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Dispatches : Nature

On the Road with the Great March for Climate Action

Last week I took my five-year-old daughter on her first activist march. It was day one of summer vacation in Santa Fe, and the whole season stretched languorously in front of us. What better way to celebrate her newfound freedom than by trekking 15 miles along the backroads of northern New Mexico with the Great March for Climate Action

I'd first heard of the Great March a few days earlier, when it had come through Santa Fe on its way north to Colorado. Founded by Ed Fallon, a former state legislator from Iowa, the march is comprised of "climate patriots" who are walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to inspire action to solve the climate crisis. Since leaving L.A. on March 1, they've averaged about 15 miles a day, camping in parks and parking lots along the way—a 3,000-mile, eight month journey that's slated to end in Washington on November 1.

Earlier in May, I'd spent four days walking along the northern California coast with my sister, a sort of slow-motion ultra that had left me obsessed with traveling by foot. The climate marchers were doing exactly that, only on a grand scale, coast to coast, to raise awareness for a grave and urgent global cause. It was such an audaciously simple and seductive mission that for half a second, I fantasized about going the distance with them, along the spine of the southern Rockies, across the heartland, all the way to Washington. 

Then I snapped back to reality. I have two young daughters, a husband, a puppy, and a job at home in Santa Fe. Walking for six months was out of the question, but I could walk for a day, or maybe two. I imagined trekking short sections with a band of selfless climate pilgrims, hopscotching around the country all summer to meet them. But first things first. Before I could join them, I had to find them.

I tracked them down on a Sunday evening in Santa Fe at their camp in a baseball field a few blocks from my house, their cluster of tents and vehicles barely visible in the late May dusk. A bright-eyed, 60-something official named Izzy greeted me warmly and explained that a core group of 30 or so have been walking since L.A.—a handful are "spirit walkers," who hope to walk every single step—but plenty of people march for a few days or weeks, and I was welcome to tag along. 


Which is how Pippa and I found ourselves, along with our friend Blair and her three-year-old daughter, Grace, in the parking lot of the Santuario de Chimayo, shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning. It was a modest encampment: Half a dozen nylon tents were pitched along the edges of the church's gravel lot. Duffle bags lay where they'd been tossed on a black tarp. The chalkboard on the back of the kitchen truck advertised lentils and rice; under the scrawled heading, "Leftovers," nothing was written. Two older women bent over a plastic basin, washing the breakfast dishes. At least three people were brushing their teeth, or their hair. Except for a couple of gear trucks and the odd Prius, it could have been just another morning on a group camping trip. 

Freshly showered in shorts and sneakers, with two blonde girls in tow, Blair and I stood out like, well, two moms at their first activist march. Izzy found us right away, and a 50-ish woman named Judy motioned for us to join the morning meeting. The sky was patched with morning clouds, and the campers gathered in a loose circle, bundled in down jackets and nylon pants that sagged a little at the knees, smelling like fresh air and the physical exertion that comes from walking 15 miles and sleeping outside everyday for the past six weeks. 

The group's acting mayor, Miriam, 71, motioned for us all to hold hands for announcements. Someone said that they were mailing a letter to the President. A bearded coordinator named Jimmy urged everyone to show up for a rally in Taos on Saturday night; there would be an optional field trip to see the earth ships, if anyone was interested. Sarah, on the logistics team, briefed us on our route: We would walk north out of the village of Chimayo toward Truchas, 15 miles into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, along the rural byway known as the High Road to Taos. After Blair and I and the girls were introduced to the group and greeted with smiles and prayer hands all around, Miriam led us in song, a plaintive chant imploring us to not kill the earth.

In my fervor to join the March, I'd blithely assumed we would walk the whole way, and I'd brought a borrowed BOB off-road stroller as backup for when Pippa got tired. Blair had brought one for Grace, too, but at the last minute, as we were donning reflective safety vests and the marchers were shouldering their hand-written signs, we decided to take only one, for Grace; Pippa could ride on the front if need be. I'd also assumed that we'd be strolling quiet country roads, and possibly trails. I'd heard that before they reached Santa Fe, the marchers had been met by local Native American tribal members and escorted cross-country on sacred pueblo lands. I pictured us bent over maps, plotting a remote path through the wilds of New Mexico.


