Backcountry Skiing News Roundup – Gondolas and Crevasses

Post by blogger | June 4, 2012      

First, this Utah Skilink bugbear. (I’m calling this Skilink instead of Interconnect, since the latter has been the name of a Utah resort connecting ski tour for decades). If I read reports correctly, the idea is to connect Utah’s Solitude and Park City area resorts with a gondola. Ostensibly this would reduce some automobile traffic, but more, have a synergistic effect on how attractive these resorts are, as in, “Wow Virginia, let’s ski in Utah instead of Colorado, so we can spend all day sitting on lifts and see even more mountainside burger restaurants.”

Can you tell I’m unimpressed? The gondola Skilink project would develop or at least aesthetically compromise some fairly pristine backcountry land, as well as requiring the USFS to sell 30 acres of public land into private ownership. Sometimes various public/private land deals can benefit the public (e.g., consolidating and cleaning up Wilderness boundaries using land exchanges). But land deals like this outright sale should always be suspect. Once that acreage goes out of public ownership, we’re never getting it back.

Beyond all of the above, apparently some Utah ski resort industry boosters are panting over continuing this idea and eventually connecting all the Utah Wasatch resorts to make the “Super Seven Connection.” They claim that somehow the Super Seven would be so unique that skiers would flock to the Wasatch like never before. We’re supposed to believe that? Newspaper take. And a nicely done anti-take here. And you can sign protest petition here.

One thing that interests me when traveling in the alpine European countries is the biomass to energy facilities you frequently see. I’ve been told these have a pretty much neutral carbon footprint, as they supply from sustainable forestry using wood that would otherwise rot (producing nearly same amount of carbon as burning it), or simply not grow due to the slowed growth of choked-up overgrown forests. In other words, by “farming” the forest the trees grow faster to compensate for harvest, along with grabbing wood before it falls to the ground and rots.

So, along comes this interesting article in the Summit County Voice about burning wood for fuel. The gist of the article is that small scale biomass to energy may work (especially when already dead wood is used), but large scale takes out too many trees that would otherwise continue as carbon sinks. The writer has a point, but rather than logging-paranoia I’d sure like to see a bit more enthusiasm about biomass. After all, once the spruce beetles are done around here we’ll have two choices: Watch the wood burn on the mountainside, or harvest and burn it ourselves.

Ever wonder about how we go about naming all our ski and climbing routes? In the big wild North American West, most terrain features and peaks have never been officially named. The same is true for alpine climb and ski routes; since alpinism came relatively late to these regions the naming process has been slow in coming. Nonetheless, “common use” names have begun to take root. Such names take decades to filter into USGS “offical” use, if they ever do. But that doesn’t stop the process of naming. It’s just something we humans tend to do. The naming of ski and climbing routes can be amusing. For example, I’ve heard up to four different names for the same terrain feature or ski route at one of our local backcountry skiing haunts. Guide book writers try to sort it out, and sometimes have to arbitrarily pick a name that one person or group uses, at the expense of the name another group likes. More here.

Another issue that won’t go away is that of how to combine ropes, skiing, and glaciers. Fact is, glaciers have big dangerous holes you can fall into. Sometimes, those holes are covered with thin skeins of snow that resemble a jungle pit trap. It’s wise to be liberal with rope use when you’re skiing up a glacier, but trying to ski down while roped to other people is incredibly difficult. Thus, common practice for ski alpinists is to go up with the rope, but ski down without if the skiing is anything more than flat gliding. If you ski downhill fluidly and you’re aware of crevasse patterns in the glacier so you ski perpendicular to the cracks, the odds are probably with you. Nonetheless, skiing down a crevassed glacier while unroped has its risks. This guy on Decker in Canada was unroped on a glacier, and is lucky to be alive. Look carefully at the photo in the article, and notice the wide crevasse with the thin shell of snow that broke as well as all the old ski tracks that crossed it. Sobering.

What do you guys think about roping up on glaciers? Or about that Utah endless cable ride they’re trying to create?


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50 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Roundup – Gondolas and Crevasses”

  1. Tuck June 4th, 2012 9:12 am

    Lou, wouldn’t the linked Wasatch resorts be pretty similar to the linked European resorts?

