Environmentalism and Climbing: An Uneasy Partnership

© Neil Hinckley / Leor Pantilat
The Whitechuck Glacier, Washington, USA, 1973 and again in 2006  © Neil Hinckley / Leor Pantilat
The Whitechuck Glacier, Washington, USA, 1973 and again in 2006
© Neil Hinckley / Leor Pantilat
Two years ago I was sitting with friends in a high mountain hut in the Bernese Oberland. We had just completed a fantastic day of ski-touring over The Arpelistock, enjoying fresh, deep powder on the descents.  We arrived at the hut by early afternoon and played a game of cards in the warmth of the final rays of sun. 

My thoughts drifted to a university assignment I had postponed to come skiing.  The subject was 'alternative energy sources' and even the smallest bit of reading had left me feeling daunted and overwhelmed – not so much for my essay, but for my future.

I voiced my fears:

“What with climate change, do you think we'll still be able to do this in 20 years?”

“What, play cards?” came the first reply.

“No, ski tour.”


An emphatic response, shortly qualified by someone else with

“Maybe... maybe in the same way as you can still go ski-touring in Scotland today, occasionally and only then by carefully picking your venue.”

I was shocked.  Up until then I'd assumed that most people managed to avoid the grimness of this sort of thing by simply ignoring the evidence.  Yet here we were, a merry band of British ski-tourers, and none of us was prepared to say that they thought ski-touring was going to be a viable alpine sport in two decades' time.

san rafael glacier, block falling...  © no_more_scotch_eggs
san rafael glacier, block falling...
© no_more_scotch_eggs, Mar 2008

Climate Change 2007
Mountainous areas will face glacier retreat, reduced snow cover and winter tourism, and extensive species losses (in some areas up to 60%) under high emissions scenarios by 2080.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Where we're at:

There's a lot of emotive stuff kicking around about climate change, indeed I may be about to add to it, so let's take a cool, calculated look at where we are at, and where we might be heading.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world authority on climate change matters.  In its 4th assessment report, published in 2007, it produced updated predictions for climate change impacts under business-as-usual scenarios: 

Continued GHG emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.” 

Specifically of interest to mountaineers, they predicted that there would be effects of regional climate change “on some human activities in the Arctic, and in lower-elevation alpine areas (such as mountain sports).” 

So far not too scary, but later they set out projected impacts by region that include, for Europe:

“Mountainous areas will face glacier retreat, reduced snow cover and winter tourism, and extensive species losses (in some areas up to 60% under high emissions scenarios by 2080.)” 

Given the interdependent nature of the globalised world, it's time to stop framing the argument in terms of “saving the planet” versus “saving the economy”. Forget polar bears, the species whose future we should be fighting for hardest is our own.

Es Tresidder

 and for Africa: 

“By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition.”  

For Latin America: “Changes in precipitation patterns and the disappearance of glaciers are projected to significantly affect water availability for human consumption, agriculture and energy generation.”  

Given the interdependent nature of the globalised world, it's time to stop framing the argument in terms of “saving the planet” versus “saving the economy”.  Forget polar bears, the species whose future we should be fighting for hardest is our own.

Yvon Chouinard
© Henry Iddon

The useless emotion:

As climbers, we're used to facing uncertain dangers and great challenges.  We're used to standing at the bottom of something, and looking up, unsure of whether we will succeed or fail.  We're used to tackling problems that to the rest of the world seem insurmountable. 

Every climber recognises the paralysing effect of fear; your shaking legs threaten to wobble the toe of your boots off the small edges, your sweaty hands threaten to grease off the rounded holds, your field of vision narrows to just a few degrees and you miss protection opportunities to the side.  When you climb in this state success only comes if you are either way below your physical limit, or with a healthy dose of luck.  Instead, the ideal state is one of calm, rational detachment, weighing up the dangers and difficulties ahead, mitigating them with available protection, retreating safely if continuing looks too dangerous, and occasionally, realising you have pushed too far and have no choice but to swallow your fear and push onwards and upwards to safety.

Standing beneath the north face of climate change is a sobering and frightening experience.  It becomes more frightening when you realise that we are no longer standing at the bottom of the face, we are some way up it, climbing upwards into the heart of the face and wondering if we have the skills to escape before the storm clouds on the horizon roll in.  Frightening as it may be, as in climbing, if we are to successfully tackle the difficulties ahead, then neither fear nor denial will play a useful part in the process. 

