The Climate Crisis and the Future of Mountaineering

As part of International Mountain Day 2019, Athlyn Cathcart-Keays explores the possible future of mountaineering if global warming is left unchecked, and what the climbing community can do to tackle the climate and ecological crisis...


When Extinction Rebellion (XR) shut down central London streets for nearly a fortnight in early October, James McHaffie was in the capital with a reported 30,000 other protesters.

Glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately half of their volume since 1900.  © Athlyn Cathcart-Keays
Glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately half of their volume since 1900.
© Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

"Anyone pointing to the small disruption XR are causing when in contrast to the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, are a small drop of water on the shit side of history", says McHaffie.

XR is a global climate movement that harnesses methods of non-violent direct action to compel government action to address the climate and ecological crisis. Central to XR's tactics is the willingness of some to risk arrest for civil disobedience – during the two week rebellion in October, over 1,800 people were arrested, building on the 1,130 arrested during the April actions.

"I've known about the seriousness of climate change for some time", says McHaffie "I did my first general interest talks on global warming, rather than climbing, when I started work at Plas y Brenin, but got sick of depressing people. Global warming left the media attention for years and then I just ignored it as you do. With the Paris agreement, I thought maybe things were going in the right direction".

While their tactics are often seen as extreme and unnecessarily disruptive, for many, XR is really the first movement to bring the reality of the climate crisis to the masses, operating with the understanding that we are running out of time to stop an end to global warming and reversing the damage that has been done to the climate and biodiversity.

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Globally, 16 of the last 17 years have been the hottest ever recorded. In 2016, temperatures not only surpassed annual records, but eight months of the year were also the warmest ever. In the high mountains, the impact of these changes is clearly visible. Glaciers, snow and ice are melting before our eyes. We're seeing more sunny days, increased rockfall, shorter snow seasons and unseasonal temperatures.

According to Chamonix-based CREA Mont Blanc (the Research Centre for Alpine Ecosystems), temperatures have risen by 2°c in the European Alps over the 20th century – a rise greater than the French average of 1.4°c, and double that of the northern hemisphere.

The shrinking Mer de Glace, as it looks today.  © Athlyn Cathcart-Keays
The shrinking Mer de Glace, as it looks today.
© Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

The recent Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) from the IPCC confirmed these visible changes in high mountain environments like the Alps. It found that between 2006 and 2015, glacier mass loss across mountain regions averaged at around 50cm of thinning per year. While glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately half of their volume since 1900, there has been a clear acceleration in melt since the '80s, contributing to global sea level rise and flooding.

Earlier this year, a funeral was held for the Pizol Glacier in the Glaurus Alps in the north of Switzerland to mark its disappearance – the glacier has lost at least 80% of its volume in less than 20 years since 2006. Rising temperatures have also contributed to the decline of hundreds of ski resorts on Italian slopes. From Piedmont to Friuli, there are hundreds of abandoned ski resorts in Italy. Researchers counted 186 in 2011, a number that is likely to have grown since. And in Sweden, the country's tallest mountain has shrunk by 24 metres in the past 50 years, meaning the second peak of the Kebnekaise mountain (which is free of ice) is now the tallest.

Though less visible, SROCC also highlights the effects of thawing permafrost, which plays a key role in the increase in mountain hazards like rockfalls. Climate scientist Jacques Mourey recently reviewed the effects of melting permafrost in a study of rockfall in the Grand Couloir du Goûter on the Mont-Blanc massif. Climbers on the "Royale" route to the summit of Mont-Blanc must cross the Grand Couloir du Goûter at 3,270m where rockfalls are incredibly frequent. As a result, 256 accidents occurred in this sector between 1990 and 2011, mainly due to rockfalls, with 74 fatalities – in an average summer season, there are 3 fatalities.

Mourey – also a mountaineer – thought it only natural to start a PhD on changing alpine environments after witnessing extreme changes while in the mountains. "I was kind of the young guy going round asking questions but no one was interested. I had trouble getting contacts and data, but around one or two years ago there was a shift. It was an issue that people needed to talk about", he says.

