When these pictures of Sam Leitch ripping Feathertop lobbed in the mailbox I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this the future of Aussie skiing peak season? Come August 2050, or maybe a lot sooner, will we all be hopping from drift to drift out in our highest peaks just to get a line?”

Sam Leitch charging a sketchy Feathertop in 2013 © Paul Fitzgerald
Sam Leitch charging a sketchy Feathertop in 2013 © Paul Fitzgerald

Scary thoughts, but hey, it’s only the vast majority of scientists in the field who are worried, and have been for decades. Of course you could just relax, like former PM John Howard, who famously said his “gut instincts” told him there’s nothing to worry about.

My own gut instinct, after 30 plus years skiing NSW, tells me that just in my time I’ve seen the snow recede on the lower slopes — there’s almost never snow round Kiandra heading up to Selwyn, like there often was when we were learning in the 1980s (you could get out of the car and ski down to the Eucumbene River quite often then, doing free road laps; and some Selwyn instructors made a great video boarding through the tombstones of the old Kiandra cemetery). Or check out the opposite side of the road in Perisher, which often has not much snow even when there’s plenty on the slope side. The range opposite Thredbo hardly ever holds snow either, when it often used to have plenty, even into spring when we used to take advantage of half price lift passes the week after the season ended to ski the t-bars there.

My gut feeling tells me the overall snowline is receding, and coverage area shrinking, even though right up high there may still be as much as ever, and random storms will likely get randomer. A metre in April or November won’t do us much good though, nor will 20° in early August.

So whose guts are right?

Sure, the amazing improvements and investment in snow making have made a massive difference, to the point where it’s fair to say we are likely getting more actual skiable snow a lot of the time right now than ever, especially early season.  Our resorts do a great job with this, at huge cost.

But numerous studies (like the Garnaut Report in 2007, never mind all those scientists at the UN) have come to the same conclusion, with more methodology than my humble old-timer’s observations. From the plight of the pygmy possum to the economic impacts, all the studies predict a range of bad to dire scenarios. The proverbial will hit the fan, and it’s a not a question of if, but of how soon, and by how much.

So as skiers it’s probably time to pay attention. Of course anything we do in isolation in Australia won’t make much difference, but if one of the richest, highest emitting per capita countries in the world can’t set an example then don’t say you weren’t warned: see below for what’s already happened to the lift-accessed skiing in Bolivia, which used to be the highest in the world.  – Owain Price

Gutfeelings #2

If you think losing your entire lift-accessed skiing is far-fetched ask the snow sport aficionados in Boliva, which used to be the 7th country with a ski field in the Southern Hemisphere. Back in the 1940s the South American Ski Championships at Chacaltaya attracted 2,000 spectators to the one-tow field on the glacier at 5,396m – that’s the Argentinian team posing proudly at right.

There was a decent 2km long ski run in those days, and a season that lasted December to March.

Then the glacier started retreating. People got worried. In the 80’s the ski club shortened the lift. Studies were done and published, including the one shown here, with a graph predicting the permanent ice would melt away by 2015. That proved over optimistic – lift accessed skiing stopped several years ago.

Now there are still snowfalls, but no base beneath to allow a lift to work. In our 2007 feature on Chacaltaya there was some snow too make tracks in, but the lift couldn’t run anymore.

Of course that’s bad enough for local skiers and boarders, but far worse is the shrinkage of the higher, larger glaciers that provide dry season snow melt flow for the rivers supplying water to Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, where the population of the greater urban area is well over 2 million, most of whom live in poverty.

No drinking water. Now that could give you a serious gut feeling ..

actual melting of the glacier this pic and what was projected - it melted several years earlier as the process sped up
actual melting of the glacier this pic and what was projected – it melted several years earlier as the process sped up

chacaltaya_glaciermeltmap