Instead, we were walking up the pencil-wide shoulder of Country Road 98 during Chimayo's morning rush hour. Cars and pickups whizzed by, some arcing wide to give us room, others nearly clipping us. I clutched tightly to Pippa's hand. The marchers seemed unfazed: They'd already walked 1,000 miles on roads just like this, through gritty L.A. fumes and sleet and hail and blizzards and deluges and dust storms ("I've stopped calling it climate change and now just call it climate strange!" Izzy declared when I first met him). They strung out along the white line, waving their signs jollily and flashing peace signs at the drivers. A middle-aged woman named Kat from Homer, Alaska, called out in broken Spanish to an elderly Hispanic couple who sat on the portal of their old adobe watching us pass, expressionless.

There was so much going on it was hard to focus on the walking. I thought about what Judy, who had joined in Payson, Arizona, and was going as far as Denver, had told me in the parking lot when I asked her if she loved marching: "It's more complicated than that."

Indeed, even with the traffic and the effort required to keep Pippa moving forward in a somewhat straight line and Grace entertained in the stroller, I could see that the walking was the easy part. Harder by far was coexisting outside with a disparate group of people for eight months while trying to rally around a common cause. Of the three dozen walkers, nearly all were nearing or over 50, semi-retired or empty-nesters. Three or four were under 25, including a woman in a long skirt who was doing the whole march in silence (except for singing). Then there was Mac, 24, a spirit walker who had just graduated from the University of Michigan and was marching—or rather hobbling—barefoot. "Walking is not just about the activism," he told us. "I believe that I'm connecting to the earth and transforming myself, and through that, others will be inspired to transform, too."

But what about the activism? When I asked Kimberly, a masseuse from Des Moines with salt-and-pepper hair, what message they were hoping to convey through the March, she explained that their mission statement was still a work in progress. "It's about water and energy and solar," she said, "and the Keystone Pipeline. We're working on our vision as a group." 


The logistics of organizing such a massive undertaking are tricky, too. When they showed up in LA for the start of the Great March, on March 1, Miriam explained, "there was hardly any infrastructure set up. There were no dishes or pots. We had to do everything from the beginning." The original plan had envisioned a thousand full-time marchers, but so far on any given day, there have been less than 50. (Many marchers come and go, walking for weeks or months and leaving for just as long to tend to things at home; they hope to recruit more en route, starting in Denver in June.) The March adheres to the principles of non-violence and is self-governed through an elected city council, mayor, and judicial board. Early on, the marchers implemented once-a-week rest days to catch up on the real lives they left behind, but they were so busy doing laundry and sending emails and fundraising (each full-time marcher committed to raising $20 per day to cover food and expenses) that they started calling them "stay days." 

A mile from the Santuario, the March turned north onto busier NM 76, the High Road, threading through farm fields and horse pastures and past ramshackle adobe art studios. Pippa had taken to straddling the front of the stroller rather than walking, which was a relief—the cars were coming faster, and the shoulder had narrowed—but made for awkward pushing. Under the weight of both girls, the BOB lurched and swerved in the soft gravel like a fully-loaded shopping cart with a bad wheel.

Our fellow walkers were unfailingly optimistic. "You're the youngest marchers we've ever had!" they exclaimed cheerfully to the girls, as they took turns helping Blair and me maneuver the stroller up a long hill. One of the marchers, Bob, had volunteered to drive the sag wagon, Kimberly's Prius, that morning, and he kept pulling over to direct us safely along dodgy sections through the blind curves. Drivers honked and slowed to wave or give us the thumbs up; others ignored us altogether.

