Inside Vail’s strategy for building sustainable ski resorts of the future

February 4, 2023, 5:00 AM UTC
'Back Bowls Vista,' from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled 'The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.'
Gray Malin

Now one of the premier skiing destinations in North America, Vail Resorts in Colorado is on its 60th year in business and counting.

First opened in December 1962, Vail has grown to span more than 5,300 acres of developed ski and snowboard terrain. The greater resort group’s portfolio includes Vail Mountain and Breckenridge in Colorado as well as Park City Mountain in Utah, Stowe in Vermont, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, and 32 additional resorts across North America, Europe, and Australia. Vail Resorts Retail also operates more than 250 retail and rental locations across North America.

And while the popular winter getaway is celebrating a milestone anniversary, it’s also planning for the future, especially as ski resorts come further under the microscope when it comes to sustainability and diversity.

‘Top of Vail Mountain,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin


Five years ago, Vail Resorts pledged a “Commitment to Zero,” a goal to achieve a zero net operating footprint by 2030. Since then, the company says it has achieved producing 100% renewable electricity across its North American resorts and 96% renewable energy worldwide, and it has reduced market-based emissions by 17% year-over-year, for a total reduction of 53% from an fiscal year 2017 baseline.

Above ground, many of the company’s sustainability efforts are subtle but effective. At mountaintop restaurants, for example, trash cans are hard to find—by design. Intentionally, it was to make it easier for waste program teams to sort recyclable and compostable items more easily. Unintentionally, it worked because the mentality of someone on vacation is typically to want to hand over responsibility to someone else. So guests can just drop those products on trays on clearly marked racks near seating and dining areas. Additionally, there are no single use plastic products (all compostable utensils, etc.) and reusable cups are stacked near water fountains, which can also be placed on those trays to cut back on the number of plastic or paper cups in the compost stream.

‘Patrol Pups,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin

But underground is an entire operations that nearly none of the guests will likely ever know about let alone see. Vail Resorts has centered its operations for sorting recycling and composting underneath The Arrabelle, a luxury hotel at the base of the mountain in Lionshead Village. Here, everything is sorted clearly and easily before being directed to larger facilities established in partnership with local municipalities.

The company also partnered with Pepsi on a special program to recycle food wrappers (i.e. from granola bars or candy), which can be recycled into materials for chairs and tables at the resorts, a full circle for those materials, in particular. Vail Resorts also teamed with outdoor apparel maker Helly Hansen not only on its uniforms, but repairing and recycling those uniforms once they’re worn out. While the materials are durable, and can last a few seasons, given the elements (and that some jobs are dirtier than others), they don’t last forever. So the uniforms deemed unfit for service any longer are shipped to a facility in nearby Denver, where they can be remade into insulation or even handbags resold in retail shops in Vail.

‘Eagle Bahn Gondola,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin

What really sets Vail’s sustainability efforts apart from not just other ski resorts in the country but also its portfolio is the custom-designed, gondola-based system for transporting goods and waste removal up and down the mountain. Traditionally, goods are shipped up and down either on the lift (but that obviously limits how much can be taken up and down at once both on weight and size) or snowcats, which are efficient but not necessarily energy efficient when it comes to fuel usage.

Thus, Vail designed a system that effectively takes dumpster-size containers up and down the mountain on the gondola system, and they go up and down all day, inserting themselves among gondolas carrying skiers and snowboarders. This makes it not only easier and more efficient to get many more products—especially for the restaurants—to the top of the mountain, but it’s much better for sorting waste materials at the source before they even make it down the mountain, where they’re processed once more in the sorting area underneath the Arrabelle—all of which guests will hardly see because once the containers come off the gondola, they are shipped into an elevator and through a tunnel right under the area where skiers and snowboarders are lining up to board the gondola.

“What we’re also going to see as we move into this reduction of waste overall…is also a kind of efficiency in our transporting and less diesel use—so the less single use plastic cups and bowls and plates we’re using means less hauling back and forth between the restrooms, less waste coming out, less product going onto the mountain,” says Jacob Lehew, zero waste coordinator for Vail Mountain. “So then we’re really focused on just transporting what we really need to be transporting versus transporting a bunch of compost.”

In fact, Vail was the first ski resort in the United States to launch a gondola when the resort opened for the 1962 winter season, and it has been at the forefront of advancing ski lift and gondola technology since. There are 32 ski lifts and gondolas around the mountain—most of them are all high-speed—and run on a majority of renewable energy (with diesel as a backup measure). Recently, Vail opened two new high-speed chair lifts: Sun Down Lift, a four-person chair; and Game Creek Express, a six-person lift that will increase capacity by nearly 50% in Game Creek Bowl.

