Review of Downhill Slide by Hal Clifford

This is a review of the book  “Downhill Slide” about the North American ski industry.  The author, Hal Clifford, basically chronicles the development of skiing in North America, and how the activity changed from being a pasttime of a small group of enthusiasts (like the defunct Moosilauke ski area), to initial resort-style developments (starting with Sun Valley, through the 1960s and 1970s boom), to a diversifying industry where the pace is set by three large companies that own numerous resorts (two of which are traded on Wall Street) – American Ski Co, IntraWest, and Vail Co.

One of the central questions posed by Clifford is why ski areas continue to expand into new terrain, build new lifts, and especially build new real estate, while the market has essentially remained flat.  The number of skier/boarder days has not grown in some 20 years or so.  (People now mix ski holidays with beach holidays, with holidays chasing butterflies through the Amazon, communing with Tibetian monks, etc).  One of his conclusions is
that these ski companies are largely real estate development companies that use skiing as a ‘decoration’ to make their real money off of condos and disney-like “Villages”.

Some of the chapters investigate interesting facets of the story.  One looks at the planning, marketing, and business logic of the base area Village, especially as created by Intrawest (Tremblant, Copper, Whistler, etc), how these places are at the same time masterpieces of the creation of comfortable, attractive, places that meet our image of what ski towns should be like, and also well-designed machines to feed even more money into the company.

Another looks at the environmental impacts of ski resorts, and another at the social side of the story.  Echoing a recent article of his in the High Country News , Clifford looks at how towns like Leadville, Colorado host a burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants who commute several hours a day to clean hotel rooms, condos, and do dishwork in resort restaurants.  He talks a lot about how the fabric of ski towns has changed.

Throughout, Clifford waxes nostalgic for the “good old days” of skiing, when mountain towns hosted (in his view) an egalitarian, healthy community whose concerns were not money, but skiing.  The good old days when stores would close on powder days are gone, he laments.  His conclusion points to community-owned or cooperative ski areas, such as Mad River Glen in Vermont, as a new model. While the book goes a bit overboard in its nostalgia and its anti-company, anti-business rants (and Clifford is a tad redundant at times), it is full of infdownhill slide cover imageormative stories and juicy pieces of research, well worth a read.  He asks good questions about the shape of the ski “industry” in a changing world, in a changing times.

The book was also reviewed by the Economist (Jan 4, 2003), which honored it just by reviewing it, but ridicules much of it.

Reference:

Clifford, Hal (2002).  Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (ISBN 1578050715)

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