Risking Their Lives to Ski While They Can


There’s something fundamentally excessive about winter sports. Instead of curling up with a book or Netflix when the weather turns cold, winter athletes wrestle with inordinate layers and high-tech gear just to make it through the day without frostbite. They sprint across ice with knives strapped to their feet and hurtle down mountains at speeds generally reserved for interstate highways. They fall off ski lifts—or are trapped overnight in them. Show me an experienced winter recreationalist, and I’ll show you someone who has slipped, skidded, and crashed their way to a broken tailbone or torqued knee, and more likely than not a concussion or two.

But over the past few years, climate change, social media, and a pandemic-era obsession with the outdoors have combined to make these already intense sports even more extreme. Seasoned athletes have long considered bunny slopes and indoor ice rinks to be mere gateways to backcountry skiing (zooming through the tree line on untouched powder—and sometimes jumping out of a helicopter to get there) or “wild” ice skating over remote glaciers and freshly frozen lakes. Now a growing crowd of beginners has started to follow them—and the consequences can be fatal.

Since the rise of remote work enabled an exodus from big cities in 2020 and 2021, a record number of people have visited U.S. ski areas each winter. Resorts can be so crowded that people wait 45 minutes for a chair lift that, four years ago, might have only had a three-minute line. No wonder skiers are searching farther and farther afield to get their fix. Greg Poschman, the county commissioner chairman of Colorado’s Pitkin County, told me that in just the past few seasons, he’s seen more people up in the backcountry and out on frozen lakes and rivers than he has in a lifetime living near Aspen. That sentiment is echoed by athletes and officials across the United States. All it takes is a sufficiently impressive stunt posted to social media, and once-deserted corners of the natural world will be inundated with hobbyists a few days later.

In the wilderness, or even the “sidecountry” just outside resort bounds, athletes are exposed to dangers that are rare in more controlled settings. Miles from civilization, no one is policing the landscape for holes in the ice, buried rocks and twigs, and surprise cliffs, not to mention avalanches and ice dams. Perhaps most crucially, pushing out farther from roads and services means being farther from rescue when things go wrong. “You may be doing something that’s a low-risk sport”—ice-skating, snowshoeing, and the like—“but the consequences are very high,” Poschman said.

[Photos: The insanity of downhill ice cross racing]

Even sports that have never relied on curated resorts to thrive are becoming more treacherous. Kale Casey, a five-time Team USA co-captain for sled-dog sports, told me that unpredictable winter seasons are forcing teams away from traditional routes across Alaska that have become unsafe. Portions of the famous roughly 1,000-mile Iditarod race have been rerouted. Mushers are strategically running certain portions of races at night so their dogs—bred for temperatures around –20 degrees—don’t overheat. As the planet warms, and snow coverage of Alaska’s tundra contracts, other winter sports are converging with the mushers on the little snow that’s left. This season, five dogs have been hit and killed by people riding snowmobiles (known locally as snow machines); five more dogs were also injured in these collisions. “During the lockdown, there wasn’t a snow machine available in Alaska,” Casey told me. “Everybody bought them—and they’ve got to go places. Where do they go? They go where we go.”

Climate change isn’t just pushing winter athletes into more crowded or remote territory. It’s also making that territory less predictable. From across the Northern Hemisphere, the near-identical refrain I heard went something like this: As recently as five years ago, the snow season used to begin sometime around Thanksgiving. It started slowly, with the odd storm or two, building up ice and snowpack gradually as temperatures fell. On a given day, you could be fairly certain of the quality of whatever frigid surface you were skiing on, climbing up, or skating over. And if the weather wasn’t good, well, the snow and ice would be there for you the next day.

But now everyone I spoke with—whether in Iceland or in alpine California—said the first storms don’t come until January. The weather is unpredictable: Record-setting blizzards are interspersed with snow-melting rain. A dry early season followed by rain and wet snow is the perfect recipe for avalanches, Poschman said. Shannon Finch, who was an avalanche-rescue dog handler in Utah for 12 years before turning to heli-ski guiding, told me that even experts are now “perplexed, confused, and getting caught off guard” in environments they’d previously navigated with ease. Her dog, Lēif, struggled in these new conditions: When someone is buried by an avalanche, their scent is less likely to rise through wetter snow and warmer air temperatures. Consequently, Lēif needed to cover considerably more ground before making a rescue.  

The shorter seasons also create havoc for a uniquely human reason: FOMO. “People are chomping at the bit to get out there” and are willing to take greater risks for good snow or ice, Travis White, who runs a tourism fishing business in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, told me. The result is that even a relatively leisurely activity such as ice fishing suddenly becomes an extreme sport. With fewer waterways icing over, more people from places that no longer freeze regularly are suddenly crowding onto just a few lakes. These newcomers aren’t around to watch the water slowly freeze; they don’t know where to watch out for eddies and currents that may make the ice unstable, or how to avoid the most recently frozen patches, which are also the most dangerous.  

Stories of ice fishers, figure skaters, and hockey players falling in—even dying—abound. Incidents on the snow are common too. Earlier this month, 23 people needed rescuing in Killington, Vermont, after ducking a boundary rope to ski and snowboard out-of-bounds on a particularly good powder day—the kind that’s getting vanishingly rare in the Northeast.

[Read: How skiing went from the Alps to the masses]

White, like many of the other winter enthusiasts I spoke with, also blames social media for the extremification of his sport. Inexperienced ice fishers might see a cool spot posted on Instagram and find it easily, thanks to geolocation. The same goes for wild ice-skating, snowmobiling, and backcountry skiing. Athletes also worry that impressive, engagement-oriented stunts posted online could inspire inexperienced people to try extreme moves in those remote sites. “The only thing that I see on social media is people jumping off cliffs on their skis,” Ben Graves, a Colorado-based outdoor educator and an avid backcountry skier, told me. But only a tiny fraction of skiers who can find said cliffs are good enough to jump off them with something approximating safety.

That fraction could soon get even smaller. Ívar Finnbogason, a manager at Icelandic Mountain Guides, is deeply concerned by the decline in skill he’s witnessed over the past decade. He stepped away from a career as an ice climber when he became a father, in part because of the danger but mostly because waiting and waiting for the right conditions meant that he simply couldn’t train effectively. “That’s no way for you as an athlete—as someone with ambition—to build up your momentum,” he told me.

By the end of the century, snow and ice may be so scarce that only the most well-resourced and committed athletes can even attempt these new extremes. With just a degree or two Celsius more warming, much of the Northern Hemisphere can expect massive snow loss. If this happens, the only way to reach the snow might be with a helicopter or a days-long hike.

[Read: The threshold at which snow starts irreversibly disappearing]

A dramatic collapse in winter sports might well result in fewer accidents. But we would also lose something intrinsically human. For many winter-recreation devotees, these sports are more than just activities to pass the time. They are a way of life, dating as far back as 8000 B.C.E. Perhaps those who test their skills against the strength of Mother Nature have it right. Maybe now is the time for winter athletes to take their passions to dangerous new heights, before they lose the option forever.

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