How Do They Determine Which Mountains to Put Ski Runs On? (It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think)

by William Stupp | Updated On: September 29th, 2022
beautiful mountain

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It’s easy to tell which mountains people ski on. Even in the summer, you can usually see a maze of wide lines of grass amidst a forested slope. Ski areas above the treeline have telltale signs that extend well beyond the presence of visible chairlifts. But when the founders of ski resorts looked at undeveloped mountains, how did they know which ones to build on?

On the hunt for a new location for a resort, entrepreneurs scour geographical surveys to find areas with the right kind of topography for skiing. They also consider the accessibility of the area and must look into potential environmental and regulatory barriers to development.

What Makes a Good Ski Mountain?

There are many factors that determine whether an area is suitable for a ski resort. Foremost among them is the presence of snow, the area’s topography, the extent to which it is easily accessible by existing infrastructure, and the state of local environmental and development regulations.

a ski mountain

Topography

Most obviously, a ski resort needs a mountain or large hill with relatively steep slopes. A good mix of steep and gentle terrain is a big plus as it ensures skiers of all abilities can enjoy the resort.

No terrain should be too steep and surveyors must ensure that different areas of the mountain can be easily accessed (that is, there aren’t geographical barriers like ultra-steep faces or rock fields which might prevent people from easily getting from point A to point B).  

Bowls, a term for the topographical phenomenon of large circular or semicircular faces which are generally free of trees, are particularly attractive to people surveying a new ski resort.

They make great ski terrain because they offer a huge area to ski on and can generally be serviced by a single lift.

A Base Area to Build on is Another Big Factor

A large flat space upon which base infrastructure can be built is also critical. There are some resorts that make do with having very minimalistic bases, consisting of little more than a parking lot or train station and one building where food and drinks can be bought (like Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin), but the most financially successful resorts have large base areas on the level of a medium-sized town.

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good ski mountain

When there is ample room for restaurants, shops, and rental accommodation, resorts are more likely to flourish. More people come to ski when they know they can live comfortably at the foot of the mountain and resorts make more money when visitors empty their wallets on more than just lift tickets.

Towns like Vail, Colorado, and Saint Moritz, Switzerland are famous and successful not just because of their excellent ski terrain, but also because they are luxurious and full of amenities. 

The topography of the base area may not have a direct effect on the quality of a resort’s skiing, but the fact is that, for economic reasons, it plays a significant role in whether developers decide to build at any given location.

Infrastructure and Accessibility

Accessibility is essential for two reasons: construction cost and the likelihood of attracting guests. Building a resort is very expensive, and these costs will balloon if the building sites aren’t near existing infrastructure.

Ski Morzine

And if a resort is far away from major population centers or lacks reliable road, train, or air links, developers might reasonably doubt that many people will come and therefore decide the location is a bad investment.

There might be an ideal location in a mountain range somewhere, a small valley surrounded by high mountains on all sides with a beautiful face or two that would be perfect for skiing. If the only way into this valley is one pass which tends to be closed in winter, or an old dirt logging road, constructing at that location would be a nightmare.

Improving the roads would be very expensive and few developers would take the risk of spending so much given the chance that few skiers would come to such an isolated and hard-to-reach place.

A good location for a new ski resort needs road or rail links, accessible energy, and an available labor force.

Regulations and Environmental Concerns

ski resort2

Nations and municipalities don’t just let anyone build whatever they want, wherever they want. Those scouting for a new ski site must consider environmental and zoning restrictions that might prohibit building in a given area. 

In many countries, large swaths of alpine wilderness (the kinds of places one would consider for a potential new ski area) are owned or in some way controlled by the government. Depending on the country or state, governments may be very unwilling to allow developers to use the land, ask for significant compensation, or require the developers to jump through all sorts of regulatory hoops in order to use the land.

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Often these regulations are in place for the purpose of protecting the environment, another important thing for would-be ski resort developers to consider. Though people debate the extent to which skiing is bad for the environment, constructing and maintaining ski resorts certainly has an impact. 

That’s something developers have to take into account, especially if the area is home to rare animals or particularly vulnerable ecosystems. Vail was notably targeted by arsonists with the Earth Liberation Front as it was expanding on-mountain infrastructure in 1998.

A new ski resort in the works in Kazakhstan is currently under fire from protestors concerned about the effect it might have on snow leopards.

Whether out of their own desire to stay green and animal friendly or out of fear of attracting negative attention from environmentalists, developers have to consider how a location’s animal and plant life might be disturbed by the establishment of a ski resort.

An ideal location will have accommodating regulators and not be home to vulnerable species.

Surveying Potential Sites

Those are the major factors that determine what makes a good site for a new resort. But we haven’t addressed the question of how developers find suitable sites that meet the above criteria.  Paul Matthews, the man behind over 400 resorts, is a good person to examine as we try to answer that question.

Surveying through helicopters

According to his company’s website, Paul spends a lot of time in the air, flying over mountain ranges in helicopters and small jets looking for potential spots to make a new resort. After 35 years in the business, Paul seems to know the right terrain when he sees it from the air. 

Others with less experience will rely more on published geographical surveys and new research conducted by their team. They will survey from above but then send teams to visit the site to analyze its topography, assess any obstacles and complete a thorough survey, often using drones and advanced scanning technology. 

Through the science of surveying, people looking to build a new ski resort can determine whether it meets the topographical requirements of a resort. In the process, they also get a feel for a location’s accessibility and whether it is sufficient for a viable ski resort.

Ski Resorts Are Made, Not Found

Beaver Creek Resort
Photo by Francisco Carbajal licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

One final important note to make on the subject of how people decide where to create ski areas is that, in the vast majority of cases, a lot of work has to be done to make even the best location viable for downhill skiers. As Paul Matthews notes, “God didn’t make that much ski terrain, frankly”.

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Surveyors might find the perfect location, but that doesn’t mean the only work to do from there is building a few lifts and lodges. Far from it.

To turn a great location into a great resort, roads must be constructed and trees chopped. Perhaps most surprisingly, tens of thousands of tons of earth generally need to be moved.

When determining where to build, developers might not be deterred by obstacles like a giant scree field in the middle of the mountain or a large bump in the earth near the bottom which, upon examination, looks like it would require skiers on the beginner slope to walk uphill. These obstacles can all be overcome with the use of massive earth movers and other construction tools.

This is all to say that when your favorite resort almost certainly looked a lot different when it was being surveyed and the differences extend far beyond the presence of lifts and the lack of trees. Most resorts have had their topography altered in a handful of small but critical places.

Finding the Next Ski Resort Takes Work

top of the mountain

As your thoughts wander while riding up a chairlift, it’s easy to become lost in the past and wonder about how the mountain you’re skiing looked a hundred years ago. Was the terrain obviously destined to become a prime ski area?

Or was it a stroke of genius which led the founders to build here and not the next mountain over? Would you, walking through a wilderness know which faces or mountains would make for great skiing?

Developers of ski resorts put tremendous effort into finding new ski sites. The task is all the more difficult today as, in many countries, all the obvious contenders have already been developed.

To find the hidden gems which have been overlooked, developers must consider the topography of a given area and take heed of regulatory barriers to development. Once their surveys have confirmed a location is suitable, they also have to confirm how accessible the terrain is for construction workers and future guests.

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