Inside the bar, the music is bumping, turned up to maximum volume as bartenders rush to get drinks into the hands of thirsty guests. It’s a madhouse, raucous shouting coming from all directions as the dance floor’s neon lights cast a luminescent glow on the bodies below. The scene recalls the rowdiest nightclubs of Barcelona when the hour nears 3 a.m. Only, rather than 3 a.m. in Barcelona, it’s 3 p.m. in Zermatt, Switzerland. We’re on the side of a mountain and the party’s just getting started.
Halfway down one of the final runs on the bottom section of the Furi-Zermatt slope lies Hennu Stall, a snow-capped wooden cabin with hundreds of abandoned skis piled outside. The owners of said skis? Inside the boisterous bar, likely dancing on the tables and singing along to oompah and Europop hits.
Welcome to the wonderful world of après ski, where the real party begins once the skis come off. While most prominent (and wild) at European resorts, après culture is becoming increasingly more prominent stateside, as Americans adopt the tradition and more establishments sling drinks for thirsty skiers at the bases of mountains. As the ski industry continues to flourish in the United States, threats loom on the horizon for this burgeoning culture, in the form of climate change and revelers themselves. For, despite the sheer amount of fun that après ski presents, things can quickly turn south when these parties aren’t happening, well, after skiing — especially at high altitudes.
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Après Is Here to Stay
Though a French term that translates to “after-ski,” the practice of drinking after a day on the snow originated in Telemark, Norway, in the 1800s. Prior to groomed slopes and mountain rescue, skiing was incredibly dangerous, and Nordic skiers — who used rudimentary wooden planks as a mode of transportation when the ground froze — celebrated their survival with toasts of aquavit. As commercial skiing made its way south to the Alps in the 1950s, visitors at luxe French ski resorts adopted the ritual as a means of warming up and toasting a cold day on the mountain. While early après gatherings typically involved one or two beverages before dinner, today it has evolved to mean anything from wine and charcuterie, to craft beers on an outdoor deck and full-on club scenes that linger into the small hours.
For some, the tradition has become more important than skiing itself. Many in attendance choose to skip the sport altogether in favor of sampling the local regional specialties, something akin to tailgating at altitudes in sub-zero conditions. For others, the “after” in après ski is merely a suggestion. Their celebrations instead begin post-lunch — or even earlier.
“It’s very much ingrained in the ski experience for me now,” says lifelong skier John Connors, who enjoys après skis for the relaxing and social benefits. “People enjoy drinking after they work out — there’s marathons and cycling races that end at breweries. Skiing sneaks up on you with how tiring it is and it’s fun to just relax and unwind with a few beers,” he says. “Plus, I want to debrief with my friends. I want to laugh about who wiped out and complain about people that cut us off. It’s just part of the day now.”
Despite the fact that après ski is synonymous with a day spent on the slopes now, Connors explains that this wasn’t always the case, and much also depends on where you ski. For example, on the East Coast — where Connors grew up skiing — he’s noticed an uptick in larger après gatherings on Vermont’s mountains. Even so, “après on the East Coast is nothing like it is out West,” he says.
Every year, famous West Coast ski towns like Colorado’s Breckenridge play host to iconic parties, such as Ullr Fest, which occurs in early December in celebration of the Norse god of snow. Skiers and non-skiers alike gather on Main Street for an afternoon of toasts, culminating in over 1,000 people lining up to take a shot from the world’s longest shot ski. This past year, Ullr Fest broke its own record for the world’s longest shot ski, with 468 skis strung together allowing for 1,350 people to cheers at once.
Even Utah, which boasts some of the nation’s best skiing but is also notorious for strict liquor laws, knows how to bring the party.
“In Alta they do this crazy thing called an ‘Alta Bomb,’ which is a PBR with an espresso bomb,” Connors says. “It sounds wild but it’s actually surprisingly good.” Exclusively sold at Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, the sunken shot and beer combo gives skiers the simultaneous boost of caffeine and booze, Espresso Martini be damned.
The benefits of après ski extend beyond those attending the party, however. In Breckenridge, where an estimated 1 million skiers visit each year, après also represents an incredibly lucrative opportunity for bars and restaurants. Sara Reddy, a server at Breckenridge’s popular Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant, says that bustling après scenes and happy hours can bring in some of the best money of the season. While she declined to disclose exact figures, she describes the potential earnings for hospitality workers as “shocking.”
“Our busy season is from December to March, but to make the most money you really want to work the weeks of Christmas, New Year’s, Presidents’ Day, and spring break,” she says. “Those times are packed.”