An early 20th C. postcard of the Montenvers railway station directly overlooking a “sea of ice”.  © Public Domain image.
An early 20th C. postcard of the Montenvers railway station directly overlooking a “sea of ice”.
© Public Domain image.

Following on from his research into rockfall in the Grand Couloir, Mourey is working with mountain organisations like the French Alpine Club, Petzl and the UIAGM through a multidisciplinary approach to understand the physical dangers (ie. how humidity, snow cover and weather influence rockfall in the couloir), to pinpoint "bad behaviours" and mistakes made by mountaineers and guides in order to create a tool for organisations to identify when it's safe and make measures to reduce accidents.

Changing conditions are also having serious effects on Alpine flora and fauna, contributing to changes in species distribution, abundance and synchronisation between species. On alpine slopes, each 100m of elevation represents an approximately 0.5c decrease in temperature – for a species to survive in the same conditions they are used to, they will need to move 100m upslope. Over the last few decades, scientists have observed a rise in the elevation of most animal species, ranging from 30 to 100m per decade. And due to the pyramidal shape of peaks, this represents a loss in available land.

In October 2019, the High Mountain Summit conference held in Geneva by the World Meteorological Organisation issued a 'Call for Action' in the face of the rapid melt and decline of the world's frozen peaks, and the related consequences for food, water, security, ecosystems and economies for high mountains area and downstream communities.

"There is great urgency to take global action now to build capacity, invest in infrastructure and make mountain and downstream communities safer and more sustainable", says the Call for Action. In the statement, participants of the High Mountain Summit 2019 commit to the goal that those who live in mountains and downstream should have "open access to hydrological, cryospheric, meteorological, and climate information service[s] to help them adapt to and manage the threats imposed by escalating climate change".

One project providing open access to such data is PermaSense, a research initiative based out of the University of Zurich (UTZ). After approximately 1500m3 of rock fell from near the summit of the Matterhorn in 2003 leading to the evacuation of 84 climbers, PermaSense was launched to essentially listen more closely to the mountains to understand, predict and prepare for similar events.

With three main sites in the Swiss Alps, as well as on the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix, wireless monitoring technology transmits real-time data from mountain slopes, measuring variables including rock moisture, temperature, water pressure and cleft dilation (widening of cracks) at different positions, directly transmitting the information via internet connection.

"We're creating very significant quantitative evidence on what's happening within high mountain areas", says Dr Jan Beutel from UTZ's PermaSense team and also a mountain guide who has witnessed changing mountain environments since his youth. "The challenge is to get the most benefit out of the data… Some of these technologies we are developing are put into use to protect people and their livelihoods". Using GPS, new instruments can track surface movement continuously and can identify changes with very high detail, and data has been used by local authorities to take action to prevent incidents in the high mountains.

photo
Project PermaSense monitors movement and temperature changes in the mountain environment.
© Jan Beutel/Project PermaSense

However, Beutel warns that we must not conflate weather and climate change. "What we see is only governed by weather. We haven't been working long enough to identify changes made by climate… We have only started to look and measure with a high level of detail long after the changes had already started, so we don't have quantitative evidence to compare to [what it was] 100 years ago".

"Permafrost, for example, if you don't have a good winter snow cover, it's better for permafrost as cold weather can get into the ground easier. The stories that need to be told are rather complex and there's no single quick answer. Of course, if there are rocks falling off somewhere, that would've happened anyway most probably without much influence from the climate. But all the [rockfall] events we're seeing – the big increase – that can be attributed to the change [in climate]".

As people who spend time in the mountains, we're able to witness changing conditions first hand. Take snow conditions, for example. From 1960 to 2017, the winter Alpine season got shorter by 38 days, starting an average of 12 days later and ending 26 days earlier than usual.

If things continue as they are, mountaineering will be "less white, more brown and grey", says Beutel, who describes the transformation of his home climbing area in Tyrol from gleaming ice to gravel pit. "Many traditional routes and ways of going to the high mountains will need a rethink".

