How Ski Resorts Work

By: Jessika Toothman
Winter tourists skiing down snowy resort slope via ski lift.
It isn't hard to imagine why the ski-resort industry didn't start to take off until it figured out how to offer easy rides to the mountaintop. See pictures of winter sports.

The idea of strapping two slender boards to your feet and zipping across an expanse of snow is hardly a new one. According to some sources, the earliest skis found to date are between 7,000 and 8,300 years old [source: International Ski Federation]. Made out of hard wood, these skis were crafted in Russia some 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from Moscow. Other ancient samples of skis discarded over the intervening millennia have been found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and lots of other locales. Ancient people even painted depictions of skiers on rocks.

Now done largely for entertainment and sport rather than utility and survival, downhill skiing enjoys steady favor among people in snowy climes and otherwise. These days, skiers usually hit the slopes at ski resorts -- ski areas that also provide lodgings -- to satisfy their cravings for outdoor excitement and physical challenge.


In the 1930s, lift systems designed to lug lots of skiers up snowy summits started to enter the mainstream, signaling the birth of the modern skiing era. Rope tows, J-bars and T-bars popped up around North America and Europe, and in 1936, the first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley, a ski resort in Idaho [source: Union Pacific Railroad]. The inspiration for the chairlift came from the banana industry, but instead of hauling bunches of bananas onto boats, the system featured chairs to transport people quickly and comfortably up vast mountains.

It's hard to imagine ski resorts today without picturing the sight of chair lifts -- and even in some cases a gondola or two -- cruising slowly up the mountainsides. Once there, whether your skill level enables you to take elegantly tight turns while whizzing down a black diamond, or to just lock your skis dead ahead and hope to survive a green circle, skiing can be an invigorating experience.

On the next page, we'll delve deeper into the world of ski resorts, popular with locals and tourists alike.


Ski Slopes

a skier
Choose which runs you ski carefully; make sure you don't overshoot your skill level.

Ski slopes come in all sorts of varieties. Some are fierce and steep, while others are mellow and meandering. Classification systems tend to vary from country to country, so it's important to make sure you know which symbol to look for at the head of a trail or you could find yourself in a world of trouble on the way to the bottom.

Some of the factors that ski resorts use to rank their runs include the grade, or steepness, of the trail, the width of the trail, recent snow conditions and the amount of grooming the trail receives.


In the United States, the three most common trail ratings are green circles, blue squares and black diamonds. Green circles are the easiest slopes, skiable by most beginners, while blue squares are generally for intermediate skiers and black diamonds are best left to the pros. In Europe things are a little different. European ski resorts tend to label all their runs with circles, with difficulties ranging from piece-of-cake greens through beginner blues, intermediate reds and expert blacks. Luckily for any U.S. skiers traveling abroad who might be unaware of these subtle differences, green and black still both respectively signify the easiest and most difficult runs.

Depending on where you're skiing, you might also spot an elusive double (or even triple!) black diamond trail, which are usually as steep, narrow and ungroomed as regular black diamonds, but sport even more challenging features like massive moguls, drop-offs or tree-clogged intervals. There are a few other ways you might see ski slopes classified, too. In Europe, for example, yellow often lets skiers know the trail hasn't been groomed, which can make skiing more of a challenge. Terrain parks -- areas that feature extras like jumps, jibs and half-pipes -- are often labeled with orange ovals or rounded-off rectangles in the United States.

It's also important to keep in mind that different resorts often have different interpretations of which trails should fall into which categories, so it can be a good idea to do a little homework before you hit the slopes -- otherwise you could be the one doing all the falling.


Ski Conditions

fresh powder
Love that powder!

There's a whole spectrum of snow conditions skiers will potentially find waiting for them up on the slopes, ranging from powder all the way to ice. The former is greatly preferred, since the icier and choppier the conditions, the more difficult and dangerous the skiing. Lots of factors affect snow conditions, including snowfall, temperature, altitude and ski traffic. A basic rundown of the various quality levels of ski area snow include:

  • Powder: This is recently fallen snow that has a soft smooth surface. Pristine powder is greatly prized among skiers and snowboarders because it makes trying new tricks easier, and provides more cushiony landings should the stunts backfire. Fresh powder also facilitates cleaner turns and faster speeds.
  • Crud: As more people cruise through an area of fresh powder, it eventually turns into what's charmingly known as crud. Crud is characterized by crisscrossing areas of tightly crunched snow amid pockets of remaining powder.
  • Crust: Crust is one step down from crud. Changing temperatures force the uppermost layer of the snow to melt and refreeze, usually causing a brittle crunchy surface to form on top of softer underlying snow.
  • Slush: If the sun's shining and skiers are starting to grow warm enough to peel off their heavy winter jackets, chances are you may see some slush in the course of the day as the snow begins to melt in spots. Slush is heavy and wet, which makes maneuvering on skis a bit of a hassle, but it's still not as bad as the worst snow condition.
  • Ice: Ice (or, to be more technical, snow that has melted and refrozen numerous times) takes the cake as the least popular remnant of precipitation you can have hanging around on a ski slope. Ice is hard and slippery, which makes it eminently difficult to ski properly and more than a little painful when you fail.


Environmental Impact of Ski Resorts

Squaw Valley Ski Resort
Squaw Valley Ski Resort is a good pick for skiers looking to diminish the environmental impact of their winter adventure.

The ski resort industry has an indisputably large environmental impact. Slopes and lifts cut wide swaths across formerly pristine forest mountain habitats, illuminated snowcats growl through the night as they groom the trails for next day's skiers, snow cannons pump out artificial snow which wreaks havoc on native vegetation, swarms of tourists arrive in pollution-sputtering cars, and budding amenities and urban sprawl intensify these issues. In fact, many ski resorts are already beginning to feel the first stages of climate change. Studies report 20 percent less snow in alpine skiing areas below a mile (1,600 meters) in altitude and current forecasts estimate that within 50 years many of those ski resorts won't be able to continue business [source: The Independent].