  2. Lou June 4th, 2012 9:35 am

    Tuck, yeah, I was thinking the same thing. It seems to me they would be similar. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. We tend to take the linked Euro resorts for granted, and enjoy them, but it’s sometimes enlightening to imagine them before the linking, especially when a local describes the cool ski tours that the linking erased…

  3. Jon June 4th, 2012 9:50 am

    I’ve done a reasonable amount of roped skiing in the Himalaya. The crevasses tend to be pretty big and the rope adds a bit of confidence. It does take away some of the skiing enjoyment because you are constantly having to pay attention to where the rope is, where your partner is and what are the logical stop points. On some glaciers it makes sense, on others it doesn’t. Just another tool in the box.

  4. Jack June 4th, 2012 9:58 am

    I’m a backcountry newbie and a life long New England skier. Skied Utah (Alta, Snowbird) exactly one trip. I think that the whole *make the resort bigger* meme is running contrary to the evolving ethos around global climate change, preservation of natural spaces, and generally growing environmental consciousness. In my opinion, this isn’t necessarily a practical, easily analyzable matter of how our behavior as skiers impacts the environment but is more a matter of aesthetics and attitude. I recently read a French study of carbon footprint of resort skiing and the results were pretty interesting (from memory): 73% is expended in transportation to the resort, 19% in resort housing, and ~3% in lift operation. Pretty surprising, huh? The best thing I can do to reduce the impact of a Colorado resort ski vacation is take the train to Denver. The trouble with the proposed gondola isn’t the impact of its operation (which arguably could be positive, if it reduces car trips), but it serves as a symbol of Bigger is Automatically Better thinking.

  5. Lou June 4th, 2012 10:22 am

    Jack, exactly why Aspen Skiing Company misses the mark on their green marketing. The problem is yes, transportation to/from the resorts. But the same could be said about backcountry skiing, unfortunately for my self righteous backcountry skier ‘tude (grin).

  6. Maciej June 4th, 2012 11:20 am

    It seems to me that the problem with greater lift capacity has almost nothing to do with the lifts themselves, but the subsequent development around a ski area. While the economy has put the brakes on most development at or near ski areas for now, this is the source of the greatest environmental impact.

    Unfortunately, while a few ski areas (Loveland comes to mind) are focused on providing reasonable priced skiing for local residents, most ski areas (and companies like Interwest and Vail Resorts that run them) base their business model on selling as much high-end real estate near resorts as possible. From an environmental impact standpoint, this means more people, more buildings, greater demand for water and electricity (and more infrastructure to meet the demand), more roads, and more cars on those roads.

    There are a few serious downsides beyond environmental degradation as well. Many skiers have been priced out of mountain towns. Local businesses are often unable to compete with well-heeled corporate competition. From a skiers perspective, perhaps worst of all is the increased number of people skiing on any given day.

    I understand the importance of attracting new people to the sport to keep it viable, but when resorts are charging $100 or thereabouts per day, the experience should be better than dodging beginners on groomed runs and frustration at the hacked up snow halfway through a powder day.

    I hardly ski in-bounds anymore, but not because of the state of area skiing. I love the beauty of a long tour, and I’ve been seduced by the steep, technical skiing that only the backcountry offers (at least in the U.S.). However, on the few days a year I go to ski in-bounds I’m often left with a sour taste because of the obvious lack of concern for quality skiing that defines corporate resorts.

    As a result, while I’m not opposed to expanded lift access in and of itself, I’m generally opposed because of the subsequent development which inevitably degrades both the mountain environment and the skiing experience.

  7. Mike June 4th, 2012 11:25 am

    I agree that the glacier travel discussion is needed, but I wanted to clarify one thing. Your blog post seems to imply that he broke through while skiing down when it was actually while he was skinning up. He wrote an excellent trip report about the experience, both praising the search and rescue crew and asking similar questions as your blog post about glacier protocol.

  8. Lou June 4th, 2012 11:58 am

    Maciej, let’s think outside the box for a moment. I believe that an unintended consequence of how difficult it is to start new ski resorts in the U.S. is that existing resorts become more and more valuable, both in surrounding land as well as lift tickets. Basically, government regulations and the people’s will have created a situation of limited supply. In Europe, they do have perhaps too many ski resorts, but there are quite a few that are simply cables and not much more. No surrounding development impact to speak of. Folks ski there in the winter, then the farmers grow stuff and graze cattle in the summer, while hikers wander around.

