POWer to the athletes 

Skiers and snowboarders are coming together to protect not just the powder they love but the planet as well

click to flip through (6) WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - The world's highest ski resort at the Chacaltaya glacier in La Paz, Bolivia.
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  • The world's highest ski resort at the Chacaltaya glacier in La Paz, Bolivia.

It was 1999 and we were motoring up a rock-littered road high in the Bolivian Andes

that was clearly not wide enough for our battered Land Cruiser. Our tires sent stones caroming down the mountainside. As we neared a 180-degree turn, I realized the switchback was built atop a loose pile of rocks. A sideways glance revealed the driver's lack of concern. I studied the latch on my door and mentally practiced flinging it open. It was a hell of a road to climb for a little skiing, but that's what it took to find some decent snow 16 degrees south of the equator.

For 60 years that road had delivered the ardent skiers of La Paz, Bolivia to the foot of the Chacaltaya Glacier, where a rudimentary lift yanked them up the world's highest-elevation ski area. When we finally reached the simple, stone-and-timber lodge at the area's base, I grabbed a pair of 25-year-old skis from beneath old posters of the Bolivian Olympic ski team. Then I proceeded to gasp for air while hiking a scree-covered ridge toward the summit of 5,421-metre (17,785-foot) Mt. Chacaltaya. The lift only operated on weekends, and it was a Wednesday. But no matter — I was thrilled to have a spectacular mountainside and a glacier to ski.

The man who built the Chacaltaya ski area in 1939, Raul Posnansky, was fuelled by the same passion. Everyone said skiing at this elevation was impossible, but the Swiss-trained engineer was determined to bring the sport he loved to his home country. So he and his friends hacked a road into the mountain by hand and built a lift on the glacier. Posnansky proved the naysayers wrong. You could ski at 5,000 metres.

Not that it was easy. At the summit, I steadied my breath and dropped over the edge, cautiously skittering along the glacier's steep ice. Then I hit a pocket of powder and everything changed. My adrenal floodgates opened, my insides lightened, and I ecstatically linked a series of arcs down the mountain's face, letting out a loud "Woohoo!" into the thin Andean air. Stopping to catch my breath, I imagined how magnificent the skiing could be with the mountain covered in fresh snow. 

Only in our imaginations

Which is all I'll ever be able to do now: imagine. After years of ever-warming temperatures, Chacaltaya's glacier finally melted completely in 2009. The Olympic ski team and the weekend visits by local families are over. The ski area once known as the world's highest is finished, and skiing in Bolivia is no more. 

From Alaska's Chugach Mountains to the Alps, the high peaks of the world are seeing less snow, shorter winters, and more variable weather, like January rains. The average snowpack in the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Range is 25-per-cent less than it was 60 years ago. Last winter the Sierra Nevada, home to celebrated ski areas like Mammoth Mountain and former Olympics host Squaw Valley, received just five per cent of its average snowpack, the lowest in recorded history. In Colorado, Vail and Breckenridge are seeding clouds with silver iodide to wring out extra snow. Eighty-eight per cent of U.S. ski resorts now rely on water- and energy-intensive artificial snowmaking to keep their slopes open. According to one recent study, in 30 years half of the ski resorts in the Northeast will be closed due to warm winters. By the end of the century, scientists predict, the resort centre of Park City, Utah, will have lost its entire snowpack. At Aspen Mountain, Colorado, snow will only fall on the top quarter of the ski area.

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company and a spirited voice on climate change, avoids the chirpy optimism his resort's marketing staff might prefer. "From the climate science I'm looking at, the ski industry doesn't have a real vibrant future," he says.

For years, ski resort operators, like much of society, seemed content to stick their heads in the artificial snow and pretend that climate change wasn't happening. Corporate consolidation was the dominant theme, as larger ski areas focused on expansion and real estate development. Meanwhile, many smaller, local ski hills struggled to keep the lifts running, often due to declining revenue caused by weather shifts.

Keeping up with the Joneses

It took the most unlikely of activists to get the industry to pay attention to climate change. Jeremy Jones was just a scruffy snowboarder living in a tent in Alaska when he filmed his first snowboarding movie in 1995. By 2005, he was a star, one of the world's most well-known snowboarders; he's appeared in dozens of movies and been voted Snowboarder magazine's Big Mountain Snowboarder of the Year 11 times. 

