The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Books

The End of Snow Is Now?

Porter Fox felt under the gun to research and write "DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow" in just around 18 months. For one thing, there were many other writers chomping at the bit to publish on this topic. More importantly, this book is a call to action that he was running out of time to make. The message: For those of us who love sliding on snow, climate change may entail losing more than just deep powder and that dreamy, euphoric state it puts us in.

DEEP is written in two parts. The first is set in the Cascades and Rocky Mountains and the second unfolds across the Alps. Fox built the first part around the February 2011 avalanche that took the lives of three expert skiers in Tunnel Creek, near Washington's Stevens Pass ski area (disclosure: one of the victims, Johnny Brenan, was a friend of mine). He keeps you a bit uncertain of why he continually returns to this story as he wends through his own skiing backstory and introduces us to snow scientists and avalanche experts who walk Fox through possible outcomes based on a range of global temperature increase predictions through the end of the century. In the end, Fox does not blame the Tunnel Creek tragedy on climate change, but he does illuminate the possible linkages between the two, citing several scientific studies that point to the increasing number and potency of avalanches due to an uptick in major storms paired with variable temperatures.

Porter, long-time features editor at POWDER magazine, said during a panel on climate change in San Francisco last month that before writing the book he was not aware of just how much an impact climate change is having on ski areas or the potential losses it might bring. "We were doing ski stories noticing there was less snow on the ground, but after doing some research, we were shocked," he said. "I've been writing about skiing for 20 years and I was totally surprised by how much snow has already been lost."
"The snowpack in British Columbia has declined by half overall and the ski season in some regions is four to five months shorter than it was 50 years ago," he writes in DEEP.  "Eastern Canada is even warmer… Computer models show the Northeast ski season shrinking to less than 100 days by 2039. Under other models, the mean snow depth for the Rocky Mountains is predicted to drop to zero by 2100."

But the more dire effects are being felt in the Alps, where "temperatures are rising three times faster than the global average," he writes.

Fox travels to Les Grand Montets, the Tyrol region, Zermatt, and La Grave, using vivid storytelling, historical context, and interviews with European guides, glaciologists, and climatologists to convey the ways climate change is being perceived on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Europe has always been a pioneer of social and environmental progress, but many in the Alps are resistant to change," Fox writes. "People have inhabited the Alps for more than 1,000 years and are far more familiar with natural climate fluctuations than their counterparts in America—making many in the Old World hesitant to believe that humans have anything to do with current warming."

In Chamonix, he meets Yan Giezendanner, a respected meteorologist who tells Fox the current warming trend is "just a cycle" and that "climate change is just propaganda." The other experts and skiers Fox meets in Europe have very different views, but Fox writes that the contrarian nature of the issue has left ski resorts caught between "preparing for the future and scaring off residents, guests, and investors."

Yet, he notes that glacial melt could mean much more than just less skiing in the Alps; the infrastructures of the high alpine (refuges, chairlifts, antennas, etc.) are built on permafrost and without reinforcements are likely to crumble as permafrost melts.

There are moments in DEEP when studying climate change through the lens of skiing is a little off-putting; clearly the climate outlook is far more disconcerting when looking at the impacts already being felt in small island nations and in the developing world, overall. While that's true, Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, puts the issue into some helpful perspective. "Who cares if you can't go ski? Skiing and art and music and culture, all of those 'disposable things' are what make human societies flourish and are what moves us forward. What if we lose that? Well, that would be a greater tragedy than anything else."

DEEP is available now on Amazon. Here's a trailer.

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The Best New Fall Reads

It’s the spring of 1924, and English playboy Lord Percival Bromley has disappeared in the Himalayas. The climbing world assumes he’s perished in an avalanche. Lady Bromley, his mother, believing otherwise, summons three mountaineers to her estate. “If my Percy is alive,” she says, “I want you to bring him home to me.” So begins prolific sci-fi master Dan Simmons’s brick-thick adventure thriller The Abominable (Little, Brown, $28). Bromley’s an invented character, as are the three sent after him: decorated World War I veteran Richard Deacon, crafty Chamonix guide Jean-Claude Clairoux, and young Harvard grad Jake Perry. Soon enough the trio is battling Nazis disguised as yetis, but the surprise here is how well Simmons knows his climbing history. The team’s gear is supplied by George Finch, the inventor of the down jacket and oxygen kit. And Deacon’s Great War scars (body and soul) were all too common. The Abominable keeps the action roaring through the team’s grueling ascent and Nazi showdown while paying out enough crampon-and-ax accuracy to keep skeptical climbing geeks satisfied.

