The Rise and Fall of Skiing

Skiing became a popular sport for the middle-class in the mid- to late-20th Century.  What happened?

Skiing is still popular, some will argue, as I am sure the numbers show more skiers than ever.  But then again, the world population has nearly doubled over the last half-century, so the numbers should go up, even if overall popularity is declining.

Skiing, I would argue, was popularized by the likes of Ernest Hemingway.  He wrote about skiing in the Alps, back in the day, when you had to climb the mountain with your skis and then zip down the hill.  You hired a local "guide" to take you to the top of the hill, and if you were lucky, you might get in two or three runs a day - maybe only one.

My parents' generation read all that shit and they got involved in Skiing, Golf, and Tennis - three sports which have seen some decline as of late - although Golf (and Cigars) had a brief revival during the Clinton years.  Yes, back then, even I was playing golf.  But that's another story.

In the 1960's my parents were into skiing, and we had skis for the entire family - an expensive proposition even back then.  One year, we even flew out to Colorado and went skiing, as the local slopes near Illinois (Wisconsin, mostly) were pretty tame.  It was fun - we went to Winter Park, as I recall - but then again, I was just a kid.  My eldest brother got a set of "Head" skis in black - very serious stuff!  He even had ski boots with clamp fasteners (no more lace-ups!).   Sadly, he had smaller feet and I could never fit into his hand-me-downs.  A day of skiing for me was followed by a night of agony and foot pain.

When we moved back to New York in the 1970s it was during a skiing heyday.  There was a lot of snow that decade and temperatures were colder.  In addition to the big ski resorts, there were plenty of local ones, some even Mom-and-Pop operations.  We went to Greek Peak (still in business) and smaller venues like Mystic Mountain (gone) and even a tiny slope called Ironwood Ridge (gone, gone!).  We even had a tiny ski hill called "The Cazenovia Ski Club" which had a rope tow, a T-bar, and a "Swiss J-bar" which I fell off of, a lot, until I got the hang of it.  We used to go there after school, and ski until after dark!  They are still open these days, but only on weekends, 9-4. So I guess they lost their night lighting that I remember.  And no more skiing on school nights!

What happened to skiing?  I think a number of factors. 

First was the cost.  As I noted, buying ski equipment for the whole family gets expensive, fast.  Every year, the ski equipment stores in DeWitt (all out of business, mostly) had a big "tent sale" where you could trade in your old equipment and buy new (or used) equipment.  This was handy for families where the kids outgrew their gear.  But it still wasn't cheap.

And of course, like anything else, people felt they had to "win" at ski equipment, dressing up like Ned Flanders in matching outfits and the latest-and-greatest ski gear.  These often were not the best skiers.  So it became this battle of status at one point, and as ski technology improved and got more complex, prices skyrocketed.  My first set of skis were made of wood and had to be waxed and had primitive ankle-breaker cable bindings.   No one mourned the passing of those, but buying all-new gear every year could cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

I switched to cross-country skiing at that point.  The gear was cheap - a couple of hundred would get you a decent set of skis and boots back then, along with waxes and a corking tool.   Admission to local parks to go skiing was either cheap or free.  And there were no crowds or lift lines, either.  Maybe cross-country killed off Alpine Skiing, I don't know.  All I know is, I found it more interesting, fun, and better exercise.  But I digress.

So the popularity of skiing, at least in Central New York, was on the decline by the late 1970s.  There was an aspect of "been there, done that" I guess, and my parents, as they aged, had little or no interest in it anymore - they were out of shape and probably didn't want to break a leg or hip.  My Dad got into Tennis at that point, which was a winter sport, thanks to giant inflatable indoor tennis domes.  Yes, that is gone as well.  Tennis has been supplanted by its bastard cousin, Pickleball.  Never mention Pickleball to a Tennis enthusiast, unless you want a punch in the face.

But then the snow stopped.  The 1970's were a colder-than-normal decade, and when we moved to Central New York, they were literally plowing the snow into 12-foot-high snowbanks (or higher).  It was weird - getting a few feet of snow in a day or two wasn't that unusual (and I had to deliver newspapers in that snow!).   By the 1980s, though, it largely stopped.  Winters became milder and the snow started later and melted sooner.  Snowmaking machinery became necessary to keep the season going, and only the larger venues could afford that.  And the price of lift tickets went up accordingly (no doubt aggravated by insurance costs) and the cost of skiing got even more expensive.

One by one, the smaller skiing venues closed.  Dozens of ski hills in New York State have closed over the years.  This site has a list of some - but it is outdated.  Some of the sites they show as open are long closed.  Others such as Ironwood (affectionately known as "Icewood" due to its short, steep, and icy hill) or Mystic Mountain, are not even mentioned.  Speaking of Mystic, they (along with a lot of other ski resorts) tried to attract a summer crowd with things like the "Alpine Slide" which may or may not have been fun while tripping on acid.  Many others that have survived this long have found additional revenue in the summer from mountain biking and chair-lift tourism.  You got to make money somehow!