    Basically, in my view our situation here is “watch out what you wish for, you might get it.” Starting with the environmental movement of the 1960s, many of us here in the U.S. wished for no new ski resorts on our public land. To a great extent we got our wish. Now the existing resorts are elitist expensive places surrounded by sometimes ridiculous second homes. Yeah, the second home wealthy person economy kept a lot of us employed till the recent changes in our economy, but at what cost? We got things like Vail and The Canyons…and $100 lift tickets.

    As mentioned above, the enviro cost of skiing is not in running the lifts. In fact, a ski company can easily purchase wind power or carbon credits that make running their lifts carbon neutral. So why not have a few more resorts, and enough of them to eliminate much of the insane bidding up of ski resort property that’s resulted in nearly every dang ski resort trying to be its own version of Cortina? And enough resorts to eliminate the weird expansions into the backcountry that existing resorts seem to feel they have to do to fulfill their destiny?

  9. Lou June 4th, 2012 12:02 pm

    Mike, thanks for that, I’d read numerous reports and did indeed get the impression he was skiing down. Either way, worth the discussion. As for being on a glacier solo without a rope, that seems kind of unwise unless you’re on an incredibly reliable route, such as those in Europe I’ve seen where you’re following 300 other peoples running shoe tracks, and you’re there in the morning when everything is frozen tight…

  10. stephen June 4th, 2012 12:04 pm


    I am not certain we are talking apples and apples when you say that the burning and rotting of a log produce the same amount of carbon. While this is true the rotted log’s carbon would be trapped in the soil, whereas a burned log’s carbon content would be released to the atmosphere where it causes warming.

  11. Lou June 4th, 2012 12:07 pm

    Stephen, I could be wrong but what I was told is that most of the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere as bacteria digest the wood. This is what many environmentalists who use wood heating will tell you, with great joy (grin).

    Anyone know the definitive answer to this?

  12. Matt Kinney June 4th, 2012 12:36 pm

    We had a guided skier disappear into the Worthington Glacier this past season(..not!). Not the first time around here and certainly not the last. The guide and client were visiting the region, thus reflecting on the importance of local knowledge about any particular season’s snowpack depth, bridging strength, deformities and following a guide on a glacier. Fortunately he was rescued from a very deep chasm of ice with some soreness and then morphine.

    Watching a glaciers snowpack grow and fill in around certain crevasses on a popular route through the course of a winter is a benefit of residency. It is not unusual to see roped groups near my unroped group. Not all glaciers are “crevassed”. Some are just “cracked” and fill in nicely with a foot of snow.

    And if in doubt, probe.

    For the hybrid skier on a sled in the Chugach, it gets real complicated as I see little in the way of sleds being roped together, but around here, they seem to have developed a pretty good rescue system for pulling out sleds and riders.

  13. AndyC June 4th, 2012 12:40 pm

    Not only was he skiing up, he saw the change in the snow, stopped, and probed with his pole looking for a crevasse (and found it). I’m not criticizing him at all; I may have done the same thing; now I’ll think twice about when and where I stop and what I might hope to discover while probing with a pole or ice axe.

  14. Lou June 4th, 2012 12:51 pm

    I forgot to mention, probing is incredibly effective at increasing safety. Nearly as important as using a rope since we’re talking prevention instead of rescue. Using a fairly beefy avalanche probe or dedicated crevasse probe (chunk of electrical conduit or whatever) is the best way, not an ice axe or ski pole. The avy probe can reach ahead at an angle, and probes deep enough to really show what’s going on. Probing with an ice axe is a joke, ski pole not much better though better than nothing. Lou

  15. Lou June 4th, 2012 12:54 pm

    Andy, I read that as well. I’ve had some similar situations where it became apparent that probing with the ski pole was simply telling me I was standing in the wrong place. A bit too little, too late… though if you’re roped up you can have the first guy probing and staying on a tight rope, and if he doesn’t find any hollow spots the next people in line can relax a bit. Done that routine a bunch over the years, including for about 30 days on the Muldrow glacier route on Denali, which will school you on crevasse safety like nothing else (grin).

  16. Xavier June 4th, 2012 1:51 pm

    What the US needs is not more expansion of their existing resorts by adding a chair here and expansion into another boring 30 degree backbowl with a gate that the average Duke and GoPro wearing weekend warrior can pretend he is having an adventure but some big infrastructure like the Aguille de Midi tram or La Grave telepherique.

