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Whistler skier Kai Smart making an impact on The Front Lines

Smart features in a new film by Pangea Creatives highlighting the effect of climate change on the ski and snowboard industry
The Front Lines, a new film by Pangea Creatives, explores the impact of climate change on the ski and snowboard industry and how members of that industry are responding.

There are people who continue to scoff at the idea of global warming—or more accurately speaking, climate change. How can that be, they might say, when we continue to fight through weather events like the winter storm that pummelled B.C. for Christmas or the historic “bomb cyclone” that detonated over the Eastern Seaboard around the same time? It may not seem like Canadian winters are getting any warmer or shorter when brutal wind chills and paroxysmal outbursts of snow remain a perennial occurrence, but head to the mountains year after year and you’ll see a different picture. 

Though he is no climatologist, Whistlerite Kai Smart grew up around snow. As the son of former Olympians John and Julia, who run Momentum Ski Camps together, Smart competed in all three freestyle skiing disciplines—slopestyle, big air and moguls—before focusing on slopestyle at age 14. Smart has been exploring the backcountry for about six years now, and the greatest impact of climate change he’s witnessed has come in summer: new ground exposed and new rock slides tumbling down as glaciers like the one at Wedgemount Lake continue to retreat. 

“If you talk to someone who’s been in Whistler for 40 years, they’d say, 100 per cent, whole mountains [have changed],” Smart said. 

Determined to do his part as a citizen of the world rather than be a bystander and “let the world collapse in front of [him],” Smart partnered with athlete management and media company Pangea Creatives on its first major film, The Front Lines. Having premiered on YouTube on Dec. 21, the movie features interviews with University of British Columbia (UBC) climatology professor Dr. Simon Donner, freeride athletes Michael Mawn and Kayley Sherlock and representatives of the Freeride World Tour (FWT), in addition to Smart. 

Their message: climate change is very real, and the ski and snowboard community has an equally real opportunity to do something about it.


Smart’s anecdotal observations line up with Donner’s findings. Research shows that, while winters remain individually variable and extreme weather events still occur, the overall trend features an increasing proportion of rain as opposed to snow. Freezing lines continue to move up mountains, causing quality powder to retreat upwards. A warmer atmosphere also holds more moisture, resulting in occasional catastrophes like the Pacific Northwest floods of November 2021. 

The Front Lines opens by documenting a 2022 FWT event at Kicking Horse in Golden. Peering through binoculars at another skier making his way down the resort’s Ozone face, Mawn remarks that he sees nothing but ice. The snow was so hard that day that athletes left no tracks behind, forcing organizers to move the event to a different part of the mountain on short notice.

Filmmaker Ethan Herman, who co-founded Pangea Creatives in March 2020 and directed its first major movie, hesitates to say that the conditions at Kicking Horse last February were a straightforward product of climate change. Yet, he and Smart agree that they were a sign of future trends.

“[What we saw in Golden] is a really good indication of the struggle and the challenges that are coming,” Herman said. 

Having skied for more than 30 years himself, Donner knows that skiers and snowboarders face a catch-22 regarding climate change. They stand to lose much of their lifestyle and industry if winters keep coming under attack, but they are also partially responsible for the problem. Travel and skiing go hand in hand for both the recreational enthusiast and the world-class athlete. 

The FWT has been pursuing sustainability since 2020 and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2028. It has issued reusable bibs to athletes, water bottles to staff and media members, and partnered with Audi to make the fully electric e-tron their official company car. According to the tour’s website, it has contributed to the planting of 5,780 trees and offset 566 tons of carbon dioxide in the last three years. 

However, FWT CEO Nicolas Hale-Woods and senior manager Alicia Cenci revealed in the film that 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the 2022 Xtreme Verbier event came not from tour operations themselves, but from fans travelling to Switzerland to cheer on their favourite competitors. Such athletes, of course, must fly internationally to partake in various events all winter long if they wish to progress their careers. 

According to Blackcomb Helicopters pilot Adam Dowds, who welcomes Sherlock onboard in the movie, traditional long-haul airliners like the Boeing 747 burn as much fuel in one transoceanic journey as he does in 1,200 hours of flight time, which takes the average commercial chopper pilot roughly four years to accumulate. More efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 have been in service for years, but remain outnumbered by their older counterparts. 

“The way the whole ski world is designed is not conducive to an environmentally friendly lifestyle,” Smart acknowledged. 

Climate messengers 

Fortunately, a new generation of skiers and snowboarders has decided to take action. Smart, for instance, is diligent about recycling, riding public transit and minimizing his consumption of single-use plastics. Going forward, he intends to raise awareness within his own peer circles and join sustainability groups in his community. Mawn and Sherlock are also very cognizant of climate change, and expressed in the film their desire to make a positive impact.

The snowsport icons of today and tomorrow will need to raise their voices if we are ever to see the kind of wider reform needed to protect Canadian winters. After all, it can be difficult for the average Joe to take climate change seriously when he finds a foot of snow sitting on his car. It also depends on where you’re from: as a third-year business student at UBC, Smart knows how much less convenient it is to live sustainably in a big city compared to an ecologically conscious town like Whistler. 

Climatologists like Donner will keep doing their part, but not everyone finds a voice like his to be compelling. Scientific journals are not particularly accessible or layman-friendly as reading material, and some people are flat-out disinterested in—or distrustful of—mainstream science. Yet, the messenger is often as important as the message he or she bears, and perhaps these folks would be more willing to heed a call from their favourite athletes. 

For that reason, individuals like Donner, Herman and Hale-Woods find it immensely encouraging that many young skiers and snowboarders care deeply about the environment upon which their passions rely. Smart, Mawn and Sherlock have a chance to advocate for worthy causes in a personal, relatable way that most scientists can’t emulate. 

“There’s so many ways we could be trying to change not the climate message, but the climate messengers,” said Donner in an on-camera interview with Smart. 

“I am the eternal pessimist when it comes to climate change,” Herman admitted. “But, I think the biggest thing that stood out to me [when filming The Front Lines] is the number of young people that care.” 

Although it is great to see organizations like the FWT and the multinational investment firm BlackRock launch climate-friendly initiatives, ultimately the buck must stop with everyday people when it comes to sustainability. Not everyone can afford to install solar panels in their home or exclusively buy organic produce, but there are many ways to make a difference without breaking the bank. For instance, Herman suggests that avid skiers plan out their trips more efficiently, hitting multiple stops on the same route in order to minimize gas usage. 

Though some scientific models predict a bleak future, Smart is optimistic that awareness of climate change in his generation will pay dividends down the line. “It doesn’t feel like we’re alone [dealing with] this,” he said. “It is a global issue, and I feel like people everywhere are doing the right thing."