The modern ski mountain is a cyborg. Hiking up the Ute Trail on Aspen Mountain the other day, I couldn’t remove the idea from my head. Among academics, the term holds great weight. It is associated with an influential essay by Donna Haraway named “A Cyborg Manifesto.” There, Haraway uses the concept of a cyborg to call on people to deconstruct the rigid boundaries between human and animal and human and machine. For ski resorts, it deconstructs the distinction between human technologies and natural realities. Much as Haraway argued we are all more than human. In conjunction with that claim the ski mountain, is more than a mountain.
People who write about the environment tend to write about hybrid landscapes. These spaces blend the distinction between human made space and natural space. It has been used to great effect. The concept of the hybrid brings clarity to spaces like the Pacific Crest Trail which are not so much access to an undisturbed nature, so much as they are spaces where human footprints, cultural expectations, and political calls for conservation meet thereby constructing the physical space and the meaning people derive from hiking on it.
While I have called artificial snow “cyborg snow,” I had never paused to think about the mountain itself. In part, this is because the effects of permanent technological implants are more difficult to observe during the snow-clad winters. But hiking along the Gent’s Ridge chair lift, the bulldozers and snow guns, the retention ponds and abandoned hoses, and the crab grass and dandelions all demonstrated to me how intentionally and unintentionally the mountain has changed and been changed. Further, it will be forever changed, if and when humans abandon it. For me, this permanence distinguished the cyborg from the hybrid. Ski resorts are more than mountains.
I’ve hiked this hike before. Every summer Sunday, Aspen holds a bluegrass show at the summit of the mountain. When my parents and I are both in town, I have begun hiking the trail for exercise before meeting them at the Sun Deck, for what (at least this time around) turned into beer, pizza, grilled cheese, fries, and some casual conversation with myriad Texans. But before the beer, I had to walk up. Ignoring my audiobook, I began thinking about the desires that injected new technologies and new ecologies into the seemingly unchangeable mountain-scape I was ascending.
It seems that every part of the ski area is mediated by human desires. For example, water pipes, used for snowmaking, are deeply submerged into the rock and dirt. The space on which we ski and on which trees grow are now part metal. The very composition of the mountain’s minerals, density, and purpose has changed. With hydrants popping out of the ground, this hydrological web works like a superhero’s arm that miraculously turns into a gun, a senser, or a laser. True, water hydrants lack the fantastical abilities of Nebula (Guardians of the Galaxy) or Cyborg (from D.C. comics). But they are more fantastical than they seem. Pressurized water, hidden underground, and sprayed out of a nozzle to make snow at one point could have qualified as science fiction. For skiers hoping to ski through and past the climate crisis, it may once again become just that.
While snowmaking is relatively new, only emerging in 1950, and only meandering west in the mid-1970s, ski areas have long modified and mitigated the outer layers of the mountain. People often think of these changes as temporary. For example, while I often think of nature reclaiming spaces. Insistently and incessantly, I remind people that it will be there after them. But I had to rethink the role of nature. In part, I had to pay attention to specific pieces of it, to the composition of plants, and access to sun. This walk called out to me. It told me that much like people who ingest a toxic chemical, even if most of it is eventually washed out, the person’s composition, their bodily reality, is forever changed. Recovery is never complete. This, in part, was Haraway’s point.
Meeting people’s desire for consistent snow has remade the ecology – and, as such, biology – of the mountain. This process started early on. Sun Valley, the first ski resort, learned their very first year that Alpine meadows of flowers and brush were mediocre surfaces for the collection of snow. Part of the reason they could not open until after New Year’s that year was because of poor slope preparation.
Other resorts did not make the same mistake. In the 1940s, in an attempt to solve the East’s snow problem, Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut tried laying down hay in order to better insulate the snow from the warm ground. Doing so was expensive – and it didn’t work great. But it was just one early variance of many future schemes. By 1950, ski resorts all over the country began realizing that summer maintenance was key to winter success. And the more permanent a solution, the more the very nature of the mountain changed, the more dramatic the shift in ecologic make up was, and often the more productive the solution was.
Even before the days of snowmaking, publications by Colorado Ski Country, USA demonstrate a continuous attempt by mountains to improve conditions by remaking the surface of the mountain. These publications were sent to individuals, ski clubs, and travel agencies. In the days when there was little immediate information and little press coverage for Alpine improvements, these pamphlets were ways for resorts to boast about their slopes and facilities. But first and foremost on every ski area’s mind was snow. And, almost every year throughout the 1960s, at least half the ski hills boasted that they had leveled key slopes, removed protruding stumps, and laid new sod, all to create a smooth surface for snow accumulation and to prevent erosion as rain and sun eventually melted the snowpack away.
Looking at the flowers and grass surrounding me, I realized the impacts of these decisions were visible. Far from surface level, this process began to remake mountain ecologies. While mountains post pictures of wonderful wildflowers covering their slopes, the images are rarely of a cut slope. That is not to say that flowers don’t bloom on ski slopes. I paused and stared, smelled, and photographed the many flowers that surrounded me. Nevertheless, dandelion and other weeds now hold dominion over the slopes.
Oftentimes the ski resorts are given a way out from this. For example, on a guided hike my parents took at the top of the resort, they were told how the dandelion seeds are brought up the mountain on people’s shoes. To an extent, this is likely true. But for those of us who hike regularly in the region, there is reason to be suspicious that us, as individuals, are responsible – even if we are complicit. This is because other hikes, of similar steepness and altitude, are largely free of dandelions.
Historian Gregg Mittman has eloquently demonstrated how allergy causing plants tend to follow human disruption. And ski slopes are no different. The plethora of weeds are a result of the suburban lawns and the access roads that Aspen built on their mountain. Like any front yard, crab grass and dandelions must be fought, if other plants are going to be given space to thrive – but the task on a ski slope would be impossible. The wildflowers are now simply visitors in this new ecology ruled by weeds.
Ski resorts are not necessarily evil places. At least not for these reasons. These types of impacts can be seen worldwide. Nevertheless, new plants, new metals, and new water are only part of the many things that make ski areas cyborgs. The sewage systems, electricity, and artificial ponds have all changed the very reality of the mountain. Without extensive surgery these pipes will never come out. Even with extensive human care, the slopes where sod, weed, and wildflower meet will never become the Aspen, Fir, and Spruce Forest that it once was. The impact of the ski industry on their mountains does not end on the level of landscape, it plunges into the mountains core. It changes the mountain’s very reality. And it serves as a reminder that mountain and technology do not fight, so much as they mix, mingle, and coalesce into a new reality.