Do as the Europeans Do — Après All Day
While après ski has found a home in the United States, Americans have yet to adopt Europe’s current practice of après anytime. “There were so many more places to stop along the mountain and grab a drink and relax than there are here,” Connors says of his recent trip to France. Rather than cafeteria-style spots, he describes small, cabin-style restaurants and bars, all of which are mainly outdoor and offer fantastic food and drinks. “We’d stop in, have a few beers looking at gorgeous scenery, have a bite to eat, and then leave to ski a bit more. A few runs later, there’s another new place to try.”
The same is true in Switzerland, where the après-ski culture this writer is accustomed to (a few drinks at a bar with some friends) cut a stark contrast to the drinking that was happening all over the mountain, at all times of day. Nestled along the curves of Zermatt’s slopes, one can visit places like Iglu-Dorf proudly playing classic singalongs while they serve up mulled wine or the aptly named Champagne Bar dosing out Veuve Clicquot to parched skiers.
In St. Anton, Austria — considered by many to be the mecca of après ski — professionals and novices revel in places like MooserWirt, which allegedly sells the most beer per square meter in the country. The bar’s 60 tap lines are believed to span over six miles (if they were to be laid end to end). Within the doors of the MooserWirt, visitors are greeted by people tossing back beers while others prefer instead to partake in Jägerbombs, something the bar refers to as the “Flying Hirsch.” With over 3,000 people squeezed into the bar, the crowd is guaranteed a good time with a mix of German schlager songs and dance anthems like “Hey Baby,” practically begging skiers to throw their arms around the strangers near them and sing along to lyrics they may not even be able to understand.
American Après Clubs on the Horizon?
While Europe’s club-like après-ski scene has yet to take off in the United States, the stage is set for the near future. America’s ski industry has been on a steady incline for several years, with a record 61 million skiers visiting U.S. resorts in the 2021-2022 season. Valued at $50 billion, the domestic industry is expected to grow 7.2 percent in 2023, with a large contribution coming from foreign tourists.
Could these international visitors further influence the way American’s après ski? Only time will tell, but time is truly of the essence.
As average global temperatures continue to climb, climate change threatens a crucial resource for profitable seasons — snow. Snowpacks covering 13 percent of the American West Coast have declined by over 40 percent since 1982 and with average snowfall steadily diminishing, resorts are increasingly reliant on artificial generation to keep slopes operational. Today, an estimated 70 percent of Colorado ski resorts open their doors by Dec. 15, but this number is expected to shrink to 35 percent by 2050, and less than 25 percent by 2090.
With the average ski resort raking in annual revenues of around $35 million, mountains are getting crafty with ways to improve and expand their networks of bars and restaurants in order to attract tourism dollars when weather conditions may be less than favorable.
In Vail, Colo., where snowpack coverage lags behind national averages, the town is developing a robust network of leisure activities for visitors — like two ice bars that have been constructed at the top of the mountain. The new party spots — open for the first time this ski season and located at Eagle’s Nest and Wildwood — are constructed entirely from ice and snow and are equipped with full bars, full menus, and good music.
But Is It… Safe?
Despite the sheer amount of fun après ski has to offer, there is no denying the safety risk involved. Skiing under the influence is increasingly becoming an issue, with French authorities revealing that one in five ski accidents in the country are the result of intoxication. Further, in a 2010 study published in Medicine, Science, and the Law, of 4550 patients examined, alcohol abuse was often discovered in accidents resulting from “excessive speed, excessive fatigue, technical errors, and bad weather conditions.” As such, a number of ski regions have implemented legislation to reduce the amount of drinking on the slopes.
Under the Colorado Safety Act, intoxication on the mountain — whether it be alcohol or cannabis — is outlawed. “We have mountain safety workers here that patrol the slopes to make sure everyone is staying safe,” explains Sara Reddy, who is also a former Breckenridge ski instructor. “If you look drunk or you look like you’re endangering other people, you’ll get written up. If you get written up three times, you’ll lose your pass for the rest of the season.”
If skiers choose to opt for a beverage while still on the mountain, Breckenridge has some pretty strict rules on that front. At upper mountain restaurants, shots are prohibited and the number of drinks allowed for purchase at one time is limited to just two. As such, all bars and restaurants on the mountain itself are required to close at 3:30 p.m. before the lifts are shut down for the day. “They do not want people drinking on the mountain,” Reddy reiterates.
While recognizing the safety concerns drinking on the mountain may pose, Connors actually sees a benefit in the rise of après-ski culture, so long as people are being safe. “I think après ski and the culture surrounding it actually opens up a lot of opportunities for more people to be included in ski culture,” he says.