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Out of the Wild: Outdoor Recreation Faces the Threat of Climate Change

Dessa Gerger learned to ski the moment her family stepped foot in Juneau when she was five years old. She remembers the snow piles that nearly touched the roof of her house, the winding drives to downhill practice, and her slick skis on the icy sheets almost as vividly as what the Mendenhall Glacier used to look like. Like many people in Juneau, spent most of her childhood outside; preoccupied with nordic skiing in the woods behind her house and downhill skiing at Eaglecrest Mountain, she took advantage of the seemingly endless snow before it was too late. 

Fourteen years later, Gerger finds herself inside more and taking in the snowy peaks less. As a student on a gap year in Egypt and intending to matriculate at Barnard College in the fall, Gerger is among the first generation to witness the effects of climate change and be tasked with solving this crisis. She recognizes the importance of preserving the place she watches deteriorate with each day that goes by. “Having enough snow to cover the ground at Eaglecrest without seeing the rocks and dirt is almost unheard of,” she told The Politic in an interview. 

The impact of climate change on the Mendenhall Glacier is clear as day. Gerger said that “everybody, including my mom, has said that the glacier has significantly receded, but I’ve even seen it recede since coming to Alaska [14 years ago].” Reports say the Mendenhall Glacier retreated nearly one-third of a mile between 2007 and 2015; videos show the ice sheet slough into the lake below in a matter of seconds. If current predictions of a ten-degree (F) temperature increase by 2100 hold true, the Mendenhall Glacier may vanish by 2200. To Gerger, this isn’t surprising: “I’m always thinking about the impression the melting of the glacier has made on me because I’m cognizant of what’s been going on. For people who live in Juneau, we all know the Mendenhall has receded so much, and it’s something that everybody cares about.” 

A rise in global temperatures is the culprit. As temperatures increase and snowfall decreases, natural relics like the Mendenhall Glacier can’t keep up. Over the next 100 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expects worldwide temperatures to rise anywhere between two and a half to ten degrees Fahrenheit. This will have profound impacts on both the personal and economic aspects of outdoor recreation. Not only will the natural world disappear, but rising temperatures will also deeply alter local and national economies that rely on specific climate patterns. Ski towns are expected to take a hard hit; reports estimate that a forty to seventy percent decrease in skiing in the United States will cause a loss of $1.7 billion in expenditure per year. 

For people in Juneau who spend their summers waiting for the first snowfall on Eaglecrest, reports that indicate the shortening of winter-like conditions cultivate uncertainty and make Alaskans like Gerger wonder whether buying a new pair of skis for the diminishing ski season is worth it. 

Gerger doesn’t know what the future of her love of hiking and skiing will look like if climate change continues to melt the Mendenhall. Like many Americans whose ability to hike, backpack, whitewater kayak, climb, or fish is hindered by the increasingly pervasive effects of climate change, Gerger wonders what it will take to preserve the Mendenhall, and by extension, her childhood. 

The Trump administration crystallized its stance on climate change in June 2017 when the president vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Backed by Republicans in Congress, Trump reversed climate policies that previously curbed carbon dioxide emissions, regulated harmful fracking mechanisms, cleaned polluted water, and preserved keystone ecosystems. The impact of this rollback is already felt by the natural world and the people who interact with it recreationally. Gerger doesn’t think she’ll come home from her gap year in Egypt to a blanketed Eaglecrest, something so fond yet so distant in her memory. The repercussions of the Trump administration’s emphasis on fuel over endangered species and the economy over the future of our planet will only loom larger over the next generation of backpackers and climbers. 

The Mountain School of Milton Academy is a semester program in Vershire, Vermont that gives 45 high school juniors, mostly from cities around America, the opportunity to farm and take care of animals while taking an honors course load. At the Mountain School, Clio Rose ՚23 saw cherry blossoms encroach on winter earlier than she expected. In an email correspondence with The Politic, she wrote: “something particularly meaningful about studying at the Mountain School was learning about human impact on the environment and studying how land tells stories.” 

Growing up in Alaska, Gerger carved her story into the thick, dense Eaglecrest snow with her skis. As the Mendenhall melted, Gerger’s fervor for hiking and skiing was redefined as an intense passion for the salvation of our environment. Now, all Gerger wants is “enough snow to cover the ground: that’s all we can hope for.”