After two bestselling memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed), Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a sweeping tale of fortune, adventure, and the quinine trade. The Signature of All Things (Viking, $29) follows 19th-century scientist Alma Whittaker, whose extraordinary life unspools like a Jane Austen novel as she struggles to be taken seriously as a botanist and find a partner worthy of her love. Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir success has overshadowed her mastery of fiction (Stern Men). But here she claims her rightful spot as one of the 21st century’s best American writers.

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A Tiger's Tale: Doug Peacock's New Book

Doug Peacock, well-known naturalist, grizzly researcher, writer, and inspiration for Ed Abbey’s character George Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, has turned his formidable literary chops to the subject of climate change and the kind of “Grand Adventure” humans will be confronting in the wake of environmental collapse. His new book, In the Shadow of t­­­he Sabertooth (Counterpunch/AK Press, 2013), takes a deep and scientific look into our Pleistocene past in order to imagine what a post-climate-change future might look like. We caught up with him recently to hear more his latest work.

Outside: Why did you decide to write this book?
When I decided to write this book, the cardinal issue of my generation was clearly the collective damage we’ve done to the planet, the shorthand we call Climate change, but, more accurately, global warming. The prognosis is grim, and it’s a real bummer story. I didn’t want to write a bummer book, so I wondered how to write around it in some instructive way. I have ancient degrees in paleontology, archeology, geology. I knew that modern humans have experienced two episodes of global warming—now and approximately 15,000 years ago when the great glaciers of the Pleistocene began to melt and the first humans showed up in North America. (There’s not a lot of hard evidence to pin down the dates, exactly.) It’s notable that by 40,000 B.C., humans had pioneered most every habitat on earth with the exception of North America, South America, and Antarctica. Something lurking in the Pleistocene bush might have kept them out of North America.

The wilderness those first Americans encountered is difficult to imagine: First, a landmass 5 times the size of Australia without a single human footprint, no smoke on the horizon, not a sign of an upright primate. Add to that the most amazing array of large animals anywhere—mammoths, mastodons, massive pack-hunting lions, Dire Wolves, American Cheetah (double the size of the African ones), and perhaps, most formidable of all, the short-faced bear. Imagine this animal 15 feet tall standing on its hind legs, flaring its nostrils, capable of smelling the carcass of a mammoth 20 miles away, a formidable problem for ancient hunters.  I decided to tell that story. This involved more research than I’d ever done for any book. I read scientific papers for two years. Then I wrote for five years. It was the most serious commitment to a topic I’ve ever undertaken.

You talk about that time when our ancestors arrived in North America and faced all those animals that wanted to kill us, as the Greatest Adventure. We talk about Adventure a lot nowadays. Nothing compares to that.
The notion of adventure involves risky undertakings, hazardous journeys, with uncertain outcomes. I call the colonization of America the Greatest Adventure because I love wilderness because that’s where true adventure takes place. You don’t always know what’s happening or how things turn out. Back then it was all as wild as the most remote mountain in North America.

Today we can manufacture our adventures: We structure rigorous routes and risky river crossings, and ‘hazardous journeys,’ but the ‘uncertain outcome’ is the real stickler. I was most interested in discovering any lessons to be learned from these Pleistocene hunters about adapting to changing climate.  Are there useful comparisons with today’s crisis? Are we are going to recognize and adapt to the beast of our time—the beast that is global warming? This is not easy. A lack of hard data renders the comparison of the Pleistocene to today more parable than parallel.  I feel that speculating into adaptation is important now because we’re facing a world that we’re not going to recognize in 15 years. It’s that simple.

Ice-age people coming to America crossed massive glaciers and treacherous rivers and faced huge, fearsome animals they’d never seen before, some who wanted to eat them. The Short-faced bear must have been terrible—a truly American beast that never crossed into Asia. Today’s adventure sports are a different thing. You can always quit and go home. You’re pretty sure of the outcome. These people didn’t know what they were going to run into. They didn’t know the country and they didn’t know the animals—unexpected outcomes were the norm. Today, we design modern adventures complete with magazine, book, and movie deals, vaguely hoping that something unexpected turns up, hopefully nothing fatal. This is something we still need…we still crave it. Back 15,000 years ago this was totally organic. Nothing was manufactured. It was part of daily life. Getting through each day embraced all shades of courage.

