There’s a melting gondola at the top of Aspen Mountain. The artist hopes it will remind skiers about the threat of climate change

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Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
The sculpture “Melting Gondola” with the Elk Mountains in the background on April 18, 2022. The art was commissioned by Aspen Ski Company as part of its effort to get people involved in the push for climate action.

It's the last weekend for many skiers at Colorado resorts as warmer temperatures bring the season to an end. But there's something else melting on the top of Aspen Mountain.

On a sunny spring day at 11,200 feet, skiers and snowboarders jump off the gondola, excited to get their last runs in. A woman in a bikini straps skis to her feet while others pose for selfies and snap pictures of the views. 

Lurking in the background of the lively scene is an unsettling figure: a decommissioned ski lift gondola car that appears to be melting in the hot sun. The sculpture sits on a platform in the snow and is framed by the sweeping views of the Elk Mountains.

The gondola car leans on its side above a melted puddle colored the same red Aspen Skiing Company uses for its branding. The piece was created by artist Chris Erickson, who fashioned the puddle out of foam and resin. 

“The effect was to try to simulate this color melting and literally dripping off of the aluminum car,” Erickson said.

He chose red because it’s a triggering color that represents heat and emergency. 

The "Melting Gondola" sculpture aims to draw attention to how climate change is affecting the ski industry and mountain communities. Erickson had to evacuate two Colorado mountain homes in the last few years because of wildfires. He also remembers having to disassemble an art show in the middle of the night because the gallery didn’t have insurance, and there was concern the town of Basalt would burn down. 

Erickson says climate change often makes him feel helpless. He says art is one way he can speak up and get other people to talk about the issue. Erikson said whatever conversation “Melting Gondola '' might spark is important.

“To not talk about [climate change] is just to be complicit. And I don't think that's an option,” he said. 

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Carbondale, Colorado-based artist Chris Erickson stands at the top of Aspen Mountain on April 18, 2022 in front of his sculpture titled "Melting Gondola." The piece was created as a way to get people to talk about climate change.

The gondola installation was inspired by Australian artist James Dive and his sculpture of a melted ice cream truck. Aspen Skiing Company commissioned it as part of its Art in Unexpected Places program. 

Auden Schendler, the senior vice president of sustainability for the company, said the resort has warmed 3 degrees Fahrenheit since it opened and has lost 30 days of frost. 

“Winter is a month shorter, and that’s shocking,” Schendler said. 

Schendler doesn’t think there will be much left of the ski industry in 50 years. It’s a dismal prediction, but he thinks warmer temperatures and changing snowfall patterns fueled by climate change will mean only some high-elevation resorts will survive. Aspen might be one, but Schendler said that’s nothing to celebrate. 

“We need the low-elevation mom and pop resorts on the East and West Coast. If they go away, those are our future skiers,” he said.

Schendler says Aspen Ski Company and other large corporations need to do whatever they can to limit warming. The resort makes aggressive internal changes and pushes for systemic ones. It supports the Biden administration's attempts to stop new oil and gas leases, and it isn't a member of the U.S. Chamber of Congress because of its opposition to some climate policies. Aspen has also successfully pushed its local energy provider to shift to 100 percent renewables by 2030.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, rides on the Silver Queen Gondola on April 18, 2022. He sees peoples' love for skiing as a way to get them to care more about climate change, which already greatly affects the sport.

Schendler says people’s love for skiing is a chance to get them involved in advocating for climate solutions. The melting gondola art installation is part of encouraging that kind of action, he said. The sculpture has elicited a range of emotions, from approval and support — to annoyance and criticism. 

Andrew Carl and Victor Dallabetta, two skiers and friends, stopped at the top of Aspen Mountain to check out the sculpture earlier this week. Dallabetta took a picture for his wife, who had been asking about the piece. Dallabetta has visited Aspen Mountain 100 times this season, and he said this was the first time he’d spotted the sculpture. He's noticed big changes to ski conditions over the 65 years he’s been hitting the slopes. 

“It’s sad, but we’re lucky to have what we have actually,” Dallabetta said.

Carl said the sculpture “reeks” of its climate change action message. He agrees that the winters feel different, but he thinks the climate shifts are temporary. 

“You have your good years and your bad years, and I guess we're having a few more bad years than the good years right now,” Carl said. “So we'll see how the balance goes.”

Dallabetta agreed. Both lifetime skiers are confident climate conditions will stabilize and that new technology will help find solutions to climate-related problems. Carl says he's not wringing his hands with worry.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
The sculpture "Melting Gondola" with the Elk Mountains in the background on April 18, 2022. The art was commissioned by Aspen Ski Company as part of its effort to get people involved in the push for climate action.