Change of seasons

As we get to the time of year when we put our ski kit away, it’s a time to reflect on what’s happened in the last few months and to start planning 2025.

I heard quite a few moans about how terrible the 2024 season. For sure it was different but, quite frankly, with a bit of ingenuity and luck, I got some really good skiing in. I wasn’t around in the Alps for the start of the season. From a ship in the Antarctic, I was monitoring the buildup of the snowpack, the whoops of delight in early season at record snow depths for the time of year, followed by groans of disappointment when it rained, with much of the lovely powdery base washed away up to about 2000m. By the time I returned in mid January, the picture was clear: good snow above 2000m, very little below that. I skied in a wide variety of alpine venues: Chamonix (of course), the Hautes-Alpes, Val d’Aosta, the Silvretta and the Valais, to name just a few. The worst snow was a day of almost unskiable windcrust in Val d’Aosta. The best was a bluebird powder day with 50cm of fresh in the Silvretta.

In early April I left for six weeks of high latitude ski touring in Arctic Norway and Spitsbergen. The first week in the Tromsø area was warm and windy. While it was challenging snow and weather, I also had one of the best descents of my life in a happy window of opportunity, a steep undocumented couloir in a remote location with a good friend. After that, conditions gradually improved though once again it was good to be skiing at higher altitudes than normal. In Spitsbergen we had two weeks with over 50% bluebird in each week, with snow better than average.

        

It’s clear from this and recent previous winter seasons that skiing is becoming more and more challenging as a result of climate change. There are more extreme highs and lows, whether that’s precipitation or wind, together with long periods of the same weather pattern, overlaid by a gradual rise in average temperatures which means rising altitudes of the snow/rain limit.

In the short term, we need to become more flexible. As a friend of mine who works on climate change says, we need to either do different things or do the same things differently. In the long term, these differences are going to be massive and the pace of change will accelerate and keep accelerating. I’ve been involved with the making of a film about how climate change is affecting not only the physical geography of the terrain around Chamonix but also the human geography of the people lucky enough to live and work there. Here’s a teaser of the film which illustrates the problem:

To get the film made, Tom Burke and Kate White of Studio BW have set up a GoFundMe page and I would strongly encourage donations to this very creative project about a crucial subject.

As skiers and mountaineers we are presented with a dilemma. Essentially mountain tourism is environmentally damaging. It involves travel, most of it currently by air. As the amounts of snow decrease, there is an impetus to travel further to get the same hit. From a personal perspective as I head into the final decade of my career as a guide, my respiratory capacity is decreasing. Skiing and mountaineering at high latitudes at sea level become increasingly attractive. Plus it’s a fantastic experience to be on snow above an ocean. But this comes at an environmental cost: air flights to Longyearbyen and Ushuaia are at opposite ends of the planet and both are a long way from home in Chamonix. What to do?

We all have individual choices to make. I could live in a cave and eat lentils, but that doesn’t work for me. Where to draw the line? Here’s a list of choices I’ve made. In no way am I saying that if you make a different choice that you’re wrong or an evil environmental vandal. As long as you’ve thought about it.

  • When I fly to the ends of the earth, I try to go for as long as I can. That’s usually about 6 weeks, between 3 and 5 trips, so I’m spreading that impact.
  • I’m mostly veggie, and try to buy locally grown produce
  • I draw the line at flying from Chamonix to Japan to ski. The snow does look amazing, but not amazing enough for me to be able to justify the flights.
  • I’ve chosen not to have kids. This was initially because I value my lifestyle too much, but the environmental benefits are equally significant.

On the mitigation side:

It’s probably not enough, but better than nothing….

Once again, in no way am I saying that if you make a different choice that you’re wrong or an evil environmental vandal. As long as you’ve thought about it.