How is climate change affecting winter holidays?

My heart sinks at the start of the interview. The voice that has answered the phone is breathless and bemused.

“Are you expecting my call today?” I ask.

“Well, I am, but I’m skiing,” Sally Guillaume apologises. She is founder and director of our adventure specialist Undiscovered Mountains, and has been running the company for over 15 years. She’s taking her guests cross country skiing around the southern French Alps as part of her winter activity holiday.

It’s mid-January. After a few warm, sometimes rainy, weeks at the start of the new year, the Alps have just had fresh snow. It’s all hands to the equipment – the snowshoes, the skis and the sledges – to celebrate.

Xania Wear, from our winter activity partner WearActive, was out the door too, taking guests on a winter walking holiday. “We’ve had an unexpected bit of snow – our guests are zipping down our road on rodels (sledges)!” Our conversations are postponed.

Climate change in the Alps

One week it’s -6°C and the next week it’s plus 3°C.
“One of the effects of global warming is that you can’t just decide to go skiing one weekend,” Sally explains, when we catch up again. “You have to go when you can.”

In the winter of 2022-2023, the Alps – like much of the rest of Europe – experienced a heatwave. Record-breaking high January temperatures combined with heavy showers put an end to December’s snowfall. As the snow melted away, so did the interest of travellers – half of France’s ski resorts closed during early January.

The heatwave might have been highly unusual, but it is part of a growing trend. Mountains are warming twice as fast as the global average and have been doing so since the 1980s. Some estimates predict that by the end of this century 50 percent of snow cover will be gone, even at altitudes above 3,000m, with the winter season consequently ending months earlier than previously.

“I’ve observed the temperatures rise and watched the glaciers recede more quickly year on year,” Saskia Anley-McCallum, founder of our eco retreat specialist La Source explains. She has been running winter holidays in France since 2008, including our alternative family winter holiday.

“You do worry about it,” Sally agrees. “You’re constantly looking at the weather. You ask yourself: should I be looking at other destinations?”

“One week it’s -6°C and the next week it’s plus 3°C,” says Xania. “Fluctuations in temperature have been the biggest issue.” Her guest house sits at 1,800m in Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria’s Eastern Alps. “We will have snowfall generally around early December but then in the middle of December it has been so warm – the snow has been sliding. That’s been a pattern for the last three years.”

Sliding snow leads to more avalanches in the mountains. It’s low risk for visitors, but it’s something they’ll hear about with increasing frequency.

The unreliable snow has been bad news especially for the skiing monoculture in the Alps, which has dominated the landscape since the 1960s. Struggling ski resorts have certainly had the most press.

But it doesn’t spell disaster for all winter holidays. Far from it.

As the snowline recedes up the mountains, you might be wondering how snow secure you’ll find your winter holiday. The key is to be adaptable, and be open to some new experiences.

Climate change affecting the ski season

The best time to go on a winter holiday is getting harder and harder to predict, but one thing’s for sure: the season is getting shorter, starting later and finishing earlier.

“About five years ago we stopped running trips over Christmas and New Year as we found that the snow was just not reliable enough,” says Saskia.

“Over seven years there’s definitely been changes,” adds Xania. “We have specialist weeks where we offer ski touring. Normal ski touring used to be from the end of March to April – that’s the popular time. With the rising temperatures here in our region, we’re having to move that forwards to February-March because it’s too warm.”

A shortening season affects resorts that need to make money from skiing – 100 days of skiable weather is generally considered the length of period needed to be profitable. It makes devising a specialist trip harder. But for non-specialised holidays, it shouldn’t affect your plans.

When there’s less snow, there are simply different activities to try. Companies like Undiscovered Mountains are trying to think year-round – offering, for example, walking holidays that become snowshoeing holidays.

“Year-round tourism is better anyway for the economy and more sustainable generally,” Sally says.
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Tips for winter holidays in changing climes

Take every day as it comes

Winter holidays are all about seizing the day – and the snow – as my early attempts at an interview show.

“We adjust our programme daily according to what the weather and the environment is doing,” says Xania. “We’re super aware of the weather – we’re at 1,800m and we’re very remote.”

The weather in the mountains changes quickly, and holidaymakers should be prepared to change plans with the forecast, to get the most out of the holiday.

“Over Christmas we had blue skies and the winter walking was beautiful,” Xania says. Then, when new snow comes, of course, out come the sledges again.

Prepare to go further afield

“We aren’t dependant on ski resorts. We can adapt and go where the snow is,” says Sally.