Already troubled by the shrinking glaciers he was seeing in the Alps and the increasing lack of low-elevation snow in his favourite Alaskan stomping grounds, that year Jones hiked the unseasonably grassy slopes of a defunct ski area outside Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

"I was with a bunch of guys in their early 30s," Jones explains. "They were so proud, showing me where they learned to ski. I asked why it was closed and was shocked when they said it just doesn't get enough snowfall anymore."

Jones began looking for a climate group to donate to, one that could rally the winter-sports community and one in which "every dollar went into fighting climate change." But none seemed to be speaking to Jeremy Jones the snowboarder. None even mentioned skiing or snowboarding. So in 2007 he founded his own: Protect Our Winters (POW). Thirty minutes after the website launched, donations started coming in.

"People were like, 'Oh my god, thank you. I love skiing and want it to be around for my kids,'" says Chris Steinkamp, a lifelong skier and former advertising executive for car companies who has been POW's executive director since its inception. "We get that all the time. It's an emotional connection for people."

POW has gone on to recruit more than 100,000 young skiers and snowboarders to the cause, garnered global media coverage, and become one of the White House's allies in building support for action on climate change. Could a dirtbag snowboarder and his pals be the activists the climate movement has been waiting for?

The template for POW's success was set from the start. The tone was inclusive. The aesthetic was hip. The website looked like any rad snowboarding site, with pictures of young athletes hurling themselves down giant mountains. But a closer look revealed advice about push lawn mowers and climate legislation. Readers were encouraged to bike or walk instead of drive, because "stronger legs = better snowboarding." And Jones, the handsome movie star every young snowboarder wanted to be, walked the walk. Literally. He gave up using helicopters for his films, becoming the first snow-sport film star to hike every mountain he rode. In 2008, POW created its first film, My Own Two Feet, about lift-free snowboarding in the Sierra Nevada backcountry. 

Taking it to Washington

The more Jones and Steinkamp learned about being activists those first few years, the more they realized there was one place they needed to go: Washington, D.C. Jones put on a suit (and found someone to tie his tie), and he, Steinkamp, and three others went to Capitol Hill. As you might expect for a group of five skiers and snowboarders with no lobbying experience, things started a bit rough.

"There were a lot of awkward silences," Steinkamp admits about their first meetings with senators. "We didn't have much to say beyond Jeremy telling stories and citing some climate science. You always want to say, 'We're here because we need you to do this.' But we didn't have that part figured out. It was painful."

The experience was not a waste, however. "It captured the attention of a lot of lawmakers, because they'd never really heard firsthand accounts of what athletes in the mountains were seeing," says Steinkamp. "This was in 2010, when today's extreme weather wasn't happening as much yet. But a lot of the senators said, 'Look, until you come back to me with jobs numbers, there's not much I can do for you.'"

So in 2012, POW partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to commission a report called "Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States." It showed that from 2000 to 2010, the $12.2-billion annual winter-tourism industry, which supports 211,900 jobs in three-quarters of U.S. states, lost $1.07 billion in potential revenue to low snow years. The media — from the New York Times to USA Today to over 250 media outlets across the globe — ate it up.

When POW returned to Capitol Hill that fall, it was a whole new game. They weren't just ski stars talking about how much they loved winter. "Now we could say, 'Hey, this is a business issue. This is about your economies,'" says Aspen's Schendler, who joined the POW board of directors in 2010.

"One politician had no idea that his state had the second-most ski resorts in the country," Steinkamp says. "Or how many of those resorts are threatened with going out of business." They also discovered that senators liked meeting with them, because many were skiers themselves. Steinkamp ticks them off: Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Max Baucus, Tom Udall, Dianne Feinstein. "Even Cory Gardner, a Tea Party guy from Colorado, is a skier," he says. "A nice guy, but we didn't get very far with him."

POW's unlikely activists have a way of cutting through the politics. In 2012, a brief meeting with Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, known for her commitment to her state's fossil fuels, turned into an hour-long session when she revealed her own love of skiing and listened to the athletes' stories of Alaska. "We had a really good conversation about skiing, and she revealed that her nephew is a ski filmmaker for Sweetgrass Productions," Steinkamp says.

"It's about reach," says Antonia Herzog, the deputy director of NRDC's Climate and Clean Air program. "I don't know how many Twitter followers someone like (Olympic snowboarder) Gretchen Bleiler has, but she can go in there and say, 'I have a huge social media reach, and I care about this issue.' People in Congress care about public opinion, and these are the people a section of the public listens to." (Bleiler has 134,000 Twitter followers.)