You said, “We still need this.” Why do you think that’s true?
Our Pleistocene odyssey has not yet ended and we’re about to enter an unfamiliar world. We haven’t finished this journey. We haven’t started to adapt to all the things we’ve done to the planet. The experience of adventure is pragmatic lore. The experience of wild living is an incredible survival tool. It’s natural to survive. We’re going to need those skills in the very near future.

Skills? For example?
Humility, mainly.  We are not in charge. We humans don’t control our own fate. Accepting this is not unlike accepting wilderness. I used to go by myself into grizzly country for weeks at a time. Grizzlies instill a sense of humility better than anything I know in the world—with grizzlies you’re definitely not at the top of the food chain. You perceive the world differently. It’s a healthy perception. You sharpen your survival skills. You see and hear and smell better. It’s a rich way to live. We’re going to need some of that. It’s a very utilitarian perception of the world, the one anchored in humility. Which is also the emotional posture behind reason.

Wilderness is important, but how will it prepare us for this upcoming massive change?
Remnants of that habitat encountered by those first Americans are still around today and we call it wilderness. Wilderness is where all of our evolution took place. The human mind was shaped in the wilderness, by the mammoths we hunted and the sabertooths who hunted us.  We need to keep great hunks of it around to remind us of that original experience, that perception of authentic risk. This is something lacking in modern people. We’re unable to accurately perceive what lies in our long-term interest for survival. Somehow we need to make the transition from perceiving the shadow of the sabertooth in the brush, which is an immediate peril, to being able to see, for example, the distant, incremental, and remote ocean rise, which could displace a billion starving strangers.

So what’s wrong with us? You talk in your book about the Clovis people, these amazing hunters with this amazing technology who may be responsible for mass extinctions. Why are we like that?  We have technology but we lack restraint.
Remember, North America was experiencing climate change at the time. The Clovis people blasted down the ice-free corridor to Montana and ran into Mammoths and wanted to kill and eat one because that’s what their ancestors did 400-500 years before. They discovered stone quarries where they could create the incredible, iconic, magnificent fluted, 6- or 7-inch long “Clovis” spear point, a very effective weapon. The terminal dates of the classic megafauna overlap with the time of the Clovis people, who seemed to explode across the continent, almost as if they  showed up everywhere at once. This brings up the dark question of the nature of the beast: Are we the homicidal brutes deservedly kicked out of Eden ready to duke or nuke it out to the end of the Earth? Or are we what we sometimes see ourselves as—the deeply sentient beings capable of the type of empathy that surviving this new, hot future will require?

If what you describe in your book is the last Great Adventure, what’s the next Great Adventure?
It’s not going to be fun. How about the future portrayed in modern sci-fi literature and films of a thug-like future run by warlords in the Arctic? This may not be so far off because that’s may be the only place one will be able to live.

This may not take a hundred years. It might take ten or 15. The polar ice caps are disappearing fast. Once they’re gone, things speed up; the Amazon collapses. Then the permafrost melts, releasing massive amounts of methane, adding another 6-7 degrees of global warming. In Antarctica, when the Ross Ice Sheet goes, oceans could rise 12 feet within a week—everywhere. That will get people’s attention. No one knows exactly what will happen. It’s like removing a top predator from an ecosystem and causing a cascading series of ecological collapses and disasters. No one can predict the effects. Surviving is not going to be fun but it will be an adventure.

Where’s your joy? What keeps you going these days?
Visiting a little pocket of what you and I would call wild country. I go to Yellowstone and leave the road and walk over a little hill and all of a sudden it’s like it was a thousand years ago. I look for bear tracks and watch the bison and any other critters who are there and, as this is available to me everyday, I take advantage of these pockets of wilderness where I live. And I go to Glacier and I visit my bears in the backcountry. That’s a little part of the world that is still as it always was and experiencing it generates joy. I don’t know of a combative weapon greater than the expression of joy. If we can find joy in our lives we can find the strength to fight back and come out of this thing.  It’s our only chance. It’s worth the fight.

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