Wake Up Call

As the ski community mourns the loss of an iconic piece of skiing history, a sobering reality check settles in.

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When Level 1 broke the news that the famous Horstman T-bar had been removed from Whistler Blackcomb, it was a sad day for skiing. The surface lift was a cultural icon in the sport and responsible for some of the greatest summer freeskiing the world had ever known. Athletes like Mike Douglas and JP Auclair pioneered a new avenue for skiing on the Horstman Glacier, and groundbreaking summer segments from companies like Teton Gravity Research and Poorboyz Productions helped fuel the freeskiing explosion at the beginning of the millennium.

According to a statement from Whistler Blackcomb’s parent company, Vail Resorts, “over time, the Horstman Glacier’s profile has changed to the point the Horstman T-bar became inoperable and required us to remove it.”

To Mike Douglas, the Godfather of Freeskiing and longtime Whistler Blackcomb local, the removal of the Horstman didn’t come as a shock. “Having lived here as long as I have, I’ve been kind of watching that T-bar and that zone for a long time,” says Douglas. “So when I heard it was coming out a couple of months ago I wasn’t surprised. But it is sad, you know? There’s a big chunk of my personal history around that lift and that zone, and that’s sad.”

The direct threat of climate change poses challenges for future winters, but the sad truth is that oftentimes it takes something like the removal of an iconic T-bar to register the fact that this is a very real crisis and that the effects are tangible today.

Mike Douglas in a POW hat
Mike Douglas, president of Protect Our Winters CanadaPhoto courtesy of Mike Douglas / Protect Our Winters

Douglas was there when freeskiing was having its breakthrough moment and hasn’t stopped pioneering the sport ever since. From developing the first twin-tip ski with Salomon to traveling to Greenland with his company Switchback Entertainment to ski first descents and perform climate science, Douglas credits his awareness of the climate crisis to his love for skiing. He is now the president of Protect Our Winters Canada.

“Having the privilege to travel as a part of my job and to go visit all of these remote, mountainous regions in the world, and also having a glacier in my backyard, gave me kind of what I feel like is a front-row seat to climate change,” says Douglas.

Auden Schendler, the Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Snowmass, feels similarly. As an outdoor sports enthusiast, Schendler developed an affinity for caring for the environment at a young age. Although their backgrounds differ, both Schendler and Douglas have a deep love for skiing and share a common vision of the ski industry’s role in combating climate change.

Auden Schendler skiing
Auden Schendler on snow.Photo courtesy of Aspen Snowmass / Tomas Zuccareno

Schendler has led the charge at Aspen Snowmass for sustainability and transformed the company into an industry leader. He has helped develop a model for what he believes should be a waypoint for the rest of the ski industry in their efforts to combat a common threat. 

“We’ve got to have a different approach, and that approach needs to be two-fold,” says Schendler. “One, to the extent that we do projects at all, they should be nation-leading models for the industry and for the world that show the way for difficult-scale solutions. Second, the bulk of our work ought to be around power-wielding and movement building, because if we don’t have the political will, and eventually the right elected officials, we will fail on this.”

Both Schendler and Douglas would agree that the success of the fight against climate change can be largely influenced by the skiing community. “There is strength in numbers,” says Douglas. “You only have to shift the perspective of 3% of the population to create a movement. It’s those margins that are so important, and the way to shift that balance of power is by using numbers. We are much more effective as a group than we are one-on-one.”

Protect Our Winters recognizes the potential that such a passionate and affluent community holds, and attempts to wield it to their political will. “The vision of POW, really, is can you weaponize the outdoor industry and community like the NRA?” Suggests Schendler. “The outdoor industry is bigger, more powerful, wealthier, and more environmentalist than the gun lobby, but the gun lobby owns that issue in Washington and the outdoor industry isn’t even a blip. How do you change that?”

Auden Schendler on snow portrait
All smiles with Auden Schendler.Photo courtesy of Aspen Snowmass / Tomas Zuccareno

To both Douglas and Schendler, the answer is to speak up. “I think it’s past the point of staying silent and staying on the sidelines,” says Douglas. “As skiers, you know voting is super critical, but also use your voice. Join a group. The goal here is not to ruin your own life and live in a cabin in the woods by yourself and try not to breathe. The goal here is to make a massive movement that can create change at the scale we need.”

As for the industry, Schendler sees their role as not to “give awards for the greenest ski resort”, but rather to “mobilize itself as a political force and ask for sensible policies that will help solve the problem.”

“The fact of the matter is that climate change is real and the effects are going to start to become more and more evident in our lives in the coming years,” continues Schendler. “The skiing community is particularly vulnerable, for obvious reasons, and the Horstman T-bar is only the latest, all-too-real example.

It doesn’t have to be all bad though, because the same stoke that skiers share for snow can be channeled as a powerful driver of change. “My message to the people is don’t beat yourself up, don’t wither away in shame or guilt for what you do,” says Douglas. “We currently live in a fossil fuel-based society and there’s really no way around it. The only way we’re really going to get around this is if we get together and demand that we work towards making things different.”