But the ski industry pushed back. The executive director of the Maine Ski Association called POW's 2012 report politically biased. Vail Resorts responded with an ad in the New York Times that read, "The Climate HAS CHANGED" above images of skiers frolicking in deep snow. Its CEO, Rob Katz, wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post decrying those who "alarm people with images of melting snow."

The POW team tried to stay diplomatic. "The ski industry is a hard business," Schendler explains. "If you're in California, you've had four years of drought. You won't say, 'Hey, we've got a problem on climate,' because you don't want to reinforce the message that your business is threatened."

Who is going to love snow?

It's the winter of 2008 and my five-year-old son is sitting in the middle of a ski run with tears running down his cheeks. He hates skiing. He hates the mountains. He hates snow. I grimace — the run is clearly too steep for him, but it's one of the easiest options here at Snowbowl just outside our hometown of Missoula, Montana. A snowmaking blower sits on the edge of the run, where this low, west-facing slope often ices up or gets bare patches. I've been in this exact situation, on this exact run, before. Twice, actually. My wife, originally from Florida, and my older son have both flopped down and cried here. There used to be a smaller, beginner-friendly ski area just outside town, but like many low-elevation ski areas around the world, it struggled with inconsistent snow in the new millennium and shuttered in 2003. So, we spend our days learning to ski on the run of tears.

It makes me wonder: when skiing is only found in the highest of mountains, how many families will still ski?

Big deal, you might say, so people don't ski. We've got bigger things to worry about. But to lose skiing is to create generations of kids with an ever-weakening relationship to the outdoors and the long, slow fading of winter. Skiing and snowboarding elicit an almost religious passion from their devotees — people like Posnasky, Jones, and POW's supporters. People fight to save what they love. What happens if no one loves snow?

As we're learning, snow and its gradual spring and summer melt is critical to streamflows, agriculture, and drinking supplies. Chacaltaya, and other disappearing glaciers nearby, supply drinking water to 2 million people.

About 70 million people in the Western U.S. rely on snowmelt for their water supply. As less snow falls in the mountains of North America it will affect the ecology and water supplies of the entire continent. The problem in the meantime is that the ramifications of climate change, much of which happens gradually over time, are not readily grasped by the public. We've successfully evolved by recognizing immediate, easily identified threats, but are often blind to diffuse, gradual ones (which is why some evolutionary biologists suggest homo sapiens may be a dead-end on the evolutionary tree). When it comes to a warming climate, our love of snowsports helps us transcend those limitations. Skiing, the polar bear of outdoor recreation, makes us care.

Or put another way: "Skiing is a way to communicate about a complicated issue that really the climate movement has not been successful in communicating," says Schendler. "You can understand snow going away, but you might not understand parts per million of CO2."

Eventually my kids learned to ski those steep runs at Snowbowl, and soon after they learned to ski powder snow, a euphoric sensation many consider the pinnacle of snowsports. To learn to ski powder is to learn to love powder.

We have a family rule: no school on big snow days. Instead, we go to the mountains. I like to think it's my way of teaching them proper life priorities. Last winter we waited and waited, but the powder days never came. It was terribly disappointing for the boys, which, unfortunately, is a feeling they'll probably have to get used to.

It's no secret that upcoming generations are getting a raw deal, so POW makes it a priority to talk to kids. Its Hot Planet/Cool Athletes campaign sends professional skiers and snowboarders into schools armed with ski movies and scientists who talk to kids about climate change. To date, they've presented at 72 schools and reached more than 30,000 students.

"The most optimistic part of what we do is talking to kids about climate change," Jones says. "They're like, 'We want the same world you grew up in. Why is this even up for discussion?'"

Walking the walk

POW uses a similar strategy with adults, except with beer. The organization hosts events in ski towns and at ski-movie showings that feel more like parties, where people can mingle with star athletes. And then, in a move Schendler only half jokingly calls a bait and switch, a climatologist comes in to educate the crowd. Schendler admits, "We're trying to use the sexiness of snowsports to suck people into the movement."