    A nice big tram in Valdez up near Thomson Pass….now that would be progress………..Oh and some backcountry huts with beer and wine and stinky cheese please!

  17. Mike June 4th, 2012 2:06 pm

    I am with Xavier. More trams and huts with beer and cheese.

  18. Lou June 4th, 2012 2:11 pm

    I tend to agree. Cable can be the best form of access. And come to think of it, if there is any state in the Union that could whip up the political will for a _real_ tramway, it would be Alaska.

  19. Oscar June 4th, 2012 2:45 pm

    The definite answer to the CO2-question is that when burning biomass you do not add anything to the CO2-netto in the world. As long as the wood burned is replanted, the CO2 let out into the atmosphere from burning the wood will be yet again bound into trees and vegitation.

    The big problem is that all the CO2 bound in fossile fules has “left the equation” for some billion years ago (with the possibility that billion is the wrong word, you americans use strange words for large numbers). The climate, as it is today, is simply adopted to the levels of CO2 in the system right now. If we do not change the netto CO2 by stop digging out fossile fules out of the ground and start burning biomass instead, the greenhouse effect will be constant at whatever level it is today.

  20. Andrew June 4th, 2012 2:48 pm

    Regarding SkiStink and Utah becoming “more like Europe.” The central Wasatch Mountains already have seven ski resorts in an area which is small than either Chamonix, Zermatt or Whistler Blackcomb. In that area, we also have more lifts (93) and more cut runs (728) than any of the above areas as well. In many regards, the Wasatch is more Europe than Europe as far as packing in the lifts. Where it is decidedly NOT European is that we have zero public transportation as far as trains, buses or interconnecting tunnels. Adding yet another lift and calling it “transportation” at $100 per person, per day (cost of a ticket at the Canyons) to travel 2.5 miles, and only operating during good weather in the winter is nothing more than a ruse. It is a chairlift and yet an attempt for the resorts to expand even more.

    Ski Utah is beside itself with the idea of a “Super Seven” mega resort, but based on existing connected areas, I don’t think it will do anything. Snowbird and Alta joined a few years ago with lots of fan fare and almost no actual inter resort skier traffic. Few people even know you can actually buy a Solitude/Brighton pass, and I’ve never actually met anyone who has. Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort are separated by a 1/4″ nylon rope and I’m guessing that DV has zero interest in degrading their premium experience by allowing PCMR skiers and, gasp, snowboarders, into their resort. The reason that most of the Wasatch resorts have not already been connected as everything to do with their individual business plans and almost nothing to do with meanie greenie enviros.

    As a slight correction, it is not the Canyons ski resort who is actually pushing this land grab, but their parent company, Talisker – a private equity real estate developer out of Toronto. One of the big reasons they are trying to do this is that if indeed an interconnect is inevitable, they would be left dangling at the undesirable far end of it. Connecting Park City to the head of Big Cottonwood is a no-brainer – not only is there already an existing road, but the property between the two areas is already privately owned.

    On a much larger scale, why this project really stinks is the way that it is being done. Instead of going through all of the local governments and public input (which honestly would shut this thing down in 20 seconds), they are trying to wrest this land away from the public via a congressional bill. Imagine Tom Chapman paying off a bunch of Colorado politicians to introduce the “Sopris Enhancement Act of 2012” where he gets to buy all of Mt. Sopris for $1,800 an acre. The first thing the local hear about it is when the bill has been introduced, which is akin to saying the torpedo has been fired – there is no stopping it at this point, aside from hoping it fizzles out or misses its mark.

  21. Andrew June 4th, 2012 2:52 pm

    Another often intentionally overlooked detail of SkiStink is that it starts in the middle of one of the most exclusive, gated communities in Utah, The Colony. For Joe Public to ride it would involve taking four chairlifts and skiing four runs, all of which takes about 1-2 hours TO EVEN GET TO THE BASE OF IT!

  22. stevesliva June 4th, 2012 2:54 pm

    Re: Wood Power. There is a wood-fired electic plant in Burlington, VT, that also burns natural gas:

    The ability to use what it basically sawmill waste to generate power in an otherwise natural gas-fired plant can’t be a bad thing. Sure, carbon footprint, yaddah yaddah, but you’re in the intrawest– many alternatives aren’t that clean, either.

