of getting people into nature and for their physical and mental health?
For health and everything for sure. And hopefully yes it will put more focus on nature and preservation, but the bad thing is it’s also exploding numbers-wise. There are 750 thousand ski tourers in Germany, so that’s a lot of pressure again on glaciers and mountain environment.
We have wildlife preservation zones, which you shouldn’t enter at all, and we really try to respect that. If we see mountain goats we stop and wait until they are out of sight, sometimes 10 minutes until we don’t see them anymore as in winter if they run, they burn a lot of energy and that’s really hard for them. We all have to be conscious about that and respectful but that’s easier with smaller numbers of people.
Do you sometimes feel like surfers do when their favourite spots get crowded with new people?
It’s a hard one, and you have to work on yourself, as I would do the same if I grew up in Germany, I’d try to get here or somewhere else. But for sure you go to places you have been going to for 20 years and that you used to always have alone with your friends and now it’s getting crowded most days. The hidden spots get less and less, like surfing in that sense.
I think social media has been a big accelerator of that. If I didn’t have any snowboard partners, I’d just delete everything and get out of it, I’m more into the real world anyway.
You can read more about Vanishing Lines and watch it here.
And you can follow Mitch on Instagram until he deletes it here.
Here’s the piece I wrote for 1843 Magazine about the Pitzal-Ötztal resort development on the glacier.
And a piece I did for Mpora on what ski resorts could do better when it comes to the climate crisis.
This report from Badvertising is a welcome wake-up call for those in winter sports who accept high carbon sponsorship deals.
And finally, Lewis Arnold and Chris Nelson have launched a crowdfunder to finish off the production of The Big Sea, the film they’ve made which links neoprene wetsuit production to Cancer Alley in Louisiana. You can support their dogged work here and read my interview with Lewis (my most read newsletter so far) here. The pair screened a preview edit of the film at the Finisterre store in Brighton this week (with a Q & A with @lookingsideways) and watching the reaction of the crowd gave me a lot of hope that their efforts are going to bring about real change in the industry.
Please fwd this newsletter to anyone who you think might be interested & if you have any story tips on any of these themes pls get in touch.