Winds of change

As skiing goes hi-tech its cost to the environment is increasing. But as we all want space-age gadgets, what's the solution? Stephen Wood reports
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Once upon a time, the energy needed for skiing was provided by skiers themselves. In the days before ski-lifts an energy crisis was a phenom-enon that occurred halfway up the hill; and, painful though it was, it could be alleviated simply by resting the legs, and having a bite to eat and a drink. A couple of years ago, out of a sense of duty to share the hardships of our winter-sports ancestors, I spent almost an hour and a half snow-shoeing up the mountain at Tremblant in Canada for the fleeting pleasure of skiing back down. So I have personal experience of the effort required to get a middle-aged skier up the slopes.

Once upon a time, the energy needed for skiing was provided by skiers themselves. In the days before ski-lifts an energy crisis was a phenom-enon that occurred halfway up the hill; and, painful though it was, it could be alleviated simply by resting the legs, and having a bite to eat and a drink. A couple of years ago, out of a sense of duty to share the hardships of our winter-sports ancestors, I spent almost an hour and a half snow-shoeing up the mountain at Tremblant in Canada for the fleeting pleasure of skiing back down. So I have personal experience of the effort required to get a middle-aged skier up the slopes.

Although it remains true that what comes down must go up, the energy expended in what ski resorts refer to as "uplift" is now measured in kilowatts rather than calories. Nobody climbs; everybody rides. In a season at Aspen in Colorado, for example, about eight million kilowatt-hours are used to uplift skiers for what ought, logically, to be called their "downdrop". Electricity is cheap in the US, whose energy problems are felt mainly on Wall Street or exported to the Middle East and the upper atmosphere; nevertheless, the Aspen Skiing Company pays an electricity bill of about $600,000 (£370,000) a year to keep its lifts going.

But it is not just ski resorts – in the US and elsewhere – whose use of electricity is increasing. Skiers, too, are consuming more power. And this season's new winter-sports gadgets promise an uplift in the sales of electricity, and 1.5-volt batteries in particular.

Two months ago I described the latest, state-of-the-art goggles made by the Italian manufacturer, Smith. Attached to the strap of its Cascade Turbo "Constant Air Management" models is a small fan which, powered by two AAA batteries, delivers a constant flow of air to prevent the lens from fogging. But ski technology has gone further than that. Consider the Hot Form system offered by the boot manufacturer Tecnica, for example. Its primary purpose is to create a tighter-fitting boot without causing discomfort, by inserting a "liner" which become pliable when heated. The wearer puts on new, warmed-up boots, whose softened liners mould themselves around his or her feet. When the heat is turned off, the contours of the liners become permanent. The internal heating circuitry also has a pleasing secondary function, however – that of drying and warming the boots.

A home adaptor lets the skier plug the boots into an electrical socket at home or in a hotel to dry them after a day's skiing. And for skiers who drive to the slopes in the morning – as is often the case in North America – another adaptor ensures that the boots are at body temperature on arrival: it uses power from the vehicle's cigarette-lighter to warm them up. For these secondary functions, power is reduced so that the liner does not soften; and because the heating element does not reach into the toes, Tecnica recommends the low-tech strategy of stuffing a paper towel inside to aid the drying process.

Wearers of other manufacturers' boots are not left out in the cold. The Snow+Rock retail chain offers foot-warming insoles made by the Therm-ic company which will fit into any boot. They are powered by mains-charged units or power-packs with AA batteries which attach to the boot and maintain a toasty temperature of 37 degrees Celsius for 12 hours. Also available from the same company is a mains-powered device – it looks like something from the film of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds – which blows warm air into damp boots.

Still more space-age is the Analog Clone jacket made by the pre-eminent snowboarding company, Burton. Even if you wanted to buy one – at a whopping $999 (£619) – you couldn't: made in a very limited edition of 100, the jackets have all sold out. The price included a free Sony mini-disc Walkman; but that wasn't the main gimmick. Vermont-based Burton describes the Analog Clone as "a jacket with a built-in sound system" because of its use of SOFTswitch(tm) technology. Printed on the left-hand sleeve are six "buttons" to control the mini-disc player, which is tucked into a chest-pocket: the wearer can change tracks and adjust the volume-level by pressing the sleeve. No wires are used; rather, the fabric of the jacket has "electronic switching materials", whatever that means. The jacket is also waterproof, seam-taped and machine-washable. (The washing instructions, along with the usual symbols, also specify the removal of the mini-disc player.)

Although the jacket is sold out, Burton promises that new garments using the same sort of technology are to be launched next week, intriguingly enough at the Mac World trade show in San Francisco.

Some skiers might regard all this energy consumption as environmentally unhealthy. Luckily, there is a new electronic gadget for them, too. The E-Power Solar Power Station, recently marked down to £29.95 by Snow+Rock, uses two solar panels to recharge mobile phones or AA batteries – which can power boot-warmers, mini-disc players and other portable devices. In full sunlight, the unit recharges four AA batteries in 16 hours.

In the whole scheme of sustainability, the Solar Power Station is of minor significance: since its output in full sun is only 1.38 watts, 40,000 of the units would be required, on a good day, to power the Cirque drag-lift up Aspen's Snowmass mountain. Luckily, the Aspen Skiing Company has found another source of sustainable energy for that lift and four others. It buys enough wind-generated electricity to supply power for those lifts plus three restaurants, which together account for six per cent of the company's total consumption. This electricity costs 20 per cent more than power generated from traditional sources. But those concerned about sustainability will regard that as money well spent.

Further information: Smith (Outdoor Leisure, 0161 428 1178; www.smithsport.com); Tecnica (Mastco, 0118 947 1735; www.tecnicausa.com); Snow+Rock (0845 100 100; www.snowandrock.com); Therm-ic (Active Enterprises, 01438 832056; www.therm-ic.com); Burton (00 43512 230 230; www.burton.com); Aspen (001 970925 1220; www.aspensnowmass.com)

Comments