It’s all downhill from here: how skiing priced out the middle classes

As climate change turns more slopes to slush, the already exclusive sport is becoming even more rarified

December 19, 2023
Princess Diana and Prince Charles during a skiing trip in Liechtenstein. Image: Anwar Hussein / Alamy
Princess Diana and Prince Charles during a skiing trip in Liechtenstein. Image: Anwar Hussein / Alamy

Alpine sport owes a lot to posh, insane Englishmen. The Cresta Run, a death-defying Swiss toboggan track typically tackled head-first, on your stomach, was built by bored British guests of St Moritz’s Kulm Hotel in the late 19th century. And it was Sir Arnold Lunn, the son of a Methodist minister, who decided that skis—used as winter transport in Scandinavia for millennia—would be better suited to going downhill, very fast, for fun. In the Swiss village of Mürren in 1911, he inaugurated the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup, named after the eminent British Empire general who donated the trophy. It consisted of a three-mile trek across a glacier, then a 1,500-metre descent; a later, even longer race was named the Inferno. Lunn also invented the slalom race—“a fast ugly turn is better than a slow pretty turn”, he advised—and successfully got downhill skiing into the Olympics.

 It’s the time of year when today’s posh Englishmen and women start pining for their powder fix. This month, resorts across the Alps are opening for the season. It’ll be an even pricier one than usual. Number-crunching by the Telegraph has revealed that the cost of lift passes at many top resorts are rising far more drastically than inflation: up by 30 per cent in St Anton, Austria and Avoriaz, France since 2021; in Italy’s Sauze d’Oulx, up by 64 per cent.

Last season, record-breaking warm weather turned slopes to brown slush and prompted mass closures. There’s much more brown slush to come. Global warming has steadily stripped ski resorts of their snow. Across the Alpine countries of Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, average snow depth fell by 8.4 per cent a decade between 1971 and 2019. A global temperature increase of only 2C will still mean a quarter of European ski resorts will be short on snow every other year. 

As ideal or even passable conditions for skiing become more intermittent, and more confined to the highest-altitude resorts, the price of the sport will invariably rise even further—especially given the cost of putting down artificial snow, estimated at €136,000 a hectare. Those price rises will push many people out of the market. As Adam Tooze has observed, this is already happening: the annual number of global “skier-days” has plateaued, which in a world of increasing population and income means it must be getting more exclusive. 

Of course, skiing has always been exclusive. In Britain, it’s synonymous with financial and class privilege. In the 2011 romcom Chalet Girl, working-class skateboarder Kim goes to the Alps as a seasonal worker, masters snowboarding, and falls in love with rich kid Jonny. She’s only hired as a last-minute replacement for someone who breaks her leg—most chalet girls (and boys) are as posh as the guests they look after. When Kim lines up for her interview, the other, comically Sloaney applicants call out their names: “Henrietta, Isabella, Petronella”. A French skier in the French Alps will encounter poorer French locals serving their fondue and driving their airport transfers. But the only Brits around will be there for pleasure; their experience will be one of social homogeneity.

The ski slopes are a space where the British upper middle class gets a sense of itself. No-one can hide their upbringing, because people that skied as children will be more proficient than those who didn’t. It’s a popular institutional holiday activity—university ski trips, and those organised by big companies, will be where the upper-middle-class sub-group gains social coherence and distinctness. I say upper­­ middle class because they’re just about wealthy enough to go regularly. The super-rich ski, but they also charter yachts and private jets. It’s the activities at the limits of your affluence that define you. 

As the snow melts, and skiing gets more expensive, its status as a definitional upper-middle-class activity will melt away too. It will become the preserve of the super-rich and specialist athletes. The beginnings of this can already be seen in resorts like Courchevel, which have become ultra-luxe playgrounds for oligarchs, Russian or otherwise. Milan’s business class, who like to ski in Switzerland’s Engadin valley, have long surrendered swish St Moritz; instead, they own chalets and apartments in Celerina, the marginally cheaper neighbouring town. 

The upper middle class did well out of globalisation: their chosen industries, like law and finance, clung remora-like to burgeoning global elites. But melting mountains signal a more unsettled future, where the economic pressures of climate change raise the threshold needed to join life’s top table. Money managers will no longer run into those whose money they manage on chairlifts. Parents won’t be able to take their kids to the slopes they won their own ski legs on. The best of the professionals will slip back down to earth, while on the peaks above, the asset owners glide through the last of the snow.