One of the first people I interviewed was Patagonia founder and legendary climber Yvon Chouinard, who summed this up nicely: “For me there's no difference between a pessimist who says; “it's all over don't bother doing anything” and an optimist who says; “oh it's all going to be fine don't bother doing anything”. Either way nothing gets done."

CO2 and other greenhouse gases

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is by no means the only, or even the most powerful, greenhouse gas.  However, it is the one that bears most responsibility for climate change caused by human activity.  Throughout this article, I use “carbon emissions” as shorthand for all greenhouse gas emissions.

Sacred cows – why flying?

Greenhouse gas emissions come from every corner of our economy.  Globally, and even as a nation, flying is accountable for a relatively small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions (just under 5% of global anthropogenic climate forcing, according to a recent study).  So why might it seem in this article that I keep banging on about flying?  If I was to write an article about how we could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from our whole lives, I might bang on about eating less meat and dairy, switching to organic farming methods, improving the efficiency of our housing and changing energy-use behaviour, but I'm not, I'm writing an article about climate change and how it relates to climbing.  Of all the things we do in climbing, travelling by plane has by far the biggest impact.

To see a comparison chart of carbon emissions during travel to Chamonix by car, train and plane - see this UKC News Item.

In addition, there is a philosophical element to my thinking.  While there are clear and coherent low-carbon solutions, or at least ideas, for most of the things that constitute a modern lifestyle, there simply aren't any low-carbon solutions to air travel.  We know how we could dramatically reduce emissions from road and rail transport through electrification; we know how we could reduce personal car use through improved public transport; there are coherent ideas of how we could move to a form of agriculture involving much lower greenhouse gas emissions; we know a lot about improving the efficiency of our buildings and providing renewable energy.  What we lack is a coherent view of how we might substantially reduce the impact of flying – planes are already close to as efficient as they are going to get (because the incentive to minimise fuel costs is already a strong one). Passenger planes already run close to capacity and I'm yet to see a convincing account of how we might replace kerosene with more environmentally benign alternatives.  The only idea on the table that holds water is to dramatically reduce the amount we fly. 

“We need to accept that cheap flights were a moment in history and not a human right.” Steve Taylor, founder of the Castle climbing centre.

Sacred Cow

The present

Four years ago I went to climb the north face of the Eiger.  The year before I had been on two overseas trips – one to Kyrgyzstan and one to Lofoten, and had begun to feel uneasy with how wedded my adventures were to high emissions of greenhouse gases.  It felt all the more potent that the route I was going to climb on the Eiger was widely reported as being in severe danger itself with the onset of climate change, with the famous “white spider” icefield having disappeared during a recent summer.  I felt that flying there, knowing what I knew, would've tainted my whole experience.  I decided that from then on I would travel within Europe without flying. 

Other mountaineers out there were coming to similar conclusions.  UIAGM Guide Rob Collister describes reading Heat by George Monbiot (a book that puts forward a reasonably coherent plan of how and why we should reduce UK CO2 emissions by 80%) while in Antarctica, and an uneasiness he had felt for a long time over the amount of flying he was doing coming to a head - “I just couldn't live with myself and ignore the things that he was making clear”.  Rob asked himself “if I were never to fly again, would it be such a hardship?”  As a professional guide, deciding to reduce the amount he flew must have felt a big step to take, but he has managed to continue to work as an alpine guide without flying “I've got it pretty much  wired now - it was daunting at first, but once you learn how to negotiate the metro, learn you need to book the Eurostar 110 days in advance, and the European tickets 90 days in advance, or else you're going to pay a fortune, it's ok, I can do it comfortably in one day.” 

It took a similarly epiphany to alert Steve Taylor, founder of The Castle climbing centre in London, to the scale of the problems that we face: “The incident that made me sit up and pay attention was when a former instructor at The Castle went to jail for attending a climate camp... I started looking at what the environmental organisations had to say about climate change and tried to verify the facts by looking at scientific journals and information published by the IPCC.  I also looked at what some of the sceptics had to say but didn't find any of that remotely convincing.  I was horror struck by what I discovered”.  This led to some pretty dramatic changes in his lifestyle; “I've stopped eating meat and dairy products ... I've stopped using my car almost completely.  I've made a few energy saving improvements around my home ... I'd like to grow as much of my own food as possible.” 