Our girls rose to the occasion of their first environmental march. Pippa gamely hopped in and out of the BOB, feeding Grace bits of Larabar, listening patiently while the marchers talked about climate change, and complaining only a little: "When are we going to get to the trail, Mama?"


We were still ten miles from the nearest trail, a dirt forest road that that would spare us from Highway 76, when Blair and I decided to pull the plug. Grace had begun to clamor to get out of the stroller, but the High Road was still far too busy for her to toddle safely, and Bob graciously offered to shuttle us back the Santuario in the Prius. We shook hands, hugged the marchers goodbye, and wished them luck. It was just after 10 am. We'd walked three miles of the Great March for Climate Action, one-one-thousandth of the way across the country.

Driving back to Santa Fe, I tried to make sense of the morning. Part of me was inexplicably glad to go home, to not have to walk en masse to Washington and sleep in parking lots and eat lentils from the back of a truck. But the other half of me knew we'd only just nicked the surface of the Great March. Like any adventure, it always takes a few days to find your place—outside and in the group. "It's a constant discovery," Judy told me. "You're wondering where you fit in." It's changing—we all are—all the time. 

For nearly everyone I talked to, the reality of marching was so different from the fantasy. Not better or worse, just different. "Before the March, I'd been afraid of sleeping outside," Kimberly explained as we walked. "Now I can't imagine not." Earlier Judy told me, "there's a timelessness to living outside that most of us never get to experience." And for 18-year-old named Bernise, who's taking a year off college to walk, the March "is so much more amazing than I ever expected." I've spend the last couple of years running ultra-distance trail races, and marching three miles for a cause with young children felt harder than running 50.

I asked Pippa what she thought of being part of one of the largest cross-country marches in history. "It was cool," she said automatically—high praise from a kindergartener. But then she was quiet for a while, and I could tell she was thinking. "They're still walking," she marveled. "And they'll still be walking at Halloween."

Years from now, long after the March is over, our children—these very girls—will inherit the problems of a warming, changing world, and it will be their crisis to solve. Had Blair and I and our daughters made a difference by walking that day? Will we turn off the lights and stop ordering our lattes to go in paper cups? Think twice about driving, and ride our bikes instead? Meet the March in Omaha after all? For the sake of our daughters, and their daughters, I really, really hope so.

But probably, it's more complicated than that. 

For more information about how to meet up with the March or donate, go to Full-timer marchers and part-time walkers are always welcome; see the route and schedule online.

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Obstacle Racing Goes Au Naturel

Since its inception, obstacle course racing has been associated with mud and mega obstacles. Think Tough Mudder’s Electroshock Therapy, Spartan Race’s endless barbed wire crawls, and Roc Race’s water slide. The new series O2X is challenging that model.

“We’re creating the intersection between OCR and elite trail running,” says Craig Coffey, one of the O2X Summit Challenge’s four founders (he’s the attorney). Events are point-to-point uphill, and rated and marked according to elevation gain. A Single Diamond course, for instance, will gain 1000 to 2000 feet in 4 to 6 miles, while a Double Diamond will gain 2000 to 3000 feet in 6 to 9 miles, and the monster Triple Diamond will gain 3000+ feet in 9+ miles. Most notably, none of the obstacles will be man-made. 

“We see this as the evolution and the next step of OCR,” Coffey says. “Obstacles are great, but you don’t need to manufacture them. They’re there on the mountain.”

We grilled Coffey about the “natural" obstacle series, which debuts at Sugarbush, Vermont, on September 13. 

OUTSIDE: Are natural obstacles just a convenient way out of having to build and set up expensive obstacles?
There are so many obstacles and challenges that Mother Nature provides on the mountain—steep terrain, rock outcroppings, glades, fallen trees, rivers. There’s nothing efficient about planning these courses. In a lot of ways it might be easier to go get a set of monkey bars. If you’ve done an OCR in Temecula, then go do the same thing in upstate New York, it’s by and large the same course—the same high wall, the same rope. But when you’re skiing you never say, ‘Well I’ve skied Big Bear, I don’t need to ski Tahoe.’ The mountains are different and every one of our courses is going to be unique to that mountain. It’s certainly a more natural way to go about it. 