  23. Jack June 4th, 2012 2:57 pm


    I agree that many resorts look like a somewhat well-managed, somewhat profitable lift operation surrounded by a cloud of *very profitable* seta of condo developments and hotels. The initial buildout is where the big money is made, and where a lot of the environmental impact occurs.

    To my mind, that cloud of condos is the screen against which backcountry skiers are rebelling. There are exceptions: A-Basin in CO, and Cannon Mt. in NH don’t have the cloud. Sugarloaf in ME has a small cloud, but is still charming. Maybe maintaining some basic appeal is a matter of smaller scale resorts?

  24. Xavier June 4th, 2012 3:00 pm

    Andrewstraightchuter, never skied in Wasangles but I agree that Talisker skistingky is a travesty and big cat ulterior motive profit scheme. thank you for all your work in fightin against this.

    Look on the bright side….Whippet sales will skyrocket as weekend warriors depart on their Euro style, trois valle interconnect, equipped to teeth. Zut Alors!!!!!

  25. Lou June 4th, 2012 3:30 pm

    Thanks for chiming in Andrew. It sure sounds like a bogus deal.

  26. Lou June 4th, 2012 3:50 pm

    Andrew, is there any concrete (however disagreeable) reason for this thing, or is it totally smoke and mirrors? I mean, why honestly would anyone spend money building it. Something to do with real estate or something? Or pure marketing driven by PR folks who want something to brag about? Pray tell. I don’t get it.

  27. Andrew June 4th, 2012 4:51 pm

    It is 100% real estate driven, both in terms of “filling” existing beds (there is something like a 50% unoccupied rate in the moribund base village) and making new ones. This whole area is a company town that was begun during the real estate boom and has yet to take off, if it ever even will.

    From a developers standpoint, these “land swaps” are a great deal. Since the land wasn’t for sale in the first place and similar public land is seldom if ever sold outright, there are no real estate market comparables for pricing, so they either get it at what the fixed price the Forest Service is allowed to pay for land (cheap) or some other politically decided “fair market value.” In the case of the Snowbasin land swap for the 2002 Olympics, the land was sold/swapped for something like $3,000 an acre. To put that in perspective, the land is the adjoining Colony development is priced at about 2 million for a 5 acre lot, or $400,000 per acre.

    As far as spending money on building the tram, that is why it is being pitched as “transportation” – to get Utah and Federal transportation subsidies. But even if it does cost 10 million, Talisker is very adept at financial engineering – somebody might lose money on it, but it probably won’t be them.

    When pressed, Talisker/Canyons chortles and says that, yes, hahaha, their underlying reason for doing this is to sell more lift tickets, which is as much of a lie as anything else they say. The Canyons is a virtual high tech ghost town with huge overhead and very few skiers. They’d have to sell tens/hundreds of thousands of tickets to equal the profits from one McMansion or a timeshare building. This is not personally my cup of tea and I don’t have issues with the capitalist motives or other people’s taste in housing, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of taking away cherished public lands. In this case, what they are talking about is a 30 acre parcel that is roughly 160′ wide by 2.5 miles long which completely bifurcates a large parcel of Forest Service property.

  28. Adam June 4th, 2012 5:06 pm

    If the Utah Department of Tourism wants to make Utah a more attractive ski destination, all they need to do is draw up more reasonable liquor laws. If you tap it, they will come. Think of the low investment, low environmental impact and high returns…

  29. sb June 4th, 2012 6:20 pm

    I thought skiing down on the glacier was a lot like tail roping a sled. It wasn’t too hard, but wasn’t that fun.

    I think a combo of roped skiing, belayed skiing, unroped skiing, and walking is a necessary evil depending on conditions.

  30. Eric Schneider June 4th, 2012 6:37 pm

    Skiing while roped up on the glacier can be an enjoyable experience with well chosen partners. I once observed a mixed rope with AT, Tele and Snowboard folk. They were truly comical to watch. A nightmare to be in.

  31. Lou June 4th, 2012 8:02 pm

    We’ve got some bogus land exchange stuff going on around here as well. We can hike up there today, soon it may be private land joining two ranch parcels into one huge ranch for a rich guy. Literally gets me in the gut, I feel sick when I think about it. Especially since the guy is a genius at manipulating the public. To do so, he acquired a chunk of land next to a popular mountain biking and hiking area, and says he’ll give that land to the public in exchange for the public land dividing his ranch. Only it’s a far from equal exchange, if for no other reason then once the backcountry land is private, it’s one more nail in the coffin of public access to the backcountry.