That's not to say some ski resorts aren't working to lessen their environmental impact, however. Some of the many diverse measures being implemented include solar panels, wind turbines, low-flow toilets, recycling initiatives, bike-sharing programs and erosion-reduction techniques. Education and awareness programs are also gaining popularity, as studies have shown that while skiers enjoy their sport, they'd prefer it didn't have to be at the expense of the environment.


Organizations dedicated to assessing the environmental impact of ski resorts have started popping up; two are the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition. They seek to identify which ski resorts are the most environmentally friendly based on a number of criteria such as:

  • Traffic mitigation and elimination strategies
  • Fuel-efficient and energy-saving tactics
  • Sound water-management practices
  • Climate protection and habitat conservation
  • Waste-stream management improvements

Ski resorts lose points for activities like terrain expansion, real estate development, road construction and parking lot construction. For skiers interested in frequenting more environmentally friendly ski resorts, the Web sites offer lists of both top performers and worst offenders. Other ways skiers can reduce their impact on planetary woes include finding greener methods of transportation, avoiding littering while on the slopes and sticking to the trails to avoid disturbing wildlife any more than necessary.

Speaking of sticking to things, we'll talk about ways to stick to the rules while visiting a ski resort on the next page.


Ski Resort Rules and Regulations

Skiing and snowboarding are energetic excuses to get out into the great outdoors, breath some sweet mountain air and test your physical abilities against some of nature's most challenging terrain. Unfortunately, many things can go wrong on the slopes. Skiers can lose control and slam into fellow enthusiasts, snowboarders can attempt tricks beyond their abilities and suffer fatal spills, and wrong turns can leave adventurers stranded in deep snow, too far from others to be seen or heard until the cold dark night swallows them up.

Avalanches, heart attacks, regrettably situated trees -- all potentially spell disaster up on the slopes. The kicker is that there's not an awful lot that ski resorts can do to mitigate these dangers beyond posting warnings and trying to keep visitors informed. The fact remains, if you take a plunge down a steep snowy hill or off the edge of a half-pipe, you're taking a certain amount of risk along with it.


According to the National Ski Areas Association, between the 1998/1999 and 2008/2009 ski seasons, an average of about 40 people died each year in the United States while skiing or snowboarding, through a variety of circumstances. However, considering that during the 2008/2009 ski season skiers and snowboarders spent approximately 57.4 million collective days hitting the slopes, that's a relatively low number, especially compared to other sports' fatality rates such as swimming [source: National Ski Areas Association].

So what are some of the tips ski resorts offer for staying safe? Probably the most practical are to always stay in control and always be aware of your surroundings. Out-of-control skiers are not only dangers to themselves, but to everyone else on the run with them. If skiers wipe out, it's paramount that others be able to stop or go around them rather than cause a potentially fatal -- or at least very painful -- pile-up. When it comes to keeping an eye on what's going on around you, keep a few things in mind:

  • Skiers ahead of you always have the right of way -- they don't know what you're doing back there, after all.
  • If you're about to start cruising down a slope or the trail you're on is merging with another one, be sure to yield and give a glance uphill to make sure you're not launching yourself right into someone else's path.
  • Before making any twists or turns onto different trails, take a good look at the new run to make sure there aren't any signs posted that indicate it's above your abilities, closed or both.
  • Avoid stopping in anyone's way. Sure, smack in the middle of a trail might seem like the place to discuss a break for lunch, but it definitely is not.
  • Finally, be certain you know how to ride the ski lifts. Better to sound a little silly for asking than to find yourself stuck on the ride of shame back to the bottom because at crunch time you didn't know how to diembark.

For more links on everything from snow mobiles to sled dogs, skip over to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Davis, Mark. "Union Pacific Invention Still Takes Skiers to the Top." Union Pacific Rail Road. Feb. 27, 2006. (11/30/2009)
  • "European Ski Trail Ratings." Mountain Heaven. (11/30/2009)
  • International Ski Federation Web site. (11/24/2009)
  • "Is it Possible to Ski Without Ruining the Environment." The Independent. Feb. 6, 2006. (11/23/2009)
  • Kuyper, Theodore. "Ski and Snowboarding Law in Colorado and British Columbia: Fair Waiver or Unconscionable Terms?" Washington University Global Studies Law Review. (11/30/2009)
  • Lund, Morton. "Ski History Timeline." The International Skiing History Association. (11/30/2009)
  • Madigan, Chris. "How green are your vallées?" The Guardian. Dec. 23, 3006. (11/23/2009)
  • National Ski Areas Association Web site. (11/23/2009)
  • Ski Area Citizens' Coalition Web site. (11/23/2009)
  • Ski Club of Great Britain Web site. (11/24/2009)
  • "Ski Resort." The Free Online Dictionary. (11/24/2009)
  • "Ski Trail Ratings." (11/30/2009)
  • "Snow Types." (11/30/2009)
  • "Types of Snow: Crust, Crud, Slush, Powder, Ice." (11/30/2009)
  • Wilson, Brian. "Ski Terms." Brian's Ski Epic. (11/30/3009)
  • Vail Ski Resort Web site. (11/30/2009)
  • Yates, Lisa. "Ski Resorts Celebrate National Safety Awareness Week While Keeping Patrons in the Dark About Safety Plans." California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization. Jan. 16, 2009. (11/23/2009)
  • Zehrer, Anita. "Ski Resorts in North America -- What Makes Them Different..." European Academy Bozen/Bolzano. Dec. 13, 2004. (11/24/2009)