There’s a very strong environmental thread running through everything that we do. The owner of Sugarbush hasn’t allowed other players because he’s afraid of how he’s going to put the mountain back together when the circus leaves town. He’s a steward of the mountain, and he let us on it because he feels our race is more authentic and wholesome and natural. There will be no backhoes digging muddy trenches.

Where did the idea for the series come from?
Three of the guys had been Navy Seals, and two of them spent the better part of 12 years in the mountains of Afghanistan. They said the most rewarding part of the physical activity was summiting the different peaks while they were out on operations. One of the guys and I are neighbors and we’ve run six marathons together. It came together one night at his house that this is a race we’d love to do.

[“The guys” include Gabriel Gomez, a Harvard MBA who recently ran for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts; Adam La Reau, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government grad; and Paul McCullough. The company is based in Hingham, Massachusetts.]

Will there be camping?
Yes. There are two different features. There’s overnight camping near the start line the night before your race, if you want to sleep under the stars or bring a tent. There will also be kind of like a runner’s expo before a marathon with nutrition and training talks. We’re sourcing all of our food locally, so there will be a local farmer’s market and local dairy farmers bringing in chocolate milk.

It sounds like the Pikes Peak half marathon meets the Wildflower Triathlon Festival meets Spartan Race. One more question: If you’re just running up, how do you get down?
You take the chairlift!

More obstable racing coverage from Outside

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Why Obama's New Regs Scare Big Coal

The Obama Administration just revealed its much-anticipated plan to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The collective goal of the regulations, which each state will set its own course toward meeting, is to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 30 percent below those levels by 2030.

In terms of Obama's Presidential legacy, it's a big, audacious goal. If the regulations withstand the lawsuits that are sure to come, this will also be a major win for clean air and environmental health—especially for communities surrounding presently coal-powered plants. Will it, alone, reverse or even stop climate change? Not a chance. Regardless, it is a crux move and it will have ripple effects.

Climate and Coal—Can They Get Along?

Topping the to-do list, in terms of avoiding catastrophe, is to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. Some studies show we are on track for a 4-degree rise. Carbon-based energy (across sectors) is the main driver of climate change (the negative effects of which we are already feeling) and so it would follow that reducing carbon emissions is the strongest tool for avoiding calamity.

Yet, as Ezra Klein wrote on Vox, political will today to fight climate change is actually weaker now than in 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain proposed an economic tool for reducing carbon emissions (cap-and-trade) that was "far more aggressive than the power-plant rules the Obama administration is announcing today."

Plus, China assumed America's long-held title of world's largest polluter back in 2007.

On the other hand, our move to cap carbon emissions—as well as China's efforts to do the same—should lend momentum toward making binding international treaty agreements, focused on global emissions reductions.

"Internationally, it's incredibly important that the U.S. take explicit steps to limit emissions," says K.C. Golden, senior policy advisor for Climate Solutions, a clean-energy advocacy group. "That is what the rest of the world needs to hear."

He also notes that some states, including those in the Pacific Northwest where Climate Solutions is based, will not only meet, but far exceed, the new emissions goals, to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Nowhere does this [new ruling] stretch the bounds of what is possible or economically feasible" in terms of cutting U.S. carbon emissions, he says, "but it's a big signal from the world's biggest historic carbon emitter."

The (Energy) Hunger Games

Despite China's efforts to cap carbon emissions, Asia's booming economies and population growth mean the region will remain a major consumer of fossil fuels in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the U.S. energy sector, which is already increasingly reliant on natural gas, is going to have to significantly reduce its use of coal to meet the EPA's carbon limits. All of this means coal companies are eager to find new customers in Asia.

