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Last Resort West experiences mayhem on the mountain

In 2068, the Lower 48’s last ski resort deputized soldier flies to manage human feces. The plan backfired.

 

Abi Stevens for High Country News
This fictional short story is part of our Speculative Journalism Issue, where we imagine stories from a West under climate stress in 2068.

The brown goop of dead flies smeared across her ski goggles impeded the view, but Nataša Sarec still saw the man fall. It was an ugly crash, an unintentional cartwheel, the man’s skis akimbo and his limbs awkwardly splayed as he smacked onto the slushy slope. Then black soldier flies swarmed the man, obscuring the scene.

Sarec could scarcely see the fallen skier, but she could hear him screaming. As Sarec, Vail Resort’s chief entomologist, raced down the mountain, her tangled brown ponytail whipped her face. She skidded to a halt beside him, gasping for breath.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.14/editors-note-the-case-for-speculative-journalism]

The skier, an overweight middle-aged man, wore a plush Oscar de la Renta ski jacket. Once smooth and cream-colored, it was now rumpled and darkened by flies, some of them squirming into the gold-specked rabbit-fur lining. He swatted futilely at the flies, his deep-purple micro-suede gloves bedecked with massive rings.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Fuck, the ski lifts are still running,’ ” Sarec told me later. More skiers were moving up the mountain, temporarily shielded from the swarm in the heated gondolas. She could hear people shrieking as flies pummeled into the glass. She’d almost forgotten the man. “It was a panic,” she said. “There was so much happening that I was paralyzed.”

At Sarec’s feet, the skier grasped his leg in agony; it didn’t look broken, but she wasn’t sure. “He sort of hissed at me, ‘I have the best lawyer,’ ” Sarec remembered, “before launching a string of profanities.” His thick beard was trimmed close to his skin, its sharp lines tracing an aggressively clenched jaw.

She dodged snowboarders and skiers as she skied toward the base. “We needed to shut the place down,” Sarec told me. “But we’d already let it happen. It was too late.”

A half century ago, Vail Resorts began using black soldier flies, a species of ravenous climate-resistant dipterans, to manage human waste on the resort’s remote reaches as water grew increasingly scarce. Known for their ability to breed exponentially, the flies eat feces. It was an innovative approach to dealing with the delicate problem of human waste in the absence of potable water to flush it away. Environmentalists were satisfied (the flies were organic), ski execs were happy (they could save the precious water for making snow), and none of the guests at the resort even knew they existed. The skiers could pause between laps and defecate as needed, business as usual.

But as access to running water disappeared, Vail’s reliance on the soldier flies increased. With steadily rising temperatures, the flies were thriving, and this year, they finally broke out of their dark, warm latrines and swarmed the grounds.

With lawsuits from the incident mounting, after years of unprofitable seasons, Vail Resorts has declared bankruptcy. The move could spell the end of the ski industry in the Lower 48.

I HAPPENED TO BE THERE THAT OPENING DAY. I had traveled to Last Resort West on a balmy February morning, to cover the start of yet another abysmal ski season. Not much snow had fallen, so the resort was depending on artificial snow. By the time I arrived, the operations crew had managed to open a single ski run, a mile-long intermediate slope that ran from the peak to the mid-mountain gondola.

Sarec, 32, was busily delegating tasks to her crew, the so-called Bowl Patrol, a team of junior entomologists. There were already whispers that something strange was happening. For several weeks, flies had been spotted where they shouldn’t have been — congregating in the cutlery drawers of the base area kitchen, buzzing in the open meadow. A few had taken up residence in employee lockers.

Soldier flies normally prefer to remain hidden, and it was Sarec’s job to check in on them to ensure they were prepared for the estimated 30,000 visitors expected that opening week. “I came to America to work at the resort, brought my family here,” Sarec, originally from Slovenia, told me. “It seemed a way to get a taste of that American skier lifestyle. We can never afford it, but working here does allow us to ski once a year — if we’re lucky enough to get snow.” The gondola hoisted Sarec and me up to the East Wall back bowl, the only spot with decent snow.

The lid bubbled and opened slightly, and then it closed again, like a demented jack-in-the-box, giving us only a peek at whatever lurked in the cavern below.

We stepped off the gondola and walked into a hut. “I expected the flies to still be in their larval stage — when they consume the most waste,” Sarec said. She opened the door to a stall. Inside, the toilet bowl was alive with the furious buzzing of fully fledged flies, each an inch wide and plump, much too plump. The lid bubbled and opened slightly, and then it closed again, like a demented jack-in-the-box, giving us only a peek at whatever lurked in the cavern below.

“This situation is going to blow up,” Sarec told me, as we walked away from a back-mountain hut. “But there’s this desperation for revenue, and none of the higher-ups are listening.”

Sarec’s small team scrambled despite their feelings of dread. Resort executives were busily calculating each day’s revenue (in a depleted ski season, every day counts), and they kept working, focused on their opening-day deadlines. “There’s this unspoken mandate that we will not close the resort,” Sarec said, “no matter what.”

It’s generally agreed that the “last great ski season” was in 2049. That year it had actually snowed — real snow — and by New Year’s Day there was enough powder for a few ski areas to stay open until March. You don’t really know something is ending — the last peonies to bloom, the last spring rain, the final birth of a brown bear cub — until one day you realize it hasn’t happened in so, so long. That’s how skiing disappeared from the American West.

Today, it’s a sport for the international super-elite, with the most popular resorts in Dubai (a massive indoor facility filled with fake snow). A few “real” resorts are still hanging on in the Alps, Himalayas and the Dolomites. But most people today know skiing only through their virtual reality headsets.