    More here:

    It’s just odd that a rich guy can so easily game the system. Or perhaps not so odd, and has been going on for thousands of years?

  32. Andrew June 4th, 2012 8:54 pm

    Yes, that is gut retching for sure. You’d think that a few thousand acres would be enough for a 75 year old retired business man, but apparently not. It’s like building these huge vanity yachts that seldom, if ever, get used, except in the case of land acquisitions, especially those which lose public land, the public ends up on the short end of the deal.

  33. Xavier June 4th, 2012 9:06 pm

    @ Andrew…what’s Black Diamond’s position on it ? I remember another UT public land issue where CEO Metcalf flexed BD’s corporate muscles and threatened leaving…..I guess they can’t do that now that they are a public company and responsible to shareholders and not their own morals???

  34. Bill June 5th, 2012 12:27 am

    re: carbon cycle, long and wordy

    Whether a log decomposes or combusts, both processes will still return most of the biomass carbon to the atmosphere. Decompostion is just another word for bacterial respiration, and respiration in any organism is just the reverse of photosynthesis: Biomass + Oxygen = Carbon Dioxide + Water + Energy. To the extent that bacterial decomposition of a given log is incomplete before burial, more carbon will reside in the soilmass long term. Biomass burning is considered carbon ‘neutral’ because the time in which it took that carbon to be incorporated from the atmosphere into a tree and then returned to the atmosphere is only on the order of decades to centuries. If that log ‘decomposes’ (is consumed and broken down as fuel for microbial respiration), that carbon still returns to the atmosphere in a matter of years to decades, so it is not really significantly slower than combustion when viewed on a geologic timescale. Theres lots of high-dollar research going on out there on whether forests in general are carbon-neutral or carbon-sinks, last I bothered to look, the scientific community was leaning on the side of sinks, but not as big as we might have otherwise hoped.

    In terms of adding and subtracting from the atmospheric carbon reservoir, these processes are relatively minor (orders of magnitude smaller) compared to the large relase of carbon from burning fossil fuels. The global carbon cycle takes hundreds of millions of years to sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon back into a mineralized form such as a hydrocarbon fuel like coal, or carbonate rocks like limestone.

    If you imagine the atmospheric carbon reservoir like your back yard swimming pool, we are filling it with a fire hose (burning fossil fuels) and draining it with a garden hose (natural carbon sequestration), the drain can’t keep up with the inflow, and the level of the pool rises. Forest growth and biomass burning is more a side show to the firehose, say, scooping a bucketful out and returning it a few moments later. Thus the ‘neutral’ moniker. The same goes for biofuels like ethanol, that carbon was removed from the atmosphere into biomass, converted to fuel, then combusted on a very short time span, say months to 1 year, so that process is effectively negligible in the global budget. (Not to say biofuels don’t have other big problems like converting an increasingly large fraction of arable food-producing land to feed our cars instead of our bellies)

  35. stephen June 5th, 2012 7:07 am

    Ok I stand corrected. I never really thought of the time scale part of the equation with biomass. Burn away!!!

  36. Lou June 5th, 2012 8:05 am

    One point about the article about burning biomass for energy. Expect to see more and more media coverage out here in the west that contends doing so is horrible because of carbon, when in reality they are just using a skewed view of the carbon cycle as a way to try and prevent logging. In reality, logging for biomass can be done without ruining the forest, and I have no doubt the conservation oriented USFS and public opinion will make it happen that way. So no need for logging paranoia.

    The big problem is that we don’t have the population centers near the biomass, thus making transportation of raw materials or energy the crux. Nonetheless, folks are trying. Here is one example:

  37. milt June 5th, 2012 9:36 am

    you presented an interesting and useful analysis of biofuel and carbon cycle.

    however, how significant is decomposition of forest trees to the health and growth of the forest soil and allowing future forest growth?


  38. AndyC June 5th, 2012 10:02 am

    biofuels: concise

    We had a proposal for a plant here. It ended up being squashed, not because of carbon, but because of particulates and other pollution. I live in the 16th most polluted county in the US–pollution due to burning wood.

