The Ötztal has once again presented itself from its most beautiful side in the past few days. Down in the valley the temperatures were almost like late summer, ideal for bike tours and hikes. The cold season, it seemed, is still a long way off, even if worse weather is forecast for the coming weekend.
Almost 1500 meters further up on the Rettenbach glacier, things look different. A touch of winter to kick off the alpine ski season. The piste for the women’s giant slalom this Saturday and the men’s on Sunday is perfectly groomed – thanks to a few cold nights at the beginning of October and a modern snow-making system. Producing artificial snow has always been a thorn in the side of environmentalists, but people in Austria are a little more relaxed about it. Skiing is important for tourism in the land of mountains.
But: Now it is no longer just about the climate, but also about the scarce energy resources and the high costs. In the ski areas, consideration is being given to restricting the operating times of the lift systems, turning off seat heating and completely ending night skiing offers.
In the World Cup, too, the question arises as to whether one can simply continue as before, whether the organizers can afford the energy-intensive snowmaking, or whether floodlit races are still appropriate. It is problematic when private households are asked to save water and electricity, but competitions are being prepared and carried out next door, the Secretary General of the International Ski Federation Fis, Michel Vion, admitted at the Forum Nordicum in September.
Problem recognized, but what does the world association contribute to it? Nothing at the moment, on the contrary: There are more races on the program this World Cup winter, and that means more travel. The men have to go to North America twice instead of just once, as was previously the case. And then there is the newly designed descent on the Matterhorn. Two races are planned there for the men at the end of October and the women at the beginning of November. Whether they can take place is questionable: no snow in the lower part and too warm for snowmaking.
The descent, starting at almost 4000 meters in Switzerland and finishing almost 900 meters below in Italy in front of the panorama of the Matterhorn, is spectacular, without a doubt. “But you have to ask yourself whether that’s necessary,” says Thomas Dreßen, Kitzbühel winner in 2018, who is about to make his comeback after an almost two-year injury break. And he thinks it doesn’t have to be, especially not at the end of October, a month before the downhillers had started the season so far. But “we athletes are not asked what we think of it,” says the 28-year-old from SC Mittenwald. The Alpine Director of the German Ski Association, Wolfgang Maier, put it even more clearly: “It’s the wrong sign.”
There are many of these at Fis. President Johan Eliasch presented himself as a reformer when he was elected in summer 2021 – and thus secured the support of many large associations. But that quickly dwindled, and not just because of his autocratic leadership style. How he wants to make skiing more attractive, more innovative and also more sustainable makes people shake their heads: he promised world cups in ski halls in Dubai and China as well as summer races in South America. And the new descent on the Matterhorn is actually only good for the Swiss. “We have to become adventurers, stand out from the crowd,” Eliasch recently told the Swiss daily Nouvelliste.
The former CEO of the Head ski company, whose owner Eliasch still is, is concerned with maximizing profits, opening up new markets, and higher TV and sponsorship money. This has little to do with the sustainability he announced. The Swiss organizers of the race emphasize that they respected nature, built no new facilities and cut down no trees because there was already a slope for tourists. But photos also circulated showing excavators and heavy equipment on the track under construction. For the head of the organizing committee, Franz Julen, the project brings those “innovative ideas that skiing urgently needs”.
However, Maier doubts that. He thinks that Fis should rather “refurbish the individual events, bring them all to such a high standard as Kitzbühel, Schladming, Adelboden or Wengen” instead of ensuring even more trips. Eliasch let us know that there would be a little less of them due to the new downhill run in preparation for the season. »That would be a chance to avoid trips to training camps in South America, for example. A good example to our CO2– to reduce the footprint,” he said a year ago in Sölden.
This summer, however, the Zermatt glacier, the only one available to the teams anyway, had to be closed. The start of the downhill skiers on the Matterhorn, which is now planned for the end of October for the next few years, means that there will be no alternative to training camps in South America in the future, in order to be in top form by the end of October. The earlier start of the season “drives us to ski in summer too,” says Dreßen. On the other side of the hemisphere.