Some have gone even further. Alison Gannett, world champion extreme big mountain skier and self-styled “global cooling consultant” has built her own eco house, experimented with solar-powered hybrid cars and is now trying to attend as many of her professional engagements as possible through human power.  She recently rode over 750 miles to link speaking engagements in seven east-coast states in nine days!

But things aren't easy for a keen mountaineer wanting to minimise their environmental impact.  After four years of climbing exclusively in Europe, I wanted to go further afield, and a trip to Greenland was too tempting to resist.  Flying home after the trip, over the Greenland icecap I had a moment perhaps similar to Rob's in Antarctica – looking down on a vital and beautiful part of our planet after visiting by a mode of transport which is contributing to severely threatening its, and our own, future.  I decided I would try and extend my no-flying experiment to expeditions outside of Europe.  Top of the list were a return to Kyrgyzstan but going overland by train, and a return to Greenland by sailing boat.  This resolution was quickly met by the twin problems of not finding a partner who was interested in spending a week on a train to central Asia, and instead receiving a very interesting offer of a trip to Patagonia, somewhere that was much harder to get to without flying. 

“I need to have somebody tell me that I can't do that any more... It's the air that's the real disaster.” Yvon Chouinard

No 3rd Runway

The future

“Peak Oil”

Regardless of whether international governments manage to agree global deals to limit CO2 emissions, it seems likely that within the next 20-30 years, and perhaps much sooner, the sort of jet setting that is commonplace at the moment will become too expensive for all but the richest individuals.  Global oil demand continues to rise, and thus far oil production has been able to more or less match the increasing demand.  Because oil is a finite resource, there will at some point be a peak or plateau in oil production, a point at which we are unable to extract as much one year as we did the previous year.  From that point forward demand for oil will far exceed supply, meaning the price will shoot up.  There is much disagreement about when this peak is likely to happen and many people believe it will be much sooner than 20-30 years. Indeed, Fatih Birol - chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA) - conceded in a recent interview that global supplies of conventional oil could plateau as soon as 2020 and some believe it will be even sooner than this.

“I think that the things we do right now will be seen as a real luxury - jet setting around the world to climb and ski mountains. Peak oil will kick in and petroleum products and travel will get very very expensive... We will all do more climbing and skiing closer to home.” Alison Gannett

“As soon as the price of petroleum goes back up, which is certainly going to happen, in five years or ten years it's going to be so ridiculously expensive that I don't think people are going to be travelling.” Yvon Chouinard

Emissions reductions

The latest science suggests that we should be aiming for a net 100% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 in order to stand a good chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change (defined in the paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research as a 50% chance of avoiding exceeding a 2-degree rise in global average temperatures).  Because of the uncertainty of when an oil peak will occur, and because there will still be considerable emissions from oil and other fossil fuels even after a peak in oil production, relying on this as a mechanism to bring about such a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a very risky business.  Instead many people pin their hopes on some form of global agreement to bring about a controlled decline in carbon emissions.  Such an agreement might be in the form of a cap-and-trade scheme, a carbon tax, or an at-source rationing scheme.

Such a scheme would no doubt make air travel much more expensive, and eventually all but the most essential journeys would be out of the question.

I think it will become more difficult to get to the places we want to climb.  Transcontinental climbing trips will become a rare experience that very few will be able to afford.  We'll have to make the best of British and European venues but that's not so bad.” Steve Taylor

One last route.  End of the Day at Stanage  © A Huddart
One last route. End of the Day at Stanage
© A Huddart

What about when I realise that climate change is going to mean a lot more than just the loss of mountain glaciers?

Es Tresidder

Why change now?

If we are about to have these dramatic changes forced upon us in the near future, either through the impact of oil production peaking, or through self imposed global restraint, then why should we bother changing what we do on an individual level right now?  This question stems from a feeling that whatever we do as individuals is too small to make a difference to a problem that is endemic in every corner of the modern world.  You could counter such an assertion by saying that since the problem is caused by the sum of billions of individual actions, it can be solved by persuading billions of people to change their lifestyles, but such an argument is flawed on many levels.  The issues are too complex, and there is so much else going on in people's lives that even if it were possible to get everyone to care enough, it would be impossible to get them all educated to such a level that they made an adequately informed low-carbon choice in every single decision in their life.