    Coarse and fine woody debris inputs to the forest soil are essential to long-term forest health; much of the carbon in decaying wood ends up in invertebrates and fungi. Underground fungi is a huge carbon sink; the fungi are symbiotic with the living trees helping them to take up water and nitrogen.

    It is possible to grow trees for biofuels and retain wood on the forest floor. Maybe someday it will be technically and economically feasible to burn wood for electricity and not harm human health; I don’t think that is the case today.

    But much of what is being hyped is using the parts of trees that can’t be marketed as wood (limbs, small top, stumps)–whole tree harvesting; not really sustainable.

  39. Lou June 5th, 2012 10:15 am

    Andy, you need to check out the facilities in Europe. The air coming out the exhaust stack is said to be quite benign. And yeah, some debris has to be left on the ground for fertilizer, but that’s easily handled.

    What this seems to boil down to is that people don’t like to see the source of their energy. So long as it’s out of sight (solar panel plant in China that runs on coal, gas well in Colorado) they’re good with it, but try to build a state-of-art biofuel plant where they can see it, and watch the howling start. Can you say NIMBY?


  40. Joe June 5th, 2012 12:42 pm

    A little coverage from the NY times last week on the Wasatch issue:

    Written by Sallie Dean Shatz- a long time Mountain Rescue – Aspen team leader.

  41. Lou June 5th, 2012 12:47 pm

    Thanks Joe, didn’t I link to that in blog post? If not, apologies to Sallie as I fully intended to. Lou

  42. dmr June 6th, 2012 1:31 am

    Someone mentioned a study in France. The most well know studies have been conducted by a small environmental association/group called Mountain Riders ( that focuses on sustainability and environmental issues primarily for tourism and other activities in the mountains.

    I did not look hard for an overall study, but here’s a link to a study they did for Val Thorens (in French):
    If you scroll down you’ll see the pie chart that shows that the lifts and ski area (Remontées mécaniques et Service des Pistes) only accounts for 1.9% of the overall carbon footprint of the resort. Transportation accounts for 74%.

    I think someone already mentioned it, but many resorts in the Alps run on hydroelectricity or even nuclear power, so the carbon footprint of their actual electricity consumption is very low. In spite of the great train network, the lion’s share of tourists drive to their winter vacation mountain destination.

    A lot of the work of Mountain Riders and other environmental groups in the Alps is to at the least make sure that the mountain environment is as clean as possible. Putting pressure on the government or other powers that be to provide better train service, switch to electric cars, solar power everywhere, etc., etc., is a long term second step.

  43. dmr June 6th, 2012 1:45 am

    With regard to interconnecting ski areas and the mega-ski areas in Europe, municipalities and ski lift companies have made many of the same mistakes that it looks like Utah is about to make. There has been a craze lately to link resorts in order to claim 625km of runs or 425 km of runs or now more than 100km of runs. Apparently for the average British tour operator clientele this means something. But there have been some pretty abhorrent projects, but also some link-up projects that make sense (if anyone is interested I can cite examples of either).

    The difference in the French Alps, for example, is twofold:
    1) The municipality legally controls the land. The lift companies have concessions contracts (usually 20 or 30 years in order to amortize any investments), so any expansion passes through the town council. This is both positive and negative, as ridiculous projects have both been intelligently blocked and unintelligently gone through (8 person high speed chair to nowhere).

    2) As someone mentioned there still are a large quantity of small ski areas (as opposed to ski resorts) that have one lift that covers 1000meters vertical, two poma tows for the kids, and a 10 € lift ticket non holiday, and a 14 € lift ticket during the holidays. Of course, the mega resort day passes are cheap when compared to the US at 45 € for a day pass that drops to something like 30 or 35 € per day if you are there for the week.

    As mentioned for the US, a lot of expansion in Europe is used to build more beds. To ROI a new lift or section of the resorts you need X number of beds. This keeps coming up because “cold beds” or non-occupancy is a problem due to the system put in place to encourage people to purchase apartments at resorts as an investment: huge tax deductions and exemptions if you leave your apartment on the rental market for 9 years (or 12 depending on the contract). So often 9 years after beds are built, half of them go off the rental market. There are French mega resorts with 55,000 beds but only half of which are “rentable”, so you have situations where in terms of available beds the resort has a 100% occupancy rate during the holiday periods, and even turns people away, yet half of the actual beds might be empty.

    The irony on both sides of the pond is that people are in general not looking for bigger, but better (as in better quality and experience), yet the resorts still confuse the two.