For Chamonix-based guide Jon Bracey, the future is less bleak. "As humans, we're very good at adapting, and we will ultimately adapt. Will it be possible or deemed relatively safe to ascend Mont Blanc via the Goûter route in 50 years time? "It's impossible to know", he says. "Mountaineering in the European Alps will still be popular, but our seasons will just have evolved even more".

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In September 2019, the Scottish parliament voted to support a climate bill that commits the country to net zero emissions by 2045, and a 75% reduction by 2030. Protect Our Winters (POW), a UK charity set up to inspire outdoor communities to take positive action to address the climate emergency, was instrumental in this success, backing Stop Climate Chaos Scotland's petition asking supporters to contact elected representatives to demand that climate policy aligned with the 2016 Paris agreement. Today, POW is in the process of developing a carbon literacy programme to teach people about the impacts and mechanisms behind climate change and action.

"There's a lack of education and awareness around climate change, whether it's ignorance due to the scale of the issue, or guilt and grief around the climate crisis", says Daisy Maddinson, skier and POW board member. "There's a gap between knowledge and action, and what POW has been doing is to try to educate. To make people understand that this is an issue, and it's not going away. Ultimately, we want to take people's passion [for the outdoors] and turn it into purpose".

High profile outdoor athletes and professionals have been working to bring the issues into the limelight too. Last summer, American mountain guide Danny Uhlmann and Sweden's Peter Sandahl attempted to climb all 82 summits over 4,000m in the Alps within 100 days. The Climb for Climate project aimed to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on alpine environments and ecosystems. The pair managed 72 of their 82 summits in the limited timeframe and found some routes to be out of condition.

"The Climb for Climate really highlighted for us the extent to which continuously record-breaking hot summers have altered, and continue to permanently alter, the future of mountaineering in the Alps. Generally speaking, safe conditions on classic D and TD routes are becoming less and less common due to permafrost loss", says Uhlmann.

In the US, where national parks are under threat of privatisation and the president has formally pulled the country out of the Paris agreement, there's a significant movement of climbers campaigning on climate issues.

Ladders lead down to the Mer de Glace glacier.  © Athlyn Cathcart-Keays
Ladders lead down to the Mer de Glace glacier.
© Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

Each year, Tommy Caldwell and other big names in American climbing team up to represent the country's climbing community at the annual Climb the Hill event in Washington DC that seeks to educate policymakers and land management officials on the importance of outdoor activity, access to public lands, and energy development. Alex Honnold's Honnold Foundation supports solar energy initiatives to reduce energy poverty in low income communities, and the American Alpine Club recently launched their Climbers for Climate campaign seeking to address climate issues through advocacy and partnerships between climate scientists and climbers in mountain settings.

For athletes like Caldwell, spreading the word about the seriousness of climate change has never been easier with social media as his soap box. With over 631k followers on Instagram alone, the climber has often used the platform to express his concern about the effects of climate change on the natural environment – his post in December 2018 on the effects he's seen in Yosemite Valley received over 38.5k likes, suggesting an individual with a loyal following.

Like many other sponsored athletes, Caldwell often flies to far flung places to climb, sharing his adventures on social media. Emissions from the aviation industry have grown exponentially over the past few decades with a 32% increase in CO2 emitted by airlines from 2013-18 alone, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.

With role model athletes simultaneously highlighting the climate crisis while also flying half way around the world to live the ultimate climbing lifestyle, it's easy to believe in 'end of pipe' solutions like carbon offsetting to dilute emission-related guilt, and carry on as usual – let someone else deal with the emergency. But shouldn't the Piolets d'Or – the Oscar of alpinism – be rewarding climbers for their ecological consideration with a 'Piolet Durable', as climbing journalist Tim Marklowski suggests, rather than their ability to reach remote Himalayan peaks?

Should climbers be aspiring to travel to undervisited, far away places by plane in order to be "doing it", or should role models be promoting exploration in our own back garden? "In the UK most of us crave some sunshine from time to time but we do not have to fly to find it", says Rob Collister, Vice President of the Alpine Club. "Travel to the Mediterranean, the Alps, the Pyrenees and to other parts of Europe can easily be achieved by bus, train or with three or four in a car. Until thirty years ago that is exactly what most of us did." The French Alps can be reached by Eurostar from London in half a day during the winter months, and to Lyon direct during the summer, and websites like Rail Europe and Man in Seat 61 can help you plan and book flight-free travel like you would a plane ticket. Granted, your internal UK train travel will probably be the biggest expense, and you might have to haul bags of gear into the luggage rack – an incentive to pack light!