So if the changes we can enact as individuals, while important are ultimately insufficient, why change now?  The first reason is one of conscience.  Yvon Chouinard makes an extreme analogy: “Imagine you were a German living in Nazi Germany, and you didn't agree with what was going on with Hitler and the Nazi movement, but you just went along with everything that was going on and didn't in your own way try to either get out, or do something, like some of the people did, you would end up losing your soul.  You have to do something.”  Can I feel happy watching the alpine world that I so love being so damaged by climate change when I know I am still very much a part of the problem?  What about when I realise the disappearance of alpine glaciers is going to mean a lot more than it ever can to me to the millions of people living in the lands surrounding the mountains who depend on them for a reliable water supply?  What about when I realise that water is essential to all the food produced in the foothills, and the further millions of people this supports?  What about when I realise that climate change is going to mean a lot more than just the loss of mountain glaciers?

The second reason is one of credibility.  If, as a society, we are going to call for the sorts of solutions necessary to tackle climate change, and if we are going to ask other countries to follow suit, our voices will be much more persuasive if we are already making some of those changes in our own lives.

Patagonia - h2no  © Jack Geldard
Patagonia - h2no
© Jack Geldard

More than just me

Many of us are in a position to influence more than just our own actions, and I spoke to several people who were using their own businesses as a way to reach a lot more people than would be possible as someone acting alone.  One of the best known “green businesses” is outdoor clothing company Patagonia, founded by Chouinard in 1972.  Patagonia's mission statement is emphatically to demonstrate a viable green business model.  That appears to be working, with Chouinard revealing that, despite the economic downturn, this year had been one of Patagonia's best trading years for a long time, and the same was true for many of the top companies in the “1% for the planet” organisation; an alliance of businesses which give at least 1% of their sales to environmental groups and which Chouinard co-founded. 

I couldn't care less about making more money, the reason I'm in business is to take the radical side of it, to take the risk that public companies and little small companies can't take and prove that it's not a risk at all, it's just good business, and it's really working”

The success of green companies in the face of a major economic crisis has led to a surge of interest in the business model developed by Patagonia, and Chouinard receives hundreds of requests a year to give talks on green business:

“We're going around influencing companies like Walmart and Nike, you know... some very large companies, and a lot of small companies too... There really is a revolution going on, and with this economy, the ones that couldn't care less about the revolution are going out of business... It's proving that if you don't get onto a green business, you're dead.”

The Castle climbing wall in London is making itself part of this revolution, very much as a result of Steve Taylor's concerns about environmental issues.  As many of us do, Steve felt overawed by the enormity of the problems we faced, but realised that he had the opportunity to make a real difference because he ran his own business:

“The conclusion I reached was that I could make a tangible difference through The Castle.  It's very visible for such a small business.  It's near the centre of the capital, in a mad building, and we get a huge number of visits for a climbing centre (probably about 150,000 this year).  So I set out to make the business sustainable.  We've defined that by committing to make the business carbon, waste and water neutral by 2015 but, obviously, that's not sustainable if we bankrupt the business in the process so it has to remain economically viable and maintain the high standards of customer service that we've established.  None of this will be easy but I believe that the current crisis calls for ambitious targets.  Of course this is still only one small business, but we're not the only people who've woken up.  If we can achieve these ambitious goals then it will give a clear message to everyone who interacts with us, from customers and neighbours to all the other businesses that we deal with, that this is something they can all do.  It would demonstrate how frighteningly un-ambitious current government target are.”

The Castle Environmental Policy  © Audrey Seguy
The Castle Environmental Policy
With climate change being such a large but intangible and complex threat, it is clear that many people feel impotent in the face of it, but are eager to get stuck in when presented with a way of helping.  While initially nervous about his ideas for The Castle, Steve was amazed and heartened by the reaction of his staff:

“I got the managers together last September and told them that I wanted to make the business sustainable and asked them to help.  The reaction was amazing.  It was like a cry of joy went up.  Everyone was very excited and immediately got stuck in to working out what we needed to do and how to do it... This is the single most positive thing that I've experienced since I woke up to climate change.  It really gives me hope for the future and confidence that we can achieve our ambitious goals.”

