Getty Images / WIRED
On the slopes, the overriding feeling is devastation. As resorts are laid waste to Covid-19, British ski instructors have been racing to beat a political flurry: Brexit. With the December 31 deadline approaching, hopefuls have had to complete a literal giant slalom within a fifth of the theoretical time it would take the world number one – equivalent to running a marathon in under two-and-a-half hours.
Dubbed the Eurotest, it’s a gruelling challenge. But it’s one that must be completed before the end of the year for instructors to earn the qualification to teach on European Union slopes, post-Brexit. That was until the final two exams of the year were scrapped because of the pandemic. With the next scheduled event not taking place until the day after the Brexit deadline, those who have dedicated their lives to a career in skiing face a future restricted to the British slopes – or the prospect of moving away from the sport altogether.
“The ongoing uncertainty means we can’t enter another Eurotest until the new year,” says British instructor Rob Greatbach. Currently based in Zermatt, Switzerland, he’s one of many who have taken to social media to complain about bearing the brunt of politics and the pandemic. “To fall at the final hurdle after ten years of hard work due to a lack of ability is one thing, but to be potentially denied the chance to even try, and make the final leap, is crushing.”
The heartbreak comes after the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced its withdrawal of a scheme which allows mutual recognition of skiing qualifications between the UK and the European Union. In effect, it placed the careers of 2,000 British instructors at risk. “Long-term, those already established in the government system of the European country in which they work will be able to continue to do so,” explains Hannah Elliott of New Generation ski school. “For those who haven’t yet, this winter is when they need to decide on whether to set up on a local government system – or leave their European instructing career behind for a life in the UK.”
British seasonal workers – the 25,000 or so free spirits and adventurers who typically staff the chalets and après-ski bars every winter – are also impacted. Come January 1, they face the prospect of three-month visa applications and hoping that prospective employers can prove that a local couldn’t do the job advertised. For young people, it’s a job opportunity that’ll soon melt away. “Our research shows that 87 per cent of UK seasonaires posted to the EU are between 18 and 34 years of age,” says Diane Palumbo of independent tour operator Skiworld and industry group Seasonal Business In Travel.
The ski resorts not in an existential crisis thanks to Brexit are also hurting thanks to political squabbling caused by coronavirus. While France has shut its ski lifts, they’re running in Switzerland. The bureaucratic shenanigans have meant Alpine destinations like Portes du Soleil can open its resorts on the Swiss side of the border yet, just a snowball’s throw away, they’re shut on the French side.
The knock-on effect from the pandemic and Kafkaesque politics is a deep hit on the industry which sends shockwaves across the Continent; its tremors are felt right down to the individual transfer drivers and freelance instructors; those who earn a living from skiing and provide essential services which enable the running of mega-resorts with multi-million pound infrastructure.
“Without an international season this winter – which is a 50-50 situation at the moment – we will see more ski companies go into administration,” says James Gambrill of the Mountain Trade Network, which works with businesses across the winter sports economy. “We’ve seen four UK tour operators already go bust in a couple of months. In March, many companies were able to cope with the curtailing of the 2020 season so long as they had this winter. But with so much uncertainty, that where we’ve seen Covid really bite.”
Most Alpine resorts are aiming to reopen in January. When they do, however, they face the logistical challenge of transporting thousands of skiers up and down mountains in the age of social distancing. In Verbier, Switzerland, bottlenecks have formed as people have queued for lifts. Barriers have since been installed, with police ensuring that the two-metre rule is followed. There’s no obvious technological solution, either. Amazon’s recent patenting of drone-powered, human-towing technology might one day replace public ropeways, but for now there’s no silver bullet to prevent queues from forming at either end of the slopes.
There’s also the pesky matter of the ski lifts themselves. While chairlifts are exposed to the elements, enclosed gondolas are more problematic in a pandemic. “Outside ski lifts move quickly, and you’re more likely to be sitting with friends in your own bubble,” explains epidemiologist Keith Neal, of Nottingham University. “Gondolas are the biggest risk on the slopes – everyone will have to wear a mask.”
Doppelmayr is one of the leading ski lift manufacturers in the world – its state-of-the-art 3S gondolas can whisk 5,500 passengers away every hour. But that’s providing that its cabins are packed with 38 passengers. With social distancing, those numbers become a fraction – queues at pre-pandemic levels would therefore take hours. Julia Schwärzler of the Austrian-based firm, stresses that the gondolas are very much Covid-compliant. “Our cabins are quite spacious, and thanks to efficient and natural ventilation systems, high air-quality can be reached.”
Lengthy queues are likely to be mitigated by capped visitor numbers this winter. It’s why après-ski nightlife will also look very different than it did earlier this year – when the crowded bars of the Ischgl resort in Austria became an epicentre for the virus. The 2022 season, however, could pose more of a challenge. The industry is betting on demand to rocket in a vaccinated, post-Covid world.
But with so many ski companies going bust, and UK entrants effectively banished by Brexit, there are worries that a weakened infrastructure won’t be able to keep up with a surge in snow seekers. “We’ve already lost a significant number of catered chalet beds – up to 40 per cent,” Gambrill says. “Then there’ll be fewer British bars, restaurants and those smaller cogs in the machine which makes the whole thing work.”
In the Scottish Highlands, the perfectly manicured slopes of the Alps make way for rough-and-tumble runs. Rather than fondue and fireplaces, old cafes make up the après-ski scene. In Glencoe, ski boss Andy Meldrum is preparing his slopes for a rise in British visitors looking to don their salopettes closer to home this winter. “We’ve already seen enquiries from people down south who are cancelling holidays and looking to Scotland, and those in tiers where they can’t travel yet.”
The resort has already whirred its chairlifts back to life – it hopes to welcome back 500 skiers a day from December 19. “We’ll have a simple policy: arrive together, ride together. If you’re in a bubble, you can ski together,” Meldrum says. Even with capped numbers, takeaway only cafes and zero indoor lifts, no ski resort can be completely Covid-resistant. “Simply given that everyone will need to go, the toilets are the only place we can identify where people are at small risk. It’s unavoidable.”
Meldrum estimates a shortfall of £750,000 caused by the March lockdown. This winter, it’s all about survival. “We had amazing snow and cover through until May – and we lost all that. Now, we have to put in all sorts of restrictions. It’s going to be really difficult. The best we can hope for this winter is to come out not losing money.”
From Brexit to Covid, the ski industry is seemingly slaloming from crisis to crisis. And there’s another storm which hasn’t gone away: climate change. Many resorts are slowly melting – most are supplemented by power-hungry snowmaking machines. Gambrill, however, is optimistic. “The positive is that we have a little more time compared to Covid and Brexit. And we also know what we need to do. There might be a change in the seasonality – tourists will accept that they can’t necessarily ski in late April unless conditions allow.”
And if resorts can make it through this winter, there could be light at the end of the Alpine tunnel. “The industry is beginning to realise it’s more of a winter experience – you don’t have to ski every day,” says Gambrill. “Over the summer, we saw an increased demand for activity based holidays in the mountains and outdoor spaces. Post-Covid, the French Alps is a much easier sell than New York City. That’s where the opportunity lies.”
More great stories from WIRED
💡 2020 has been bleak but these 32 innovators are building a better future for us all
💬 All the ways Microsoft Teams tracks you and how to stop it
👟 Step out of the city with our pick of the best trail running shoes
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn