Cold Smoke Cold Smoke

Photo: Nicolas Teichrob

By Mitchell Scott

For those who love winter in the high mountains, loss of snow, increased probability of avalanches and melting glaciers are all fearsome outcomes of climate change. Until Porter Fox’s book, Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, however, few had tried to document the relationship between skiers and the emerging fate of their mountain playground. KMC interviews the author about his quest to discover the truth.

IF YOU'RE a winter-sports enthusiast, it’s the story you don’t want to read. And it’s a tale fewer would ever want to write. But for long-time ski writer and editor Porter Fox, who’s been an editor at Powder magazine since 1999, the lure to figure out what’s happening to our winters was too strong. In his recently released book, Deep: The Story of Skiing and the History of Snow, Fox goes straight to both the heart of how climate change is currently affecting snow in our mountains and the soul of a culture who might just be winter’s greatest saviors: skiers and snowboarders. After growing up in Maine and falling in love with the dirtbag skiing lifestyle after moving to Jackson Hole, Wyoming as a young man, Fox has become one of the ski world’s most prolific writers. He has travelled to most of the significant ranges on earth, penning stories on destinations, characters and issues of the high mountains for titles like Powder, Outside, Men’s Journal, The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic Adventure. In Deep, Fox paints a meticulously researched picture of the future of snow and why mountain enthusiasts of the world need to band together to make a difference. While the situation is dire, he says there is still hope. KMC Editor Mitchell Scott caught up with Porter Fox at his home in Brooklyn, New York.

Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine: This is obviously a massive topic to tackle. As someone who has travelled the world and written about some of the best ski destinations on the planet, what really inspired you to take it on. It must have been daunting when the idea first clicked, but what was that moment where you said to yourself, “Okay, I have do this?”

Porter Fox: It started with a couple of skiers in Jackson Hole who called me up and said, “Hey, will you do a book on climate change and skiing?” And so I looked into it, and that moment you’re talking about came pretty soon after I started digging into the National Snow and Ice Status Centre website, NASA, NOAA, and the IPCC websites, where I just read the basic statistics that everybody agrees on. It was the timeline along which these changes were happening and were predicted to continue happening that really struck fear into my heart. Right there it went from being a project that somebody wanted me to do, to a real mission to find out exactly what was going on and how much time we actually have. That’s the closest answer to your question I can think of; it was sort of a statistical realization this wasn’t a futuristic thing people will have to deal with in 200 years. It was something that needed to be addressed in the next 10 to 20 years or else it’s going to be really bad.

Photo: Grant Gunderson

Photo: Grant Gunderson

KMC: What year was this?

PF: The spring of 2012.

KMC: Is Deep a precedent-setting book? Is there another body of work like this that tries to bridge the gap between bring climate change and skiing?

PF: There wasn’t anything, and I’m not saying that to say I was a pioneer. There was a lot of frustration on my part because I couldn’t find any information. I really had to work with raw data right from the start, interpreting graphs from various labs and science facilities around the world. So it was good for the book in that it really was the first, but it made research incredibly complicated.

KMC: Having immersed yourself in this, what did you find scary?

PF: I think it’s important to realize that if the earth warms more than two degrees Celsius this century, you’re looking at a catastrophic situation. I was very laissez-faire with these numbers when I first started reading about them. I was thinking, “ Oh two to four, four to six,” you know, just kind of writing it down. I was talking to Auden Schendler, the vice-president of sustainability at Aspen Ski Co. who was emphatic that I not treat these numbers quite so casually; you need to understand that anything more than two degrees Celsius, you’re looking at widespread famine; widespread water scarcity; massive populations moving, migrating North into places where they can survive; potential conflicts with political borders; potential complete collapse of the world economy, really devastating stuff.

PricewaterhouseCoopers had a statistic that said we’ve got 50-50 chance of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius, if we decarbonize six times faster than what we’re doing right now. And that’s from a pretty conservative institution. Basically, if one thing came out of my research, it’s that we have to try to stop the world by warming more than two degrees or this is just all for not.

Photo: Mason Mashon

Photo: Mason Mashon

KMC: The story starts with the avalanche that happened in Washington State’s Tunnel Creek, at Stevens Pass in 2012 where important people in the ski community passed away. It provides a compelling narrative to keep readers interested, but why did you start there? What do avalanches and climate change have in common?

PF: There are a few answers to that. First of all, every avalanche forecaster and many climatologists that I spoke with made a point of explaining how avalanche danger is going to spike as the temperature rises—in a very dramatic way. One ski patrol at Big Sky Resort [in Montana] actually said that climate change gave him job security because avalanches were certainly not going away; they were just going to get worse. That comes with fewer storms but more intense storms, a four-foot dump instead of a two-foot dump. And then you’re getting rain on snow events up to 12,000 feet, and then you’re getting long periods of sunshine and no precipitation in between storms of which all are bad for avalanches.

Simultaneously, I was looking for a way to tell the story of skiing because the book isn’t just about snow; it’s about the story of skiing and the future of snow. The characters in the Tunnel Creek avalanche, both the victims and the people that were there, epitomize that deeply passionate skier so perfectly that it was a really good chance to explain to the general public how passionate skiers really are about their sport. It so happens that there are some similarities with the actual avalanche: the way it happened, the kind of weather events that led up to it. There were some similarities between that and between what these avalanche forecasters were telling me what to expect in the future: a long period between storms, a very intense storm, a rain event that goes high up on the mountain, so all of those factors combined made it a good match to start the book with.

You need to understand that anything more than two degrees Celsius, you’re looking at widespread famine; widespread water scarcity; massive populations moving, migrating North into places where they can survive; potential conflicts with political borders; potential complete collapse of the world economy, really devastating stuff.

KMC: The idea of more unpredictable avalanches and less snow is a mountain enthusiast’s worst nightmare. In the book, you quote Franklin D. Roosevelt as saying,  “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” But it seems the only tool we have for change is this whole notion of fear. Do you agree?

PF: No, it’s not, and it’s actually not a good way to activate people. When you scare them, climate change becomes this giant monster that is mysterious and dangerous and seems undefeatable. It’s just too big and too invisible on a daily basis. When I was doing my book tour, I had a chance to talk to people from Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and a bunch of other non-profits that are trying to spread this message, and what they said was, “Don’t make ultimatums. Explain to people how living more sustainably is just living better: it saves you a lot of money, it saves your health, it saves the environment, it’s just being smarter and not being lazy.”

One of the big fears among the scientific community, and a lot of civilians as well, is that we’ve already passed a tipping point. This is a big discussion these days of how many parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can we have before climate change gets to a point that it won’t stop? And the reason it will go that direction are these natural feedbacks that are built into the system. One of them is in Canada: when the permafrost in Arctic Canada begins to melt and the methane there is released into the atmosphere, it will warm the planet many, many more times than human beings ever will. There are about a dozen natural feedbacks like this that are equally dangerous around the world and that’s where this concept of a tipping point comes from. But to explain this to a crowd of people who are hearing about this for the first time, it’s just too much. And so what we talk about is that this a generational thing, and our generation, well, we were lucky. We didn’t have to fight in a war, we weren’t drafted at least to fight in a war; it was a voluntary war. So we talk about this generation, the younger generation, well, this is our fight. And it’s something that we need to take pride in doing: cleaning up what the generations before left for us and take it on as a challenge and not as something to be afraid of. The beauty of that fight is that, in the end, you’re living much better…you have more money in the bank potentially, you have more water availability. The technological breakthroughs that come with mitigating climate change are just fantastic.

In Canada, we need people to stand up against the tar sands oil refining. We need the XL pipeline to be shut down. We need to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it up in the sky. It’s literally that simple.

KMC: There’s a lot of status associated with winter sports. They’re the elite. They go helicopter skiing every year, own second homes, drive SUVs, enjoy leisure time. Do you think the skiing community has the ability take on a leadership role when it comes to curbing climate change?

PF: Absolutely, and I think so because that’s how they got rich. They took a leadership role, they took chances, they innovated, did a lot of really crazy stuff—just incredibly intelligent and innovative folks. You’ve met a lot of skiers in your life. I’ve skied on five continents at this point, and it doesn’t matter where I am, the people that I meet up in the mountains, up above 3,000 feet, are a different breed: they’re very innovative, they’ve learned how to live in an environment that is hostile and to tame it, and they live quite comfortably and really, really well. That’s kind of what we are talking about here.

KMC: So for the average ski bum who is living off the grid—not necessarily to save the world but because that’s the most efficient way to get to the next pow stash—what do they do?

PF: The first thing you can do is join Protect Our Winters. That’s what I did. They are on the vanguard of all of this information, of what’s happening in Washington, DC: exactly which senators and representatives are voting for and against climate change, and why, and where they’re from, and how to vote them either in or out of office. That’s what it’s going to take. It’s beyond the point of recycling; it’s beyond the point of carpooling at this point—although all those things are great things—we are well passed that. We need a national policy shift on how we create and consume energy.

In Canada, we need people to stand up against the tar sands oil refining. We need the XL pipeline to be shut down. We need to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it up in the sky. It’s literally that simple. And it’s not an ethical thing; it’s not a philosophical thing. All that the future of civilization and climate change and greenhouse gasses is at this point is simple math. And if you don’t believe in math, then I can’t help you. But that’s what it’s down to at this point.

It’s beyond the point of recycling; it’s beyond the point of carpooling at this point—although all those things are great things—we are well passed that. We need a national policy shift on how we create and consume energy.

KMC: When it comes to winter sports, why should anyone else care about what’s happening in the high mountains as opposed to those who actively recreate in them?

PF: Because there are a billion people around the world that depend on snowmelt for their fresh water supply—more than a billion. In the US West there are 70 million people that get their water from the Rockies. I’m not sure what it is in the Kootenays or in British Columbia, but you can imagine every river, every stream, every farm that feeds off of that is all coming from the snow. Granted rainfall does bring a certain amount. I mean it brings water, but it doesn’t store it the way that snow does by slowly dispersing it throughout the season to water the fields and maintain river habitat and keep forests healthy and keep wildfires down. The natural water storage that snow provides is a huge part of the water cycle and what keeps our way of life the way it is.

KMC: Obviously you have a wealth of knowledge that you didn’t have before. Do you think it screwed you up more than it enlightened you?

PF: No, I think it enlightened me. It gave me that confidence that there really is a way out. It messed me up in the very beginning when I was first working on the book because I was just like, “What’s the point?” I didn’t want to write the book. I mean what’s the point of writing it if there is just no way out, but there is a way out and there’s a very clear pathway to mitigation that we’ve been ignoring for about half a century. It gives me great solace and lets me sleep at night just to at least know there’s hope, and within that hope there’s a possibility of a much more egalitarian and sustainable way of life for the future. And that’s just all you can do is hope. That’s the way we go after it. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see./

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Mitchell Scott is the editor-in-chief of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine.

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