More specifically, coal producers in the Powder River Basin, a massive, shallow coal seam that spans from eastern Wyoming to southern Montana, are interested in selling more coal to Asia. To do that, however, they need transport the coal to ships, via ports they're pushing to have built along the Pacific Northwest Coast.

This would mean an influx of port jobs, but also a significant spike in already-busy railroad traffic between the Powder River Basin and three proposed ports (two in Washington and one in Oregon). Fears of a major train derailment, especially as these massive coal-laden locomotives stream along the Columbia River, and concerns over spikes in particulate air pollution from coal dust, have led to a strong opposition movement against the ports.

Opponents argue that a coal spill along the Columbia River or in the coastal waters could create an ecological nightmare, erasing economic benefits from the ports through losses to fisheries and the region's recreation economy.

Protect Our Winters, which is working to advance clean energy policy in the U.S., just released a Kickstarter-backed documentary, called Momenta, about the proposed ports. Narrated by mountaineer Conrad Anker, the film includes interviews with activist Bill McKibben, public health experts, and community stakeholders along the rail's path.

But won't Obama's decision to limit power plant emissions, and thereby put the hurt on the domestic coal industry, only lead to greater pressure to get those ports built?

Eric de Place, policy director of the Sightline Institute, an energy think tank focused on the Pacific Northwest, says Obama's move is very likely to increase the pressure on those ports, which will need a green light from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and local regulatory bodies before they're built. But he does not think that pressure will lead to regulatory bodies being any more likely to green-light the ports.

In fact, he thinks that even if the ports pass environmental muster, the overall economic health of the coal industry could be a turn-off to regulators. "I think they will be less likely to allow them, because I think there is good reason to have existential concern about these [coal] company's longevity," he says. "If I am a regulator, and I look at the coal companies' [health], their ability to get financing has gotten tougher now. If you think of it in terms of that, they are less likely to get permits," he says.

Predictably, the coal industry is unhappy with the new regulation framework, and says it will only lead to higher energy bills for Americans.

I reached out to SSA Marine, the terminal operator that wants to build one of the three proposed ports, the Gateway Pacific Terminal on Washington's far-north coast (near Bellingham), to ask if the Administration's move to cut coal use in U.S. will impact the port's prospects. The company declined to comment.

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How Did Six Climbers Die on Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge?

What exactly happened to six climbers on Mount Rainier who were reported missing on May 30 and are presumed dead remains a mystery, but clues have emerged that strongly suggest an avalanche from above swept them away in the night.

The team, four clients and two guides from Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, set out on the 14,410-foot volcano’s challenging Liberty Ridge route on Monday, May 27. According to Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger Peter Ellis, this advanced route typically takes teams between three and five days to complete. Guided by Rainier veterans Matt Hegeman, 38, who’d climbed the mountain more than 50 times, and Eitan Green, 29, who started guiding the mountain shortly after graduating from Colby College in 2009, the group made their approach up the Carbon Glacier on Tuesday.

The route itself is a 5,000-vertical foot direttissima of Rainier’s heavily glaciated north face. To the looker’s left of the ridge is the Willis Wall. Hanging over most of the route is the Liberty Cap, a glacier that regularly sheds ice down the mountain. The Liberty Ridge itself, like a dormer on a pitched roof, tends to shed icefall away from the route, but it’s not immune.

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During the day on Wednesday, the six were spotted by a private party climbing behind them. Depending on the terrain and the strength of the group, the guided climbers may have been simulclimbing—moving together on the same rope—or belaying each other on each pitch, a technique that’s safer but much more time consuming.

“As you’re approaching, you can see up onto the route and see other climbers,” says NPS’s Peter Ellis. “So as this team was approaching Liberty Ridge they saw [the Alpine Ascents team] at Thumb Rock.”

Thumb Rock is formed by a prominent totem of hardened lava at around 10,700 feet and typically serves as high camp. The Alpine Ascents team had stayed there Tuesday night and headed toward the summit in clear weather on Wednesday morning, though conditions would deteriorate that day. Managers at Alpine Ascents believe the team continued on to an area around the Black Pyramid, where the steeper snow and ice pitches begin.

