“Wow, how long did that take? A couple of days?” a friend has just asked me, when I heard that I took the train to my ski holiday in the Alps. Two days might be a reasonable estimate – the Swiss Alps are a long way away, after after all – until you think about how fast and convenient traveling by train across Europe really is.
Less than 10 hours after walking into London’s St Pancras International station, we step onto the platform at Sion in the Valais, ready to speed up the steep mountain roads in time for a beer before the sun goes down. down. The après-ski starts now, even if the skiing itself has to wait until tomorrow.
This is my first time on the slopes, in what the organizer, Ed Hopkins of Dark Green PR, calls “the most sustainable ski trip in the world”. A lifelong skier, Ed’s passion is to push skiing to a greener path as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the snowless slopes we saw at Christmas and New Year will be a recurring theme.
“It’s about showing what’s possible,” he explains as we pass through the Channel Tunnel on the Eurostar. “Ski resorts understand what needs to be done, but they’re not doing it. I wanted to put together a trip and say, ‘this, this is how you keep emissions down and still have a great ski holiday’.
“The industry urgently needs to move away from the luxury-driven, steak-and-racette, jet-setting model, or it will not survive.”
The industry urgently needs to move away from the luxury, steak-and-raclette, jet-set model, or it will not survive
Ed Hopkins, Dark Green PR
Arriving at our resort in Anzère, we are surrounded by hundreds of other ski enthusiasts from all over Europe, most of whom have traveled by plane to Geneva Airport. According to snowcarbon.co.uk, a website that encourages travelers to travel by train to the slopes, well over half of your ski holiday emissions come from flying there.
Travel differently and you can make a big impact on the environment. The statistics are impressive: our trip, which involved three electric trains and a metro across Paris, generated only 5 kilograms of carbon dioxide each. This would be 127kg CO2 if we were to fly*. Add to that our taxi up to the resort, a Tesla no less, cut from a solar panel in the owner’s garden, and we are doing well.
A beautiful benefit of low-emission travel is comfort. Give me laptop space, leg room and looking out the window any day. A few hours after leaving the UK, we are surrounded by the snow-covered foothills of the New Zealand Mountains; about an hour later, we’re splashing alongside the vast Lake Geneva, fairytale castle and all. There is time to think, work, chat, sleep, whatever we choose. Time spent traveling is time well spent.
On the first morning, I am in the beginners’ area, while my more experienced colleagues go on the red runs. I’m wearing clothes from EcoSki , a company that provides ethical brands for hire – so you can have something new without owning something new. The all-important cold weather accessories were either from my local charity shop or borrowed from a friend. With the carbon footprint of the fashion industry becoming even higher than that of aviation, avoiding unnecessary emissions is an unnecessary step.
By lunchtime on the second day, I’m covered in blisters but I’m making progress, even staying upright — just about — on the 100 yards of black running that stand between me and our lunch spot. All our food on the tour is plant-based – widely regarded as the planet’s friendliest diet. Although I fear that the vegan offerings in a ski resort may not be too high, I am surprised: our cafe, Le Grenier de Zalan, has adapted its delicious polenta raclette for us, and the herb mushrooms on toast delightful Then there’s vegetable soup and tarte aux pommes – hearty, warming, delicious food washed down with une bière blonde.
In the evening, we sample the restaurants in the village, where we are treated to risottos and burgers – and plenty of frites. Gruyère land is not known for its vegan meals, but they are available if you ask.
One of Anzère’s proudest features is its biomass plant, the largest facility of its kind in Europe. This provides heat and hot water for 70 per cent of the properties in the village, saving between 1.5 and 2 million liters of heating oil per year. Most of Anzère’s electricity comes from hydropower, and some buildings have solar.
The resort knows its winter is in jeopardy and plans are underway for extended summer activities, when snow slopes cannot be relied upon to bring in tourists. For me, this already feels like giving up. The snow can still live – if we fight hard enough for it.
However, the challenge of completely overhauling the industry is huge. Non-flying routes need to be promoted much more, with incentives such as increased free passes for those arriving by train.
Moving away from the steak-and-cheese food model won’t be as palatable, but it’s arguably necessary as a response to the snowmelt climate emergency.
This was a free flight visit, and I’m back home after only four days away. My first ski trip wasn’t a disaster – I didn’t die or break anything – and on my last morning, I even did a red run on it.
People ask if we should be skiing at all in a climate emergency, but there is much to recommend it. Not many beats to be at the top of a mountain, above the cloud line, under a piercing blue sky, surrounded by snowy peaks. If it’s a postcard, that’s why it looks like it. It’s a great way to be active, and the relaxing setting, with plenty of fresh air, is the perfect antidote to our stressful lives.
So instead of giving up skiing altogether, we need to work out how to do it better. Who knows if I’ll be back? But if so, I’ll be looking for the smaller centers that don’t use snow machines and run on renewable sources. I will also ask for vegan meals, knowing that this will help encourage resorts to include low-carbon, plant-based offerings on the menu.
But, more importantly, for the planet and my sense of adventure as a traveler, I will always come by train.
Travel: Eurostar from London to Paris, TGV to Lausanne, Swiss rail to Sion.
*Carbon information from RailEurope.com
Anna Hughes is the director of Flight Free UK, a company whose mission is to raise awareness of the climate impact of aviation and encourage people to travel in alternative ways