***

Camilla Nivison wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into. In preparation for the Sierras, she checked the snow reports every day, anxiously watching inches rise into feet from the classroom where she teaches AP Environmental Science, wondering whether the Sierra snow would melt come late July. Her three weeks on the John Muir Trail in California began on July 23 in Yosemite National Park. She expected to see some snow, maybe a few white peaks or piles nestled under trees. What she didn’t expect was to use her microspikes to trek through the snowfields. 

“Sierra had one of the highest snow years on record, and what that meant for all of these people who scored permits––you apply for a permit to hike there six months in advance––was that the snowmelt was about three weeks behind what it usually is,” Nivison said in an interview with The Politic. The uncertainty of trail conditions made her anxious; with a maximum base snow depth of 92.5 feet, Nivison had to worry about a duality rarely present in late July: snowpack and snowmelt. 

“It wasn’t unmanageable at that point; if I had been there a week earlier, the trail would’ve looked really different. Two weeks before that? Even more so … such that early July would’ve been winter-like conditions out there,” Nivison postulated

Nivison talked about her time on the trail fondly: the people she encountered while trudging through all that winter left, the vast mountain ranges among the snowfields. Nivison modestly downplayed what backpacking the John Muir is truly like. At a trail altitude almost consistently higher than 8,000 feet, containing 14,505-foot peak Mount Whitney, hiking while carrying everything one could possibly need for three weeks isn’t a small feat. Altitude sickness, blisters, and shortness of breath are just a few of the less-severe, more common ailments during the grueling trek. 

One of Nivison’s most vivid memories was the full buckets of resupply at the ranch. The ranchers told her that 60 percent of the early season resupplies were never picked up. “People just didn’t show up to get their stuff … they decided they couldn’t complete the trip because trail conditions were too hard [with] the snow, or they had started and turned around before they resupplied,” Nivison reported.

Coupled with the uncertainty of receiving a permit, variance in weather and trail conditions makes it difficult to both prepare for a backpacking trip of this magnitude and to even get there. In 2014, only 3,500 people received permits to hike the John Muir Trail. The window of time to backpack the Trail is shrinking and shifting unpredictably, and the number of people who have the ability to compress their necessary belongings and leave their life at home to backpack is diminishing at the speed of the receding Mendenhall. 

“Most people don’t usually think of more snow as being associated with climate change,” Nivison remarked. “However, as the global average temperature increases, precipitation patterns change, which can cause big snow years like the one the Sierras just experienced. That is climate change.”

Climate change didn’t only impact Nivison’s trip to the Sierras. Just last month, she couldn’t go whitewater paddling in New York because of a climate problem antithetical to the surplus of snow she backpacked through in California: the reservoirs which were to be released for recreational paddling had nearly dried up. When asked about how she discerns the topical material of the AP Environmental Science class she teaches at the Horace Mann School, she answered: “it’s scary seeing climate that I talk about in class directly having an impact on what I want to do on a given weekend.”

Nivison isn’t only concerned about her weekend. To her, the effect climate change can and will have on our lives is much more profound than not being able to paddle on a crisp September afternoon. This is why she has dedicated her life to teaching the next generation not only about how climate change is crumbling the world as we know it, but also how her students can work toward a systemic solution. Nivison encourages her students to partake in climate strikes; to speak up about what our government needs to do to protect our planet; to use metal utensils in the cafeteria; and to believe that every sustainable action, every march, every minute spent backpacking amidst the melting snowfields, makes a difference.  

***

After skiing Everest’s Lhotse Face, Chris Davenport nearly fell to his knees and gave thanks for his safe descent. Just days before his summit of Everest in 2011, Davenport and his friend Neil Bidelman took their rest day to ski the Lhotse Face, a steep-pitched glacial sheet and necessary climb to the South Col of Everest. “When we stood out on this massive face, standing on the world’s highest mountain looking down, we were incredibly intimidated, but I also knew this was exactly what I should be doing,” said Davenport in an interview for The Politic. 

Everest is truly a climb like no other. On the brink of hypoxia, after one failed summit attempt due to extreme variances in weather conditions, Davenport characteristically waited for an opening in the clouds, noting he “goes slow to go fast” up Everest. With patience and zeal for the summit, Davenport reached the highest point of the world on his second attempt. I could hear his smile beaming through the phone when he recounted the feeling of ascending to Everest’s peak under a full moon. His successful summit on May 20, 2011, he said, is “always one of the more difficult things to describe; you’re standing on the roof of the world.” 