Of course, there are other developments in the ski business and operators are not sitting on their hands. Snowboarding has increased in popularity, leading to conflicts between traditional skiers and snowboarders.  Ski resort operators cannot afford to turn away either, of course.  Ski rentals and new "elliptical" skis make it easier for beginners to get into the game (or retired novices to re-enter).  When we lived in Washington, DC, we drove to Pennsylvania a few times to go skiing.  Back in the day, the "ski shop" at the mountain had maybe one pair of "rental" skis and they sucked.  Today, some resorts have mostly all rentals and offer lift ticket and rental packages at attractive prices.   Pennsylvania skiing is nothing to write home about - mostly artificial snow and short hills.   One day we went there and it was so warm, the fake snow was melting.  We were going straight down the "double diamond" expert trail, and the skis were so slow it was like standing still.

Which brings us to the last aspect - the lack of snow.  A recent article on CNN tells of a French town which, like the town I grew up in, had its own Ski club.  It has been over a decade however, with no snow, so they tore down the rusty remains of their ski lift.  A similar story has been repeated across Europe.  Is it global warming?  Yes, in part.  Like I said, the 1970's was a cold decade, and the 1980's a return to "normal" temperatures.  The problem is, overall, the trend is warming, and even one or two seasons of "no snow" and balmy temperatures is enough to put smaller resorts out of business.  Central New York is seeing record "lake effect" snow right now, but that isn't going to help the out-of-business resorts to reopen at this point.

Also, "lake effect" snow tends to hit places like Buffalo and - most famously - Oswego, New York, both of which are on the Eastern end of respective Great Lakes.   Some folks in Oswego have a door on the second floor of their house in order to be able to get outside when the snow piles up in 12-foot-high drifts.  But both places are not home to major ski areas, which are located where the bigger hills are - such as the Catskills and the Adirondacks.  Those areas don't get much lake-effect snow.  So I doubt this latest blizzard will help Alpine ski resorts, although it may offer a boon to cross-country enthusiasts, provided they can get out of their driveway.

Any one of these factors I've mentioned is enough to kill off the sport, but it survives, somehow, in this era of rising operating costs, rising liability insurance costs, less snow and fewer consumers with disposable income.  People still ski, but I suspect that the ones that still do, do it less often.  My brother-in-law goes out to Utah to go skiing, once a year.  Kind of hard to keep your skill level up when you are skiing that infrequently, but they have fun.  Like I said, these new elliptical skis make it easier for old fucks to go down the hill.  But it isn't a cheap vacation, to be sure, and I am not aware they ski any other time of the year.  Maine has had a similar problem with snow and smaller hills closing.  It just isn't as convenient, inexpensive, or readily available as it was before.

Of course, it still is a sport of the very rich - many ski towns and ski resorts have famous names, not only for their great skiing, but as destination resorts for the wealthy.  You know names like Aspen, Telluride, Vail, Steamboat Springs - just in the United States.  There were some famous ones even in the Adirondacks and Vermont, but they, too, have fallen from grace, even if they are still open.  Of course, the big snow is often in the Alps - even if you don't ski, you've heard of St. Mortiz, if only in a song.

And at those resorts or nearby towns, the cost of living is pretty staggering.  The folks working at these resorts often have to live in dormitories, as they cannot afford the cost of housing.  And the cost of living? Crazy. We stopped in Whistler, BC, on the way back from Alaska, and even off-season, it was frighteningly expensive and upscale.  It wasn't built for the likes of us plebes.

Funny thing, they have a cable car that goes between mountains at Whistler, and one of the cars has a glass floor.  Mr. See isn't that fond of heights, and he was like a cat being forced to take a bath - backed up into a corner with his claws out, hissing, as I recounted what a great view we had through the floor, how the people looked like ants, and as I speculated as to what would happen if a cable broke.  Probably take nearly a minute to hit the bottom!  He was not pleased.  But a good sport, nevertheless!

Ski resort operators have targeted the upscale market, and the decline of the middle-class is certainly going to hurt their business in the long run.  It already has basically destroyed the small ski hills and businesses.  Although, maybe this model of fake snow and ski rentals will allow the plebes to keep their hand in.

Skiing was a lot of fun.  And back in the 1960's, it wasn't unusual for a middle-class family to all go skiing on a regular basis during the winter.  Of course, today we have realistic video games (e-sports, they call them!) and social media competing for our time.  And today's youth is woefully out of shape.  It would be suicide to go skiing if you weighed 300 lbs or more - you would break more than a leg.

Kind of sad to see that era pass.   We might not be able to change the snow, but we can change other things...