Peter Shelton

Debunking a Pie-in-the-sky Eurovision

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on August 6, 2010

Josh Geetter’s Alps-inspired vision for the future of skiing in the western San Juans (Watch Commentary July 29) was a seductive read. Seductive because anyone who has skied the big, interconnected resorts in Europe can’t help but have fond memories.

Just one example from my experience: Start in Courchevel in the Tarentaise Valley of France, and ski across to Meribel, the second of Les Trois Vallées (which is really four valleys), then on to Les Menuires, up to the high point at Val Thorens, over one more ridge into the Maurienne. Have lunch there, and spend the rest of the day working your way back.

It’s huge, unlike anything in the Americas: 70,000 plus acres, 6,000 vertical feet, 375 miles of trail, 183 lifts (three cable cars, 37 gondolas, 69 chair lifts, 74 surface lifts). Almost all of it is above treeline, and if the weather and snow conditions are good, your day might be a revelation bordering religious experience.

But it shouldn’t, and in fact, it can’t be replicated here. Here’s why.

Number one: public land. In France and Switzerland, where I’ve done most of my Euro skiing, the high alpine is largely owned by villages or farming co-ops, not the public, as is the case here. The whole concept of publicly-owned and publicly-debated land use is foreign to them. If a village off the backside wants to link into an existing lift network, they can more or less just do it.

Two: those charming villages. They were already there. They’ve been there in some cases for 700 years. Not occupied and abandoned like the mine camps in these mountains, but occupied and farmed continuously. They weren’t built to provide amenities for a ski resort; they were incorporated organically into the modern winter economy. Many ski runs go back to pasture in the summer.

Because of the human density in the Alps, there are a lot more of them (charming villages) in a given sub-range. It would be as if you had existing small towns, with hotels and road access, not just in Telluride and Ouray and Silverton, but also in Alta Lakes and Upper Bear Creek and Bridal Veil Basin and Ptarmigan Lake and Waterfall Canyon and Swamp Canyon, etc., etc. The ski circuses in Europe have not had to try to link towns as far flung as Telluride and Silverton. To do so without the intermediate stations would be folly.

Three: money. Who is going to pay for the astonishing infrastructure Geetter proposes? In France and Switzerland (and I assume in Italy and Austria as well), these projects come about through public/private partnerships. With the heavy emphasis on public. These people are socialists, remember.

The village that wants a gondola, where a gondola makes sense, gets major help from the feds. It’s not a resort corporation getting the underwriting, it’s the village, the domain, the tourist region. The village collects a portion of the lift ticket revenue commensurate with its ridership. While the American people do subsidize Telski through its exclusive lease arrangement, we have nothing like the government capability, or the political will, to invest similarly in a monolithic San Juans pipe dream.

Four: customers. There are 50 million skiers within a few hours’ train ride of the big Alps resorts. ‘Nuf said.

(Interconnects in the Wasatch and between Aspen’s four ski areas, both of which make way more practical sense than one in the San Juans, have failed over and over to gain critical traction, either locally or with federal land managers.)

Five: the railroads. Yes, they were relatively ubiquitous back in the day, but they’re gone now. Aren’t the right-of-ways gone, too, legally and physically? Buried under the highways and crumbled into the canyons? Yes, it would be cool, and green, to reconstitute the tracks and trains, but even Aspen couldn’t manage to reconstitute the line up the Roaring Fork from Glenwood Springs. And I believe that right-of-way was at least physically intact.

Six: tort law. Get buried by an avalanche inbounds in the Alps, and, well, too bad for you. You pays your money, and you takes your chances. The terrain is too big to try to control all the risks, and they wisely don’t try. We have a completely different ethos of expectation and liability in this country. This is America; a ski area can be sued for providing an attractive nuisance.

(The corollary is Ralph Nader would never have got the Corvair off the road in Europe. They don’t have our consumer-protection laws. Which would you rather?)

The ski terrain in the region Geetter would like to see developed is more avalanche-prone than anything in the Alps. Ours is a seriously higher, thinner, weaker snowpack. One of the most hair-trigger, in fact, in the world. You couldn’t throw enough bombs at Geetter’s world to guarantee its safety. And you couldn’t defend yourself from the lawsuits that would ensue.

Finally, I like very much what Jerry Roberts wrote in an on-line comment last week. He said, if you want the Euro experience, go to the Alps. If you want an Andes experience, go to South America. If you want a backcountry wilderness experience, come to the San Juans.

We have something rare. In France, along with your amazing lift complexes you also get massive powerlines and hydro dams, and roads and air and noise pollution, and extreme civilization – which is great when you want a fine wine at lunch and the virtual inability to get lost, to ski yourself, accidentally or otherwise, into an uninhabited side valley.

The truly wild places there are small and precious. The Euros came late to the realization that perhaps they ought to save a few. In fact, in the region of the Tarentaise, they realized that a plan to link up their already large ski domains – from les Trois Vallées to Val d’Isere – would mean they’d have no undeveloped high country at all. So, in 1963 they said enough is enough and created the Vanoise National Park, the first national park in France. They’re extremely proud of it. I’ve toured in there. It reminds me of Ice Lake Basin.

2 Responses

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  1. Joshua Geetter said, on August 20, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Hi Peter,
    Josh Geetter Here. Thank you for commenting on the SJ Interconnect. I
    am honored to share dialogue with you. I just want to let you know that
    the Watch inserted the Title “Why Peter Shelton’s Critique of the San
    Juan interconnect is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong” over my blog response to your
    critique of my article. I submitted the piece as a blog response, hence
    no title. The Watch staff imposed that rather negative title on my
    piece. I do not think you are “Wrong.” I am appreciative that you
    would even comment on my original piece, and I look forward to
    constructive dialogue. I think that reading past the title you will see
    a more positive tenor in the body of the article. I have posted a
    comment online clarifying the title as imposed and incongruous. Should
    you care to continue the conversation, I encourage you to inform your
    readership likewise, that the “Wrong” title was not my authorship. I
    look forward to continuing the conversation personally, maybe on a ski
    tour together when the snows return to the range for which we both care
    so much.

    Joshua Geetter

    • pshelton said, on August 20, 2010 at 5:42 pm

      Thanks, Josh. I realized the headline in the newspaper didn’t come from you. (I had read your long response on The Watch website previously.) I do appreciate your positive attitude, although I was somewhat mystified by your “Pulitzer for irony” thread. Having this conversation—even in its odd electronic form—can only be a good thing and will certainly add awareness, if not always illumination, to the debate over Bear Creek. Cheers, -P

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