As the climate changes, how do we ensure the future of the sport? In Aspen, and really in all of skiing, the person who has been asking these questions and prodding change is Auden Schendler, the resort’s vice president of sustainability. He’s in charge of Aspen’s clean energy plans and political activism, and he’s trying to unpack the existential threat of climate change while still running a business. I admire him a lot, because he seems to be able to balance realism with action.
Before I head out of Aspen I catch Auden at the sundeck on top of Ajax, where he is taking a conference call in the corner. A perk of his job is ski time, so after he hangs up, we head out. “Do you mind hiking a little?” he asks me, and when I say no he takes me around the edges of the ski area, and into the sun streak of Walsh’s Run to hunt out the dregs of the last storm. The heat has baked the top layer of snow to crust, but he carves cleanly through the bumps, upright, legs together like an old-school mogul skier, precise. Auden is jug-eared and wide shouldered and he’s a compelling combination of very smart and ski bum low-key — he can earnestly rattle off stats from IPCC reports, but he also tells me about his dude’s drinking club, and his days as a dirtbag doing fieldwork. He’s been obsessed with the West since he read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” as a kid in New Jersey. He came here for the access, he says, sweeping his arm at the stretch of the Maroon Bells in the distance, but he’s found a mission that carries him through the mountains with purpose.
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Auden, who has pushed for local clean energy, and national climate policy, is often the loudest voice in the conversation about sustainability in skiing. He thinks about that founding concept for Aspen — (Elizabeth and Walter) Paepcke’s vision for a better world — and how he can uphold it. “The vision is that you come here and you’re outside your normal life,” he says in the gondola car, unpacking the Aspen Idea. “It’s the idea of the good society.”
That good society sounds good, but there’s a gap between theory and practice. Auden’s not ignoring how short the timeline is to reverse the effects of climate change and make Aspen more sustainable. He knows that the problems are both global and local. He’s trying to come up with a model that will work here, but will also translate to places like Ski Santa Fe.
“We’re trying to stay in business forever. That’s sustainability,” he says. “And to do that, you’ve got to solve climate, you have to treat people well, you have to manage the local housing, you have to manage the local politics.” Part of Auden’s job is to try to reduce environmental impacts and emissions, while still maintaining a thriving, profitable destination business. That means sacrificing certain luxuries, like lack of density, but he says it can also mean things like better transportation, and cleaner energy. The hard part is changing the culture, and breaking down decades of what we think ski town living should look like.
After another lap, we hop back on the gondola and pull up our goggles to talk. He says he thinks about Cloud Nine a lot, and how it’s a distillation of the things he doesn’t like about Aspen: the excess and the way expensiveness and waste has become the whole point. It’s a metaphor for climate, too. Right now, Aspen is one of the most extreme examples of a consumption-based culture. Auden says the town is full of people who buck against sustainable changes like more efficient housing or public transportation, because they don’t want to limit their lifestyles. “Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from forty years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil,” Auden wrote in an op-ed. “They hate crowds — even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy.”
He mentions Telluride as a cautionary tale. Fifteen years ago Telluride bought all the land at the mouth of their valley and turned it into open space. When they tried to freeze the physical footprint they cut themselves off from growth. Housing prices went up, workers couldn’t afford to live in town, and the area started to feel ghostlike. Now, Telluride is building a boardinghouse to try to compensate for the lack of affordable housing. The local government says it’s necessary to house workers, but a boardinghouse isn’t the kind of place you’d want to live forever. There’s no pathway to becoming a local. Auden says that even if it’s not prosaic or popular, those towns can’t hold onto their images of idyllic isolation. You have to convert to renewable energy, figure out transportation, increase density, and limit industry growth, because otherwise mountain towns will eat themselves by trying to fight change.
“Urban planning is the crux of a lot of our sustainability issues,” Auden says. “One of the themes in mountain towns has been the corrosive challenge of NIMBYism, and the idea that to hold onto these wonderful places that feed our soul we have to freeze them in time. But if you freeze them in time you destroy them. There will be lines of traffic, no community, no one living in town. The only path to saving it is to accept that they will be different, and manage growth and change.”
Part of Auden’s vision of sustainability is the Paepcke-inspired model for creating the good society, full of creativity, joy, and nonlinear thinking. To house their workforce Aspen can build deed-restricted, dense seasonal housing in the town core, and support functional mass transit, from local commuter hubs, and from visitor destinations, like Denver. They can fund childcare, so workers can stay here with families. They need to pay decent wages. And they need to do all this while cutting their carbon footprint. He says those are hard problems, but they’re hardly impossible, and they’re crucial to maintaining the town’s soul. “Who is the community for? It sure as hell isn’t for the few rich people who can afford it. No one thinks it should just be for the rich,” he says. “If it continues to be a sport for the rich, and if you lose East and West Coast snow, it all falls apart.”
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For Auden, the ski bum is central to any mountain town’s survival. The value of the ski bum in society is a marker of a healthy Gini coefficient, and a diverse economy. “We have lost what I think is a uniquely American collectivist worldview,” he says. “We need to get back to it, to make decisions that are for the good of society. You have to say, ‘it might hurt me a little but I’m taking a bigger view.’”
If we want to save the ski bum, and the dug-in lifestyle that comes with it, we have to change the idea of what the ski bum is. Auden says that on some level, ski bumming is anti-citizenship. “It’s the idea of, ‘leave me alone, I want to live in this illegal unit, and I’m going to eat ramen and not play by the rules,’” he says. But if you’re intentionally disengaging, that means you have to accept that people who do engage get power, and make choices that impact others. You can’t have it both ways. Ski bums have to show up, otherwise it’s going to be a town full of mega mansions and the same economic divides and one-percent power that’s wreaking havoc across the country.
Auden eventually breaks away for another meeting, but I carry his words with me for the rest of the winter. The thing that hits me the most, moving through these towns, is that we’re the grown-ups now, my friends and me. We’re the patrol directors and the paper editors and the people in charge. Pat (Sewell) could probably be the mayor here if he wanted to. We’re not the newbie skids anymore. It’s up to us to make things better.
Later in the week in New Mexico we skin up the ski hill in the evening, climbing the edge of the groomer as the sun sinks low. I want to hold every second of that night: the blue-pink streak of the sky, the Snickers in the hut at the top, the way the cold grips the breath out of my lungs on the way down. If I were Auden, I would live under a veil of constant, climate-related anxiety. But he says, despite the urgency of global warming, he thinks it is possible to hold on to this place in some form. “I hike a trail near my house outside of Basalt regularly, and I was looking at it the other day and thinking that the development is mostly in the valley bottom, most of the land is protected,” he says. “We haven’t fucked up the whole thing yet.”
Excerpted from Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow by Heather Hansman © 2021 by Heather Hansman, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.
Heather Hansman is an award-winning journalist, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine, and the author of the books “Downriver” and “Powder Days” She lives in Durango, where she’s at work on a book about women in the outdoors.