  44. Lou June 6th, 2012 7:05 am

    Excellent info dmr, thanks! Truly some crazy stuff going on with this on both sides. While ski touring in Austria, for example, friends have pointed out numerous resort expansion projects that appeared to do little to add quality skiing, but instead simply ruined excellent ski touring terrain as well as adding industrial development to once pristine alpine farm country. I have to say that while I’m a total booster of necessary and appropriate recreation development, much of this resort expansion stuff just doesn’t pass that smell test. Especially when it comes to linking resorts. Seems like linking is mostly a marketing ploy that has little real positive effect on the skier experience, while having all sorts of negative consequences for everyone.

  45. Jack June 6th, 2012 8:53 am


    Yes, I mentioned the French study. I quoted slightly different percentages, working from memory. Thanks for bringing in an exact reference. I agree totally that people are looking for *better*, not *bigger*. The information on French rental investment arrangements is fascinating.

    Does anyone have a good source of the number of backcountry skier days in North America and/or Europe?

  46. Lou June 7th, 2012 6:09 am

    I was reading a newspaper this morning and ran across this report of Colorado’s shrunk skier numbers last winter, around 10%. From what I understand, that’s close to the yearly average increase in the backcountry skiing market. They say the shrunk numbers are from our bad winter, and I don’t doubt that’s true to an extent.

    But one has to think that the ski resort business is somewhat a zero sum game, drawing on a pool of people who know how to ski. Every backcountry day is one less day at a resort. Resorts of course are noticing this, hence their push to sidecountry hype and print ads that show people hiking around with skis on their shoulders, instead of skiing downhill. Like, “come buy a $100 ticket so you can hike around with your skis on your shoulders…”

    Article here:

  47. Jack June 7th, 2012 8:03 am


    Interesting pointer. I know that the areas that I day-trip out East (Boston area), have all expanded tight glade trails and side-country (Eastern style).

    I suppose that AT ski sales are a pretty good proxy for backcountry skiing intensity. National Forest people may have some surveys for their land.

  48. George Reed June 7th, 2012 8:44 am

    Morning Lou, I’m in town for awhile and was going to drop by today. It sure is good to be back in the mountains.

  49. Andrew June 8th, 2012 9:52 am

    Thanks for the excellent posting DMR! Very insightful.

    – Regarding quantity vs. quality, I don’t get that either. It’s like a restaurant saying it has 800 entrees as if an overwhelming selection is what people are really looking for in a meal.

    – The “occupancy rate” game is incredibly skewed, especially in US resort towns where the numbers are mostly private. It’s common to see deserted resorts claiming a 90% occupancy rate, but what they aren’t saying is that a huge number of the beds have been discretely taken off the market and are floating in some sort of financial limbo. Yes, 90 out of the available 100 beds have been rented, but what about the other 2,000 that are sitting over there with the lights out? I don’t really care about this, except that the bogus numbers are being used as an excuse for more expansion. The same thing happens with the lifts – a one hour wait for a tram has more to do with the rest of the lifts and resort being shut down for some other reason, rather than overwhelming demand for more skiing, yet the wait is used as a reason for adding more lifts.

  50. Patrick June 10th, 2012 12:08 am

    Regarding forest biomass for energy, CO2 released and sequestered, etc…
    I’m a retired Professional Forester and have stayed abreast this topic for about a decade

    1. Using forest biomass to produce heat (for buildings) is much more efficient than using forest biomass to produce heat and then produce steam in order to produce electricity.

    2. For lots more info about using forest biomass to produce thermal energy, see the US Forest Service program called FUELS FOR SCHOOLS AND BEYOND at
    QUOTE FROM THAT WEBSITE — By promoting and developing the utilization of forest biomass for energy, the … [program] achieves several goals in the national interest:
    – Provides financial incentives for treating hazardous fuels [e.g., dry, low-to-mid elevation forests of CO, UT, MT, ID, WA, OR, etc] by creating markets for otherwise wasted woody material, thus meeting objectives of National Fire Plan and the Administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative.
    – Encourages community engagement in national forest management
    – Reduces and stabilizes heating costs for public facilities
    – Strengthens local economies
    – Reduces national dependency on foreign oil and non-renewable fossil fuels
    – Reduces air pollution from open-pile slash burning
    – Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
    see also FAQs at

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