‘Back Bowls Sun Loungers,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin

Community outreach

It’s no secret that most winter sports—especially alpine and Nordic skiing—are not exactly the most diverse. Even with minimal progress in recent years, one glance at the Winter Olympics is evidence of this.

Managers at Vail Ski Resorts and the local tourism board stress that stepping up their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are a top priority—not just over the next 60 years but immediately.

From Feb. 4 through Feb. 11, Vail Mountain will be hosting the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), one of the largest ski clubs in the United States, for its 50th Anniversary Summit. First held in Aspen in 1973, the annual event moves around each year among the top ski destinations in the country, including Sun Valley, Idaho; Park City, Utah; and, of course, Vail has hosted previously—but not for a few decades. Thus, it is a major win for the area to be hosting the week-long event of skiing and après-ski festivities.

The NBS Summit is an annual fundraiser that brings together more than 50 member clubs and thousands of supporters from around the world to raise funds to support their mission: increasing participation in winter sports while developing and supporting athletes of color with the potential to win international competitions.

‘The Legendary Back Bowls Skiers,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin

And the resort directors note this is also tied to youth outreach, given that access to both the slopes as well as winter sporting equipment and apparel can be both location- and cost-prohibitive for many—if not, most—people outside of a higher income bracket.

During the 2021-2022 winter season, at Vail Mountain and across Vail Ski Resorts nationwide, the company hosted more than 8,000 youth—including from cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and others, who otherwise might not have had access to skiing and riding—and provided more than $8 million in donated goods and services. While programs vary by partner, such as SOS Outreach and Boys & Girls Clubs, a typical program provides five free on-snow sessions including ski and ride school, meals, and equipment rentals, plus two additional free lift tickets to continue practicing with a guardian. These services are combined with mentorship, including an introduction to career opportunities at Vail Resorts.

In 2022, the company donated $22.9 million to more than 250 local organizations focused on community needs from childcare and housing assistance to inclusive access programs and forest health.

Additionally, Vail Resorts is offering the Colorado School Kids Epic Pass, which offers free skiing and snowboarding across its Colorado resorts for any eligible K-5th grader enrolled in Colorado schools.

‘The Skiers,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin

All that said, Vail has been celebrating with plenty of fun and games to keep the mood merry and bright. Some of the programming has included “Après Passports,” intended to draw guests to a collection of après-ski-themed events across town (including vintage ice bars and snow bungalows); a collaboration with local distillery 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co. to create an exclusive batch of mountain bourbon and themed 60th Anniversary cocktails (which can be enjoyed all season long at Vail Resorts’ hotels in Vail, and at the distillery tasting room in Vail Village); and a partnership with fine art photographer Gray Malin on a one-of-a-kind fine art photography collection of aerial artwork to transport viewers into Vail’s seven Legendary Back Bowls.

‘Ice Bar,’ from Gray Malin’s Vail series titled ‘The Legendary Back Bowls, Vail.’
Gray Malin

A perfect fit for his vintage-meets-modern travel aesthetic, the Gray Malin in Vail series is now available to the public and can be seen throughout the entire resort area. The photographer also shared his own travel guide, covering his favorite places to visit and stay, such as The Lodge at Vail, the first hotel to open in 1962, and The Hythe, Vail’s newest luxury resort, and where interested buyers could purchase a limited-edition collection of Icelandic skis featuring his aerial photography celebrating the 60th anniversary.

Looking forward, as Vail Resorts moves toward another round of capital investment for both its energy efficiency production and waste programs, the company plans to expand more of these projects to more mountains across the company’s properties in Australia and Europe.

“As we’ve grown as a company, we acquire new resorts that may have great sustainability practices, or may have very little, so we take what we’ve learned here at Vail, Whistler, Park City, and Beaver Creek. Some of our resorts have been doing this for a long time, so then see where we can copy and paste programs,” says Fritz Bratschie, director of sustainability for Vail Resorts, “But the key is, just like anything, every mountain is a little bit different or a lot different. So that’s why we rely on different teams on the ground to take those programs, tweak them a little bit, and what it allows us to do is to do everything we’re trying to do on a large scale across the whole company.”

More immediately, and closer to home, Vail Resorts hopes to open its long-awaited solar farm near Park City, Utah—which would power 100% of Park City’s operations—but has been delayed due to supply chain issues.

“Our teams are working hard to make sure that we can implement these big capital changes to our energy systems now in the next couple years so we can make sure we achieve our goals by 2030,” Bratschie says.

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