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Know the West

Winter traditions are feeling the heat of climate change

Warm temperatures cancel local events like skijoring — resulting in economic and cultural impacts.


Skijoring occurs throughout the Western U.S., from Leadville, Colorado, to Whitefish, Montana. But it can't go on during warmer winters.
This article was originally published by Atlas Obscura and is reproduced here through the Climate Desk partnership.

ON JANUARY 20, 2020, Ted Valentiner and the other organizers of the annual World Invitational Skijoring Championship in Whitefish, Montana, stood in a snow-covered field just outside of town. They had gathered to make a fateful decision about the upcoming event, scheduled to take place a few days later—a decision they hoped they would never have to make. They were thinking about canceling the whole thing.

“We agonized over the decision for hours and when you finally do decide to cancel, you always second guess yourself,” says Valentiner, a Whitefish resident who is on the event’s volunteer board. “It’s a big disappointment.”

Skijoring combines skiing with horseback riding. In its simplest form, the sport features a horse dragging a skier, and this event puts them together on an obstacle course of jumps, gates, and hanging rings that the skiers are supposed to grab as they speed by. Each run through the course is timed and, if a skier misses a jump or a ring, a few seconds are added on.

Skijoring, which means “ski driving” in Norwegian, dates back centuries and originated—like a number of winter sports—as a way to get from one place to another. In the early 20th century, competitive skijoring spread across Europe and North America; it was even included as an exhibition sport at the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

IT'S UNLIKELY THE JOY of the backyard rink or the spectacle of skijoring will go extinct soon, but it’s easy to see how warming winters are going to be an obstacle to these and other winter sports and pastimes in the near future. Enough days without good ice, and it might not be worth it to set up that rink. Enough canceled community winter sports events, and cities and towns may decide to do something else entirely.