After a great By mistake in his first race, Daniel Yule assumed he was out of the men’s slalom at this season’s Alpine Skiing World Cup. “He had already packed my bags and was ready to go back to the hotel,” he said in a television interview after last weekend’s event in Chamonix, France.
Instead, his time was good enough to advance to the second round. From there, in last place, the Swiss skier won the entire event. Never before in 58 years of competition has anyone risen from such a low position to claim the trophy in a single race. It was a testament to Yule skiing, but also to the unignorable reality of climate change.
The temperature that day in Chamonix had risen to an extraordinary 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), much higher than the average high in February of -1. The rules of the competition stipulate that slalom skiers perform their second run in reverse order of their ranking after the first, meaning that Yule, in last place, would go first in the second run on a continuous track. Their competitors would follow them up a slope that was rapidly melting in the midday sun, divided by those before them, and the winner would be whoever recorded the lowest total time in their two races. “I definitely got lucky,” Yule said.
Slalom skiing requires competitors to negotiate a series of gates as they descend. Therefore, turning is the defining factor of a race. When skiers act first, like Yule on her second run, they can choose where to turn at each gate. As they do this, the pressure from their skis creates grooves in the snow. Anyone following them is, to some extent, forced into these grooves, and as they deepen, it becomes more difficult for subsequent skiers to follow lines that suit their own style.
This rutting effect is more pronounced and occurs even faster on warmer days, says Arnaud de Mondenard, head of alpine ski research at snow sports equipment brand Salomon. Additionally, as snow melts on the piste, slush forms, making it more difficult for skiers to turn. And, as De Mondenard points out, the snow does not melt or compress evenly along the entire route. For later skiers, judging the stability and texture of the terrain would have been a major challenge.
On a gentle slope like Chamonix, these are all factors that would have contributed to the skiers’ performance. Clement Noel, the French athlete who fell from first place to third, having performed more than 2 seconds slower than Yule in the second race, said: “It was really difficult at the end. “It was very, very bumpy.” When Noel started his second race, the sun had been melting the track for more than 45 minutes since Yule started his.
Some have called Yule’s performance one of the first examples of how climate change alters professional sports results. Mark Maslin, professor of Earth system sciences at University College London and author of How to save our planetwrote in a LinkedIn post: “Credit goes to Yule, and congratulations to him… But no one can deny what happened here… The reason was painfully obvious.”