Once snow starts to fill in the high peaks around Aspen, Colorado, a grueling annual ritual begins. From the 12,000-foot summit of Aspen Highlands, ski patrollers and ultra-fit volunteers step onto one of nature’s more exhilarating Stairmasters: the Highland Bowl. On double black diamond terrain, they hike in ski boots, uphill and down, through acres of thick snow. It’s utterly exhausting. But it’s also essential, the first step in a weeks-long process of snow-compaction that supports a safe ski season by stabilizing avalanche-prone terrain.
Like most die-hard athletes, skiers view their sport as metaphor. I run four ski resorts in and around Aspen, Colorado. The work we do in the Highland Bowl can be viewed as an example of good operational governance. Through unglamorous labor and a scientific understanding of the subject matter — in this case, snowpack — we create the underlying stability that allows our guests, and our business, to thrive.
The near perfect inverse of that? The Trump administration’s approach to running the country. Pick a topic — COVID, climate, social unrest — and the response is the same: freewheeling haphazardry at best (COVID), outright denial (climate, COVID), or, at worst, actively stoking intolerance (his tacit endorsement of white supremacy). The equivalent would be for the ski business I run to say, “Oh — avalanches happen. Get over it.” Then we’d lay off half of our ski patrollers and promote a sommelier to oversee snow safety.
But we don’t. Instead, we recognize and elevate expertise. We respect science. We assume gaps in our knowledge and have the humility to accept new information. We identify and deploy solutions, then course-correct. Businesses have to operate in a world grounded in reality and fact. Opinion, bluster, and wishful thinking will never overcome the truths about COVID, global warming, or economic inequity.
For us, representatives of a whole sector of business — outdoor recreation, which accounted for 2.2 percent of GDP or $427 billion dollars according to the Department of Commerce — there are many threats that require a rational response. A warming climate is high on the list. The Aspen area already experiences a month fewer days of winter than in the previous century. This summer, the second huge fire to scorch our valley in two years closed the interstate for multiple days, leaving only one road to deliver us food, gas, and other supplies. Fires, of course, grow hotter, larger, and more frequent in a warmer world. Yet we’ve watched the Trump administration roll back more than 100 environmental laws, unleashing an additional 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the air by 2035.
COVID has served as a beta-test of what a climate-changed ski season will look like, forcing us to shut down our ski operations just as we entered the last two weeks of March. With climate change, it will be heat that does that, not plague. Either way, losing the second half of that month, usually full of spring-breakers, makes our business nearly unviable.
Even before COVID, we saw a noticeable decrease in international visitation, which makes up 25 percent of our client base and an even greater percentage of revenue. Our guests cited Trump’s incendiary rhetoric as the reason. Now those customers can’t come here if they want to, because of the president’s failed response to COVID. Pandemic responses have historically been bipartisan and guided by the best thinking of experts. Not today.
Given these problems, skiing might seem like the last thing anyone should care about. But love it or hate it, it’s the anchor for our whole region’s economy, and that of many other parts of the country — from New Hampshire to West Virginia, Utah to rural California. That’s why I’m compelled to speak up.
In the Highland Bowl, we identify threats and try our best to boot pack them into irrelevance; our actions are guided by evidence and experience. We should behave the same way as a country. The first step is to vote in a new administration, one that will create, through good governance, a nation where citizens, like skiers, can focus on aspirations and progress instead of personal safety and economic survival. A nation with the societal equivalent of a stable snowpack.
Mike Kaplan is the president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Company.