Small companies are going above and beyond to get their guests to the best weather conditions, including driving them at no extra charge to the next valley.

“We will do more driving,” Sally says. “We won’t charge the clients, but we are prepared to do that to make the most of the conditions.”

Guests, in their turn, could expect a few trips further afield – perhaps an extra hour or two drive in the day to find the best snow.

Less snow doesn’t mean no holiday

Small companies are devising original alternatives to the traditional snowy holiday to keep their guests entertained.

“It’s about being flexible and having alternatives up your sleeve,” Sally says. “Ice climbing is often affected, so we can do something else – for example, a via ferrata in the winter.”

A winter climb on the mountains is unusual, and not generally done, but shows the increasing resourcefulness of people on the ground.

“During the Christmas and New Year weeks, we offered some winter alternatives instead of being reliant on the piste,” Xania says. “We were able to winter hike, with a combination of hiking boots and snowshoes, we were able to rodel (which is Austrian for sledding), and with our guests we built a small jump park for our keen snowboarders. We also encouraged some guests to have a winter plunge in the river!”

There’s nothing like a bathing suit shot among all the ski onesies in your holiday snaps to make a trip stand out.

Bring hiking boots

“We always ask people to bring hiking boots – you need to wear them under the snowshoes,” says Xania. She describes a typical hike in the area: “We had hiking boots on, snowshoes strapped to rucksacks. Snow chains in the backpacks. We start on hiking boots, then we put on the snowshoes. Later we attached snow chains and hiked back up the hill.”

Sally had cross country skiers come out when the snow was less than good in early January. She asked them to bring walking boots, just in case. “I’ve been informing people beforehand,” she says. “If they’re prewarned they aren’t disappointed.”

Be like a local

Many local people don’t buy ski passes. They only ski when conditions are perfect – and they don’t expect perfect conditions on demand.

“Locals just do whatever the environment offers them each day,” says Xania. “A lot of people won’t buy a ski pass. They’ll hike up, meet their friends, and ski down once. It’s not about using all the pistes. It’s a social thing.”

It’s worth remembering that the mountains and their communities existed before the ski boom in the 1970s. They existed before fake snow too, and know well that there are different – and even more authentic – ways to experience the mountains.
The biggest shock we’ve had isn’t the snow – it’s the drought.

Don’t downhill ski

Artificial snow has been the artificial life support of the skiing industry for years. But it uses up valuable water at a time when the Alps are running out. The reservoirs in the Alps rely on snow meltwater to fill their stores.

“The biggest change we’ve had isn’t the snow – it’s the drought last year,” Sally explains. “That was the most shocking thing that we’ve ever experienced in this area.”

We’re against the use of fake snow. We also don’t promote downhill skiing because the amount of infrastructure that it requires puts a lot of pressure on the environment.

Skiing is becoming an agonising pastime. Not necessarily on holiday itself (unless you have a bad experience on a button lift), but in the months and weeks leading up to the trip. Potential skiers find themselves glued to weather cams, refreshing forecasts every day, and worrying about the snow. Skiing is an expensive pastime on which to roll the dice.

For some, it might be a relief to give that up, and try something new.

“We’re not a ski chalet,” says Xania. “Most of our guests are excited about the options when they arrive – about learning to do something different.”
I have taken the difficult decision to make this the very last year that I will run winter holidays.

Don’t stop going

There are casualties in the climate crisis, and these will only get worse.

“We have a lot of small, low-altitude ski villages – those are suffering really badly with warm temperatures,” says Sally. “They’re losing their clients to bigger, higher resorts.”

Companies have made hard decisions. “I have taken the difficult decision to make this the last year that I will run winter holidays and encourage travellers into the fragile mountains to ski,” says Saskia. “Instead, I am going to put my energy into activism and raising awareness about the state of our natural world through film and communications.”

It’s a drastic action that hasn’t been taken lightly. For some, staying on and keeping open as long as they can is very important, not just for themselves, but for their local area.

“You’ve got to take time to work with the local people,” Sally says. “You can’t just think, ‘This is bad; let’s go somewhere else.’ Instead, you have to think, ‘Let’s work with this destination; let’s keep it here.’ That’s the right approach.”

Positivity endures. For those looking for winter holidays: this is a chance to try something different. Take yourself off-piste – discover a winter holiday that is closer to nature and closer to communities. Reapproach the mountains with the appropriate wonder. And, when there’s fresh snow, put your phone on silent.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dino Reichmuth] [Climate change in the Alps: Rene Reichelt] [Don’t downhill ski: pxhere]