At 6:20 P.M. the guides made a satellite phone call back to the office, telling guide manager Melanie Hodgman that they were going to camp and see if the weather improved by morning. That was the last the Alpine Ascents office heard from the team. But two of the clients also sent out messages that were received by friends. At about 7 P.M. one climber texted a photo of the Wednesday-night camp to a friend, which was shown to Alpine Ascents co-owner Todd Burleson on Sunday.

“Out of nowhere I get a photograph of this camp and it’s very structured camp,” says Burleson, 54, Alpine Ascents founder. “I can’t see around it ‘cause it’s whiteout, but I see the ridge it’s on. It’s on a nice platform. They’ve got three tents set up.”

It appeared as if they’d already climbed to the top of the Black Pyramid, which would have meant most of the route’s difficulty and elevation was behind them.

Another member of the team also sent out a message from a SPOT tracking device at around 7:45 P.M, though there’s been no indication that it was a distress call. The standard SPOT device’s default message is an All-OK signal that includes a GPS locator pin. In this case that pin showed that the camp was somewhere between 12,400 feet and 12,800 feet, not a typical camping spot on the route but not necessarily a cause for concern. Based on the photo and the SPOT pin, Burleson and his office staff have been trying go figure out exactly where the camp might have been.

“You know, it kinda doesn’t make sense,” says Burleson. “I can’t quite figure this out because there’s no place that looks this good at the top of the Black Pyramid. It only makes sense if they were closer to 12,400 feet.”

What happened in the night requires some speculation. In the most likely scenario, rock or icefall from the Liberty Cap, or possibly a soft avalanche triggered by the isolated snowfall that day, swept down from above and carried the team—asleep in their tents—to the looker's right side of the Willis Wall. On Thursday, the private party (NPS hasn’t identified them) that had spotted Alpine Ascents climbed to the summit and saw no further sign of the team.

That same day, Ellis and rangers Dan Veenhuizen and Scotty Barrier happened to be on a routine patrol on Liberty Ridge. “Thursday we set off and then camped out on Curtis Ridge on Thursday night,” says Ellis. “Friday we moved up to Thumb Rock. And then Saturday morning we made a routine radio call to Camp Sherman to let them know that we were moving up the route. And at that point they informed us that this party had indeed not come back and they instructed us to carry on climbing the route, but to search as we climbed—to stop and take pictures, look for clues, and move slowly looking for any sign of an incident.”

The rangers didn’t find anything. It wasn’t until a helicopter made a low pass over a prominent avalanche debris field at the base of the Willis Wall that they were able to pick up signals from the avalanche beacons that all six climbers were wearing. Some gear and unfurled tents were also visible in the debris. Because that zone is in a funnel that receives ice and rockfall from several highly active avalanche chutes leading down from the summit, it was deemed too dangerous to put people on the ground to dig them out. While some reports have suggested that climate change might be to blame, Ellis thinks conditions are pretty normal.

“The summers on the Willis Wall are always active as far as rock fall and icefall, and as long as I’ve been here in this park that zone has always been notorious,” says Ellis. “So I don’t think that it’s any different from the past decade or so.”

The names of the four clients haven’t been released, but news outlets have reported, and the tech giant has confirmed, that one man was Intel vice president Uday Marty, 40, and a second was 26-year-old Mark Mahaney, from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Green and Hegeman were experienced guides for Alpine Ascents, which also has a prominent international guiding business best known for its Himalayan climbs. AAI lost five climbing Sherpas in the April 18 Everest avalanche—that mountain’s deadliest day.

According to NPS spokeswoman Fawn Bauer, rangers will continue to make overflights of the debris field as time allows. “What that means is as we have available aircraft in the air on other missions we will spend time checking out that area,” says Bauer. “The same is true for any kind of foot patrol.”

This is the worst accident on Rainier since ten guided climbers and one guide died on the Ingraham Glacier in June of 1981.

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