Future of snow
Credit: Robert Morton / Getty Images

Wouldn't it be a tragedy if your grandkids couldn't go skiing in the mountains?" asks Geordie Gillett, the owner of Grand Targhee, a low-key family-run resort nestled in Idaho's Teton Valley that currently enjoys some of the most plentiful natural snow in the world. "If we don't change the path we're on, that's a very real possibility."

While some short-term effects of global warming (combined with a recent El Niño cycle) have increased the number of storms and total amount of snowfall in certain high-altitude mountains in places like the southwestern U.S. and South America, that's essentially a false positive, and guys like Gillett – more realist than alarmist – have had to come to terms with this. According to a recent study commissioned by the city of Aspen, Colorado, if greenhouse-gas emissions continue at the current rate, by 2030 the ski season in many resorts across the continent and in Europe will have shrunk by 10 days or more. After that, things only get worse: The report paints a disquieting picture of snow falling later and melting earlier, with higher temperatures prohibiting even snowmaking. By 2050, any resort in the world below 5,000 feet in elevation will not have a natural snow season, and by 2100 – and maybe sooner – the only winter precipitation at what are now our resort areas will be in the form of rain.

"Climate change is the issue of our time," says Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book 'Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.' "There is nothing else in business, education, or religion as broad and threatening." But Schendler also thinks the ski industry and winter-sports communities are uniquely positioned to lead the public and private sectors toward meaningful change. "The ski industry is the perfect metaphor to explain climate change to society," he says. "When the CEO of a major ski resort lobbies Congress and visits the White House" – as Aspen's Mike Kaplan did earlier this year – "it's newsworthy."

But if global warming is the biggest issue facing his business, it isn't the only one. The overall economy of skiing is shrinking at an alarming rate. Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), outlined the industry's current state to resort owners at a recent conference. The data is grim: Annual skier days in the U.S. have been stagnant at around 50-60 million for the past decade; 83 percent of people who ski for the first time never try it again; and trend forecasting indicates that skier visits – 57.4 million in the 2008-09 season – will decline to 41.4 million by 2020 or 2021. "We need to talk strategically about how we bring people to the sport – how we grow it," Berry said.

The burden of a sagging economy, of course, is making things even more difficult. Because the heavily leveraged ski-resort business relies on real estate sales and capital investment to stay afloat, often operating in substantial debt, new resorts live and die by the Dow Jones. British Columbia's Revelstoke Mountain made headlines recently when its aggressive billion-dollar development plan was restructured after just one year at the same time as it defaulted on a $7.7 million land deal intended for a Nick Faldo-designed golf course; local rumors have the entire mountain resort teetering on the edge of collapse. Two other ambitious resort developments – the invitation-only Yellowstone Club in Montana and Tamarack Resort in Idaho – have already flamed out in recent years, the former due to the economy as well as alleged fraud and mismanagement, the latter because of the bursting of an old-fashioned real estate bubble.

According to the NSAA, of the 735 resorts in existence during the 1982-1983 ski season, only 471 remain today. Most of the absentees are the kind of mom-and-pop hills that defined the early ski experiences of the baby boomers who now make up the industry's only stalwart supporters – small operations with tiny lodges resembling locker rooms, where skiers brown-bagged lunches at cafeteria-style tables.

In the 21st century, though, the destination resort has come to define the modern ski experience. But when a weeklong vacation for a family of five during peak season at Sun Valley or Aspen or Whistler can cost as much as a new car, the question the industry must answer is this: Once mom and dad (or grandma and grandpa) stop picking up the tab, will young skiers still ski?