American resorts haven’t been profitable in more than three decades. A generation of ski families has disappeared; ski towns and après-ski bars have shuttered. In 2055, Vail Resorts Inc. purchased Arapaho Basin, Colorado’s most dependable ski area, and renamed it Last Resort West. Michael Branson, Arapaho Basin’s chief operating officer at the time, accepted the offer despite an intense public outcry.

“They don’t care that it’s actually inauthentic as long as they can still get their Swedish massages and vegetable-peel facials.”

“A stubborn holdout of middle-class ski families — a socioeconomic group that was already getting pushed out from most Western recreational opportunities — despaired,” said Shonna Tobin, a ski industry historian based at the Banff Center for Climate Studies in Alberta, Canada. “It really was the end of an era. That type of skier disappeared along with the dozens of resorts closing around the same time.”

Today, Last Resort West is the only ski area in the contiguous United States open for the “season.” Hordes of financiers and tech magnates replaced middle-class families and college-aged shredders. Fancy gondolas replaced the T-bars, and the once-abundant forests were whittled down to only a few rotting aspen tree trunks, transfixed in the dry soil. Parking lots became runways for private jets. “Last Resort West’s clientele are affluent, international moguls who travel far distances to experience ‘Rocky Mountain powder,’ ” Tobin said. “They don’t care that it’s actually inauthentic as long as they can still get their Swedish massages and vegetable-peel facials.”

Back at the mountain, just hours before Last Resort West’s first lift would start propelling skiers up the slope, jet planes parked beside the runway. At the base area, café baristas served $45 lattés and soy-curd sandwiches.

Sarec and her crew checked on the soldier flies one last time, but by then, the black insects had escaped their pungent abodes and begun to swarm. The mass moved erratically.

Skiers screamed and panicked. A man with a bright-pink cashmere cap fell into a holding rack, triggering a cascade of falling skis, poles and boards. Flies splattered onto fur coats, and flew into the horrified mouths of guests. Crowds fled the lift-line and made a dash for the guest lodge. The front door hurtled open, slammed close, and opened again. Thousands of flies followed them inside. There was no refuge.

Sarec raced down the mountain. “It was mayhem. I thought that if I could get back to the base to radio someone, they would halt the lifts,” Sarec said. “They didn’t. Not for almost four hours.” The ski down was treacherous. She glanced to her right to see a skier slip into a pile of dead flies, her jumpsuit soiled with dark-brown goo.

Sarec squinted, specs of flies dancing in front of her eyes. And suddenly, just as abruptly as it all began, the swarm ceased. Insect clouds dropped. Out of their warm toilets and exposed to the cool air, they were unable to survive for long. “Soldier flies need to maintain a core temperature and only thrive in warm, moist environments. The air temperature and the presence of snow stopped them,” Sarec explained later.

Heaps of dead flies piled up across the snow, darkening the slopes and lowering the snow’s reflectivity, or albedo. The lowered albedo caused the little snow left to melt rapidly. “But both alive and dead,” Sarec said, “they terrorized the mountain.”

IN THE WEEKS FOLLOWING THE INCIDENT, Vail closed Last Resort West. Cleanup is ongoing, and Vail Resort executives estimate it will cost tens of millions of dollars to remove the dead flies clogging its artificial snow machines — an effort that may be abandoned because of cost.

Earlier this month, after a judge ruled that Vail Resorts must pay some $40 billion in damages from lawsuits, the company filed bankruptcy.

Vail fired Sarec and sued her, blaming its lead entomologist for not doing enough to prevent the calamity. Sarec, who hired a lawyer of her own, is hoping the case against her will be dismissed. “I worked in a culture of ‘profit at all costs,’ ” Sarec told me. “Vail created a perfect storm: Deep dependence on its fly waste-management program, no water, ideal climate conditions for an extreme population event — and playing host to a group of highly persnickety and litigious skiers.”

In the wake of the fiasco, Colorado has banned the use of soldier flies to manage human waste. It’s unclear how, with no running water, Vail Resorts would deal with the issue. “At this time, we are not anticipating a viable 2070 ski season,” said Cheryl Huffington, Vail Resorts president and executive director. “Winter conditions at our Canadian partner resort are still dependable and its runway is ready to accept private planes. We are advising all American skiers to travel north.”

Associate editor Paige Blankenbuehler, who oversees High Country News’ coverage of the Southwest, might welcome a robot army to her hometown, Durango, Colorado — but only on the condition that it builds the affordable housing this region so desperately needs. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

STORY NOTES: Climate change poses risks to seasonal and outdoor economies in communities across the United States, including impacts on economies centered on winter recreation. Declines in snow and ice cover caused by warmer winter temperatures are expected to negatively impact the winter recreation industry in the West. Over the next half century, the winter recreation industry will lose an estimated $2 billion each year. According to the National Climate Assessment, warming temperatures have helped many insects thrive and “fire exclusion in fire-prone forests has exacerbated the effects of insects by increasing forest density and reducing resistance to insect attack.” As for the black soldier flies, researchers show the hearty insects will thrive in a world with warmer temperatures. 

Sources: Chia, S. Y., Tanga, C. M., Khamis, F. M., Mohamed, S. A., Salifu, D., Sevgan, S., . . . Ekesi, S. (2018). Threshold temperatures and thermal requirements of black soldier fly Hermetia illucens: Implications for mass production. Plos One, 13(11).

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Mastin, M. C., Chase, K. J., & Dudley, R. W. (2011). Changes in Spring Snowpack for Selected Basins in the United States for Different Climate-Change Scenarios. Earth Interactions, 15(23), 1-18.

Scott, D., Dawson, J., & Jones, B. (2007). Climate change vulnerability of the US Northeast winter recreation– tourism sector. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 13(5-6), 577-596.