Tom Greenall, founder of Idris Skis and a Chamonix-based skier, has set about developing a greener way of manufacturing skis:

“I have been reducing the unnecessary components in a ski. The only plastic I have is base. I feel no need for decorative sidewall or topsheet. They don't affect the performance; their weight degrades the performance in certain ways. I am also using recycled wood as a core material... I'm planning on using hemp to replace the fibreglass as my composite layers that provide the strength of the ski. Bio resin (plant instead of oil-based) is another component I'm experimenting with. In the future I would like to find a natural-based alternative for the wood glue to laminate the core and the varnish I use to protect the finish of the ski.  A more distant change would be to use recycled plastic as a base material, but I think this some time away.  As for designs, fads and fashions come and go. But the same technology can within reason be used for any length, shape or flex of ski or snowboard.”

Conscious that the process as well as the materials are an important factor in the impact of ski manufacture, Tom is also developing methods for using a vacuum press rather than the heated pneumatic press that is a more common method for ski manufacture.

While all the people I spoke to were undoubtedly genuine in their environmental concerns, and these concerns were becoming part of the core of their business, there is a lot of talk in the environmental media of “greenwashing”, whereby companies make a few small changes and then try to pass themselves off as “deep” green.  As someone who's helped to form the very concept of green business, I asked Yvon Chouinard if the idea that some companies might be talking the talk without walking the walk annoyed him.

“Not really. I think what they're doing is that first baby step that you have to take, and what I'm hoping is that when they take those first few steps they're going to be educating themselves, and they'll see how easy it was to take those steps and how it paid off, and maybe they're going to take more steps.”

Pete Benson and Es Tresidder on the North face of the Eiger  © Es Tresidder
Pete Benson and Es Tresidder on the North face of the Eiger

Towards a new form of adventure

I love adventures.  I love sitting down and coming up with a plan that seems so audacious that I giggle at the idea that I'm contemplating it at all.  I love working out how to make the success of that plan as likely as possible.  I love the moment when you actually start the adventure that you have spent so long dreaming about.  I love the single-mindedness when in the midst of the adventure, and I love looking back on adventures, whether or not they were a “success” when measured by the narrow parameters of achieving the initial goal.  But I'm also deeply concerned about climate change, and I recognise that the sort of adventures I am currently involved in are impossible to square with a low carbon future. 

“[I've reduced my Carbon footprint] from 16 to 8 tonnes, and most of the 8 is just flights doing the work that I do.  If you actually look at my carbon footprint of my personal life, if you eliminate the flights I'm pretty much there, at getting to the goal of 2 tonnes per person.” Alison Gannett

In Europe we are very lucky - we have a huge variety of rock climbing, alpine climbing, ice and mixed climbing and world-class skiing, all within a day's train journey.  Granted, for those wanting to do new routes, there are fewer obvious plums on the big faces of the Alps than the greater ranges, but that doesn't mean an end to adventure; those wanting to push the limits could be doing existing routes faster, or linking them by human power, or doing them in better style...  The list is virtually endless.  And the greater ranges needn't be completely off limits in a low carbon future – back in the seventies expeditions often travelled overland to the Himalaya, and even to Patagonia by boat. If it's truly adventure you're after, what could be more exciting than starting the adventure from the moment you leave your front door?

As climbers and mountaineers, perhaps it's time we started viewing the challenge of moving to a low-carbon style of adventure as an adventure in itself. 

Es Tresidder is an alpinist, mountain runner and environmentalist. He lives a semi-nomadic lifestyle, travelling between mountain regions to climb and run while studying for an MSc and earning a crust as an environmental building consultant wherever he can get an internet connection. He supplements this with lectures about his climbing and running. He is currently the record holder for running the Cuillin ridge on Skye, and climbs and runs to a high level in a variety of disciplines.

19 Aug, 2009
Great article. Very inspiring.
19 Aug, 2009
Thought provoking stuff Es. A very well researched and put together article! Time to quit easyjet and embrace pedal power!
19 Aug, 2009
Traveling between slideshows Jon. Any plans? Mick
19 Aug, 2009
Excellent article. Typical Es - very thoughtful, intelligent and measured. Challenging times ahead!
20 Aug, 2009
Fantastic article. One of the best I've seen on here.
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