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[44.0] the end times: featuring parking
a wintry dirge for a changing climate
Climatic clusterfuckery defined the Pacific Northwest last year, and winter was no exception; it came late to Western Washington in 2021. An unseasonably warm November struck a direct financial hit to local winter leisure industries.
The Seattle-area Crystal Mountain ski resort, formerly pristine forest largely clear-cut in the 1960s, normally opens to skiers and snowboarders in the middle of the month, but the mountainside was little more than a muddy slope and a growing money pit in November '21. Management rallied a pantheon of snow machines to create a wintry simulacrum, hoping to lure unfussier visitors and their deep Gore-Tex-lined pockets.
The seasons finally changed in early December with natural snowfall. For Crystal, which pulls winter-sports enthusiasts from Seattle and its moneyed suburbs, the snow alleviated some infrastructural pressure, but it soon confronted new issues: surges of skiers hoping to conquer the slopes; bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling along winding access roads; drivers turned away at full parking lots; bulbous, lethargic lines at chairlifts.
While Crystal’s spokespeople preached for calm and applied techno-fixes in the face of seasonal delays in November, they panicked more transparently in December. On January 1, 2022, Frank DeBerry, Crystal’s President and COO, announced a pell-mell lift reservation system, which would require all skiers, including season pass holders, to call dibs on weekend and holiday access. Then, facing a storm of critique, DeBerry released “The Way Forward,” a revised strategy centered around parking reservations, hoping to minimize bottlenecks on roads while maximizing boots on the ground and attendant revenue streams.
Veni, vidi, skici.
Crystal features 10 lifts, a gondola, and 85 ski trails. The land, near Mt. Rainier National Park, is the ancestral territory of the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, other Coast Salish, as well as Yakama people. Nestled in U.S. Forest Service land an hour from Muckleshoot Reservation, the resort is a direct offspring of settler-colonial policies that remove Indigenous people from their sovereign land under the guise of civilizational progress and Manifest Destiny. Indigenous people forced off their land and onto unfavorable tracts; repurposing the supposed terra nullius into state-sanctioned social infrastructure; today, stewarded by corporations, this social infrastructure is fracturing under the weight of climate change. With fallow seasons followed by overwhelming waves and shortages, Crystal’s fallible built winter landscape—cleared forests, chairlifts, gondolas, avalanche prevention systems, parking lots, plows, snow machines, restaurants, meteorologists, webcams, apps, and more—synchronizes with the weather extremes of climate change, as well as the waves of the coronavirus pandemic and crises of our global economy. Feeling the pressure, Crystal reacts with makeshift solutions, while its overseers expand their empire and climb to higher elevations.
Two conglomerates own many of the renowned skiing destinations in the United States: Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts Management Company. The slope-capitalist duopoly has acquired resorts at runaway speeds, including abroad, seemingly rushing to outdo the other. Since purchasing Crystal in 2018, Alterra has more than doubled day-pass prices in an effort to evangelize the IKON Pass (~$1000+), which offers access to 47 slopes, mostly Alterra-owned, spanning the globe. Vail sold its equivalent product, the “Epic Pass,” to more than 2 million people (!!) in 2021 as well.
This oligopoly has transfigured mountain ranges in line with their status as assets within a diversified portfolio—and they’re melting. Winters will become increasingly unpredictable over the coming years, and likely shorter: Between 1982 and 2016, snow seasons were shortened by 34 days, with snow cover falling 41%, on average. The industry will respond to demand with fixes that banalize a history of dispossession as well as our current climate emergency. When ecosystems and corporate structures converge, “winter” becomes a generic and fairweather product to be consumed rather than a climate to be defended.
These empires will do their best to survive and keep the machine humming. Vail and Alterra will probably look for new ecosystems to flip and replicate their extractive model in new locations. Commodify an environment, reward consumption, pivot to austerity, and then prospect some more. Their “Way Forward” in the years to come will certainly involve inhaling even more acquisitions in a concerning game of reverse-whack-a-mole, administering band-aids where economically necessary without abandoning their larger pursuit. We will meet our roller-coaster climate not with a reckoning, but with parking management.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.