How this Austrian ski resort is preparing for a snowless future
By Denis Hruby
ST. CORONA AM WECHSEL, Austria - In this village at the foot of the easternmost reaches of the Alps, the climate catastrophe became evident in December 2015.
A ski town for four decades, its villagers would usually be wearing puffy coats and knitted hats. Instead, a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit forced them into cargo pants.
"I was sweating, in every sense," said Karl Morgenbesser, a former ski instructor. At 34, he'd just taken over as general manager of St. Corona's once-bustling ski resort. A warming climate, however, was rendering skiing unappealing to investors.
Public subsidies for the resort, which is owned by a development arm of the regional government, had already been cut off.
If cold winters were disappearing, Morgenbesser thought, why not pivot to summer?
Initially, the idea of reorienting the town's economy from cold to warm weather was met with ridicule. Skiing is practiced by a third of Austrians, making the sport not just a major source of income but a cultural touchstone, too.
But the sight of the muddy mountainside, dotted with tufts of grass at the beginning of the usually lucrative Christmas holidays, made villagers rally behind Morgenbesser. "It proved that we could no longer rely on skiing," the father of two said. "In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise."
In the five years since, St. Corona achieved where hundreds of other low-lying ski resorts have struggled. It transitioned from a victim of climate change to an example of adaptation success. And it's now leading the way for other communities nestled among the Alps.
In summer 2016, St. Corona opened a summer toboggan course that's akin to a roller coaster, as well as a bike park for children and an activity and climbing space. In 2017, those activities lured more than 7 000 paying visitors. That was enough justification for the regional government and the village, population 400, to invest further.
They built landscaped summer hiking paths themed around ants and created stand-up paddleboard rentals at the reservoir lake. Most importantly, Morgenbesser devised a vast network of mountain biking trails, suitable for every skill level and age group.
In 2020, the village attracted more mountain bikers in summer than skiers in winter. About 200 000 visitors came to St. Corona last summer, 35 000 of whom were bikers. Many were from Vienna and opted to vacation closer to home during the coronavirus pandemic, as opposed to more traditional summer vacation spots in Spain and Greece.
"Essentially, we doubled our numbers each year," Morgenbesser said of the paying bikers. The summer season now offsets any losses incurred from unpredictable winters. "And summer is growing," he said.
Traversing France and Switzerland, then arching through Austria and swaths of Germany, Italy and Slovenia, the Alps are not only the most populated mountain range in the world, but also the most visited. About 120 million tourists travel here each year, many of them lured by the 1 100 ski resorts that dot the slopes below its snow-capped peaks.
But since the 1960s and '70s, when skiing began driving the economies of thousands of villages, the Alps have warmed at twice the global average. Billions of dollars have been invested in snow-making technology. Elaborate networks of snow cannons that spit man-made powder over slopes were installed to guarantee a winter wonderland.
And yet if the climate warms by another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a third of resorts in the eastern half of the Alps will be too warm for snow - natural or man-made - to stick to the ground throughout the ski season.
"When it's too warm, the snow melts - period," said Reto Knutti, climate scientist and professor at Switzerland's ETH Zurich university. "It's simple physics."
St. Corona offers a blueprint to survival - and the ski industry is taking note. About 30 ski resorts in Austria, Italy and Switzerland have sent fact-finding delegations to the village.
"We can definitely tell that summers are getting longer and warmer, and we need to offer something besides skiing," said Armin Kuen, general manager of the tourism board of Fieberbrunn in western Austria, who recently joined his colleagues on a five-hour bus ride to St. Corona to learn about its adaptation.
Mountain biking seemed like an obvious fit, but Fieberbrunn officials weren't convinced. "They thought of these crazy, rowdy bikers darting down the mountain," Kuen said. "And we're more relaxed, and very much about families."
When his group arrived on a sunny September afternoon in 2020, they did indeed spot daredevil bikers in protective gear. But they also found elderly people breezing uphill on electric bikes, children playing in the bike and climbing park while their parents ate brunch, and young couples checking out the once-dilapidated restaurant that had just reopened as a mid-century-style wedding venue.
"It's a prime example to make summer in the mountains attractive for literally anyone who can ride a bike, from downhill professionals to little ones and grandmas," Kuen said. Fieberbrunn is now in the process of creating a biking trail for beginners.
Neighbouring Saalbach, due to host its second skiing world championships in 2025, already has a network of trails. Inspired by St. Corona, it plans to better integrate with the regional bus system so that specially outfitted buses can ferry cyclists and their bikes from the bottom of trails to the top. It has already modelled a bike park for small children after St. Corona's.
Schladming, which has twice hosted world ski championships, also took a page from St. Corona's book.
Though it had long invested in summer, downhill mountain biking had plateaued, said Georg Bliem, the general manager. A trip to St. Corona, he said, "was the most valuable fact-finding mission we took in the past 20 years."
With ease, the visitors from Schladming coasted down a mountain bike trail with banked curves and small jumps, all cleared of roots and pebbles. As soon as they returned home, they began building more than 11 miles of bike trails, a new children's bike park and other attractions.
The number of tickets sold in Schladming to warm-weather mountain bikers has ballooned from 9 000 in 2018 to 45 000 in 2020. And it's growing. This year, an additional 4.5 miles of bike trails will be dug into the mountainside.
While climate change reveals the benefits of diversification little by little, the pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions have done so in an instant.
France and Germany have kept their ski runs shut this winter, while Switzerland's and Austria's are largely devoid of foreign tourists. "The resorts that diversified, that have been offering hiking, culture, cycling, wellness, they've been doing much, much better" in coping with the economic impact of the crisis, said Matthias Horx, a German futurist who is examining the pandemic's lasting impact on Alpine skiing.
The pandemic will reset the ski industry and prompt resorts to reconsider their investments, he said.
In addition to its position as a thriving summer resort, St. Corona is now reaping an added benefit. Named after the patron saint of pandemics, the village is drawing day trippers seeking to snap a photo of its street sign as well as pilgrims who want to pray at the altar of the saint.
This winter has been surprisingly snowy in St. Corona. A new lift built last summer to tow mountain bikers up the peak is now pulling skiers.
"With climate change, we need to be adaptable," said Morgenbesser, whose name translates to "a better tomorrow." He didn't want to say what he thinks the future will hold - not in 20 years, or even just in 10. He just offered simple advice: "Don't bet on one horse."