Monday, April 22, 2013

Ski House on a Slippery Slope

The Ski House of the Day is located at the world class ski resort of Snowbird, Utah.  Situated directly across the street from the mega-resort, this ski house is perched above the road majestically overlooking Snowbird's base area.  The awesome setting is striking from the tram (you can see the house at about 1 minute into this tram ride video).

I'm told by the locals that this impressive ski house is the mountain home of the owner of Snowbird, who is an accomplished skier, climber, overall mountaineer, and self-proclaimed committed environmental steward.  But he is also a wealthy Texan, oilman, business tycoon, investor, and the developer of a proposed large-scale coal mining operation in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of Alaska.

This ski house, which sits alone among the tall pine trees dotting the steep side of the canyon wall... essentially a concrete bunker, and for good reason.  The house, like the surrounding area, is directly in the line of avalanches, so the structural concrete is necessary to withstand the force and snow-load during an avalanche.  Some of the buildings at Snowbird are likewise made of concrete (and some even are equipped with heavy-duty avalanche doors that slide over the balcony sliding-glass doors) for avalanche protection. (To me, these avalanche protections seem as ominous as they are reassuring).   Previously a mining town, Alta in the 1800's was crushed by such avalanches, like the one in 1885 that buried the town under 50 ft. of snow killing many of residents.  I can't help wondering whether those miners, in their quest for wealth from the Earth, had become blinded to the risks on this very site.

Avalanches aren't the only threat to the area too is the threat posed by the gathering storm that is climate change.  Like the unstable, unseen layers of snow that build up to cause an avalanche...the unstable layers of greenhouse gasses generated by continuous burning of fossil fuels, are unseen but gathering, and quietly gaining the power to destroy us.  So while this house may be made of concrete...strong enough to withstand the full force of an avalanche...what about the newer threat...what is its protection from climate change?  And, more importantly, what is the protection for all of us from the threat of climate change?  Concrete bunkers won't do it...and I'm not sure we've learned the lessons of those Alta miners about being blinded to the risks during a quest for wealth.  It's time to remove the blinders before we (like the Alta miners) are all wiped out.

Anyway, getting back to the ski house...the entrance right along the road consists of nothing more than garage doors, and is presumably the service entrance as there are regularly commercial vehicles in the driveway:

From a short distance down the hill you can see this imposing ski house fortress in all its glory:

The house seems to rise up out of the mountain reminiscent of an enormous concrete mine shaft, a fortress from the elements, or a theme-park thrill ride.  Maybe it's a bit of all three.  But whatever it is, it's quite impressive.  Presumably the tall, narrow concrete structure is an elevator which connects the house to this entrance at the road level:

The private entrance is by way of a very long, very private driveway that winds over mountain terrain to the front door.  I checked out a satellite view of this intriguing ski house to see whether the local legend is true that the house is designed in the shape of Texas (possible but inconclusive).

But something I did see in person, was the stunning view all around this ski house.  With a sundeck off the side and enormous windows facing out over Snowbird, here's a hint of the view from this house:

Although it's agreed that Snowbird is indeed a beautiful and  spectacular place to ski, my sources inside the Alta/Snowbird "ski bum" and local skier community tell me that there is disdain for the owner's recent expansion of Snowbird into a grander resort because, they say, it diminishes its authenticity for "real" skiers.  These moves include things like the construction of the Peruvian Tunnel tunnel through the mountain, the installation of a "Disneyland-esque" magic carpet ride to facilitate greater access to the far side of the mountain, constructing an off-season mountain "roller coaster" (set to open this summer), and the new "nature" ski expeditions on a loud, heavy, fuel-guzzling snow-cat.  Fun attractions for many, but these expansions are perceived as a capitalist carnival by purist skiers.  And I think they may be onto something even more important than skiing purism.  How far do we push nature in the quest for financial gain?  Like Snowbird's capitalist-carnival expansion, the expansion of mining for fossil fuels (a capitalist carnival in its own right) similarly takes us further away from the authenticity of nature, and makes the Earth itself less authentic for all of us.  Less authentic, less ski-able, less safe, less valuable, less livable.  It's something to consider today, on Earth Day.

But purists and ski-bums aside...let's give credit where credit is due...the owner is responsible for creating this world-class resort in the first place, isn't he?  According to Snowbird's website, the original dream belonged to someone else who had acquired the old mining claim with a vision and dream of building the ski area...the current owner came along a few years later with the financial means that made it a big Texas-size way.

The biggest and newest controversy surrounding the owner however, is his current proposal to build the largest coal mine in Alaska.  This coal mine is proposed on a pristine snow-covered Alaskan site that almost could be mistaken for Snowbird itself.   It bewilders me (and many others) that someone who owns a ski resort which depends on a pristine mountain climate for its very existence, can be planning a project that promises to destroy an untouched snow-covered Alaskan ecosystem, and which further promises to encourage global climate change which is destroying the environment that we all share for skiing as well as everything else!  As put by a member of the Sierra Club, this is the ultimate irony!  

The way I see it, this imposing ski house, like Snowbird itself,  is surely on a slippery slope since the snow that is its raison d'etre is threatened by the proposed mining exploits of its owner. 

Here's a little more food for thought on Earth Day.  In addition to a worsening of climate change, another consequence of this Alaskan mining project will be the destruction of the salmon habitat in the Chuitna River, one of the main rivers of the Cook Inlet (hmmm...I wonder if that salmon on the menu in Snowbird's "Alaskan Roll" will disappear too when this coal mine starts up -- maybe I better grab it now while it's still available).  

Regardless of the controversies,  like Snowbird itself, this concrete-reinforced ski house sure is impressive.  I just hope it's strong enough to survive the consequences of climate change that are, at least in part, being hatched within.

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