The organization recruits professionals into what it calls the Riders Alliance, POW's coterie of high-profile athletes willing to take a public stand. Initially it was just Jones, but as word got out, others soon joined, like Gretchen Bleiler and extreme skier Chris Davenport, both now on the organization's board of directors. Jamie Anderson, an Olympic gold medallist snowboarder and a Riders Alliance member, appeared as a contestant on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice in 2015, raising funds for POW in the process. "We can't wait for others to solve this thing," pro snowboarder and alliance member Julian Carr wrote in an impassioned editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune in August. "We, the younger generation, need to push our elected leaders."

"These young snowboarders and skiers really care about the environment," Steinkamp says. "We just have to make sure we present POW to them in a way that they can really digest, and make them feel part of it."

There's a rub, of course. Maybe one you've already found yourself asking. Namely: who are professional skiers and snowboarders, who fly and drive all over the planet for a frivolous pursuit, to preach about climate change?

"That was my biggest reason I didn't want to do it," Jones admits about starting POW. "I had a lot of fear that I'm not an environmental saint, I have a carbon footprint, and who am I to start a climate change-focused foundation?"

Which is exactly what he's heard from naysayers at every step of his journey as an activist. It's a thorny issue that Steinkamp admits is an "optics problem." POW's reply is simple: taking a few less flights does virtually nothing to solve the problem. We need wholesale, systemic change to the way modern society powers itself. You can ride your bike, buy local food, and conserve energy with the best of the eco-geeks, and many POW athletes and supporters do, but it won't solve climate change.

"We have got to start transitioning off of fossil fuel, and it's got to start happening yesterday," says Steinkamp. "People need to say, 'What's the biggest thing I can do right now?' Skiing doesn't have to be a sacrifice. Figure out a way to dial it up in other areas and pull the levers that will make the biggest difference."

"There's too much, 'I don't drive the right car or I do the wrong job, so I can't care about the environment,'" says Jones. "But there shouldn't be an application to care about the environment. Finger pointing and exclusion is not very effective."

POW has its eye on bigger, systemic changes that address climate issues, which is why it's not asking recreational skiers or pro athletes to give up their winter passion.

"The reality is that American society is hugely carbon-intensive, and you can't pick and choose what industry can speak on these issues and what business can't," says Schendler. "So the idea is to use our business to help fix the whole system so that people can ski with low-carbon footprints, so they can travel with low-carbon footprints. Let's use the ski industry for good."

POW's ability to reach young people is why Jones was invited to the White House in 2013 to accept a Champions of Change award. While there, he presented a letter signed by 75 professional skiers and snowboarders asking President Barack Obama to take meaningful action on climate change. Later that year, the White House asked POW for help promoting its Clean Power Plan, aimed at regulating power plant emissions. POW got all of its athletes to take photos from the mountains to show what was at stake and post them with the hashtag #actonclimate. In its first week, the hashtag was seen 10 million times.

The EPA was so pleased with the burgeoning partnership that the agency sent its administrator, Gina McCarthy, to appear with POW at the Aspen X Games in January 2015. When the president unveiled the Clean Power Plan last August, Steinkamp was in the room. 

The ski resort industry is starting to take climate change seriously, too. Besides Aspen's industry-leading efficiency initiatives, Alta in Utah recently installed solar panels, Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts installed a wind turbine, and Mt. Abram in Maine is now primarily solar powered. "These resorts are doing really admirable work greening themselves," Schendler says. 

In September, POW recruited the industry's two central associations, the National Ski Areas Association and Snowsports Industries America, along with 53 resorts in 15 states, to sign a letter urging the White House to take strong action at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Partnering with Ski Utah, a trade group for the $1.2-billion winter-tourism industry in one of the country's reddest states, POW helped persuade Utah's coal-friendly governor, Gary Herbert, to support the Clean Power Plan.

No time for failure

Looking ahead, Protect Our Winters will send athletes to speak at colleges across the country in a get-out-the-vote campaign for the 2016 election. It's also eager to engage people involved in non-winter outdoor activities. "Maybe you're not a skier, but you're a trail runner or a mountain biker or a climber. That's tens of millions of environmentalists right there," Schendler says. "They are fanatics of the outdoors. That's a movement. Of 300 million Americans, you don't need 300 million to care about climate. You need 20 million."

It's inspiring talk, and these guys know that if they can't pull it off, if we can't get climate change under control, two terrible things will happen: Skiing as we know it will cease to exist, and skiing will be the least of our worries. "This is a double-black-diamond moment," Schendler says. "This is the place where we cannot fall."

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