Eight years later, Davenport still hears news from Everest. Just a few weeks ago, teams hiking the fall season turned back because of dangerous hanging ice due to heightened temperatures on the Khumbu Icefall. Everest’s glaciers are receding due to a spike in temperature, revealing rocks and ice that, when dislodged, cause fatal hiking seasons. Davenport commented that “an observation many people are having is that climate change––especially extreme fluctuations in temperature, even locally in Aspen, and seasonal monsoon changes––are causing mountains [like Everest] to fall apart. Mountains are held together by permafrost, and we’re seeing larger landslides and mass-wasting events––when mountains literally crumble––because of rising temperatures.” 

Summiting and skiing Everest isn’t Davenport’s only claim to fame. He is a two-time world champion skier, the first person to hike and ski every one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains (there are fifty-four) in under one year, an author, a passionate climate activist, and a father who lives with his family in Aspen, Colorado.

Davenport doesn’t only notice the effects of rising temperatures at 29,000 feet. When asked about what climate change looks like to him, Davenport immediately mentioned how taken aback he was the first time he saw rain in December in Aspen. Now, it rains during Aspen’s winter months with increasing frequency. Davenport’s stance on climate change and its relation to his outdoor-centric career is clear. “It’s our duty as humans to protect our backyard and livelihoods and to do well by our families,” Davenport asserted. “I have three children, and I want to be a parent that doesn’t leave my kids in a worse-off situation…. It’s our job to protect what we have, not to trash our backyard.”

Skiing and climbing are Davenport’s life, passion, and motivation to shift the impending climate change narrative. With a few friends, Davenport is “mobilizing the outdoor industry” because of a shared belief that “the livelihood of the [outdoor] industry is at stake.” His friend and professional snowboarder, Jeremy Jones, started Protect Our Winters (POW) in 2007, when Davenport began to see the effects of climate change both while skiing the Matterhorn and Eiger and when walking the rainy December streets of Aspen. 

POW empowers outdoor athletes and winter sports organizations to mobilize the public and push political officials to act with increased cognizance about climate change. With more than 130,000 supporters, POW has become a force to be reckoned with, a voice for outdoor adventurers like Davenport, and a support network for people who rely on snowy winters recreationally and monetarily. When asked about how the rise in temperature has impacted his hometown, Davenport said that “most of the people that live in the valley have jobs that revolve around tourism, like working in the service industry or for the ski resort. Everyone is tied into that, so the impact of climate change is real.” 

Davenport, with POW, is pushing for activism now. Davenport is conscious that his voice carries profound gravity within the outdoor recreational community; he knows he must begin the fight for climate change recognition before his ski season and memories of Everest melt away. During our interview, Davenport pitched to me how I should get involved: “Systemic policy change is where we will make the biggest impact…. Getting involved with organizations like POW and the National Resources Defense Council, lobbying elected politicians, going to Capitol Hill, meeting with state and federal officials, and demanding that institutional changes are made is what we need to be doing. People here [in Aspen] are really behind that.”

Nivison, Gerger, and Davenport are all tethered to the environment through their recreational interactions with the natural world. The future of the outdoor community is deeply uncertain, hinging upon a crucial international shift in regulation, production, and rhetoric surrounding climate change that must occur within the next decade. As Delger Erdenesanaa, a Communications Specialist at World Resources Institute said in an interview with The Politic, “There are definitely lots of solutions out there; whether its ocean or food-based solutions … it’s all out there. It’s a matter of which governments and countries have the political will to implement them in time.” 

Davenport’s ardor for action is felt by all partakers in outdoor recreation: “I don’t want to be somebody twenty, thirty, or forty years from now who looks back and thinks ‘gosh, I wish I had done more.’ That’s just not fair; we want to and have to take care of the climate right now.” 

But until tangible and necessary government climate policy reform takes place, Davenport, Nivison, and Gerger will continue to hold onto the natural world they recreationally engage with by inciting change. “Anytime you’re surrounded by mother nature in that kind of awe-inspiring way,” said Davenport, “it’s what I live for.”