***

Also taking to social media to voice his concerns and spread information on the environmental emergency we are facing, McHaffie's blunt and outspoken approach is often met with criticism, particularly around his carbon footprint.

"People who could do something won't because they're afraid to get shouted at", says McHaffie, who recently put up two new routes called Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. But can you be disqualified from expressing concern about the environment based on your carbon footprint? How small must it be to speak out? And does this focus on hypocrisy just divert attention away from the fact that we have just 10 years to save the planet?

As a group of people who spend time outdoors and can therefore observe environmental shifts first hand, we have a duty to lobby governments and those with power to take action against climate and environmental degradation.

"Whether you're a fisherman, a surfer or a climber, it's natural for us to look after that natural resource. As a climbing community we're very much failing in this area", says Bracey. "Climate change and pollution issues have become very confusing for people, and governments are complicit in this. It offloads the responsibility onto everyday citizens to think about their individual actions".

Mountain environments are changing globally.  © Athlyn Cathcart-Keays
Mountain environments are changing globally.
© Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

Still, how do we become less 'consumer' and more 'participant' when it comes to outdoor activities and think of our place in the world when we're out in it? Whatever your field of thought, perhaps we should start adventuring a bit closer to our own front doors. Compared to other global communities, UK citizens are disproportionately responsible for aviation emissions – per capita, emissions from air travel are twice as high as in the USA, for example.

"Mountaineering used to be – go somewhere for a long period, meet the locals, get yourself acclimatised. Today it's like booking a cinema ticket – up, down, boom", says Beutel. "Of course, there's always going to be a faster and a higher, but there are other things you can do to have a good day… People need to learn to be satisfied with smaller things. When you go to the cinema, there's a max-occupancy there too".

Dave MacLeod echoes this sentiment. In a recent UKC interview, he shared his thoughts on how certain shifts need to take place within the climbing community. "Adventures closer to home will start to make more sense of many levels… Remoteness is one of the nice things about going trad climbing and mountaineering. Again, it's not necessary to go half way around the world to find it. Just abseiling over the edge of a sea-cliff in an otherwise popular place gives you a feeling of remoteness".

About the author: Athlyn Cathcart-Keays is a researcher, journalist, climber and environmental activist based in London, with her heart in the mountains. She researches, writes about and leads projects on community climate action, and is committed to adventures that don't cost the earth.


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11 Dec, 2019

I just finished reading an epic book by Jon Gertner - "The Ice at the End of the World" about climate change in Greenland, exploration of it and history of glaciology from the early days to now. Quite a gripping read, especially with the yesterday's report about the Greenland's ice melting (Nature). Heartily recommended, even if not exactly "heart-warming"...

11 Dec, 2019

For me flying for climbing and issue of hypocrisy is a big problem. I will soon go for my ice climbing to Canada. I used to climb in Scotland and Ecrins, but for last two seasons switched to Banff area simply because winter conditions are too unreliable in Europe (because of climate change). I have to plan my holidays in advance and cannot chase weather even in the UK. I do not feel, that I can justify supporting an XR and other activists if I myself will do take this flight, which so many people will rightly declare unnecessary.

Should I stop flying for climbing?

I guess one thing that stops me from making drastic lifestyle change and giving up what I really love to do (its wonderful out there in Banff) is that when you "listen to scientists", you hear that all of them have no problem in travelling to conferences, when they could easily give the same message over Internet. Basically, they travel (most of them have to fly) to speak in a room so big that they can be seen only on the screen and heard only through loudspeaker. They could have just connected laptops at home and give the same talk. How can you tell children that they have no future because of flying and then go to a conference, which attracts thousands of flights because online "is not the same"?

On a positive side, if the next Global Summit would take place as the biggest online event on Earth, if prominent influencers moved their activities online, I could start arguing with my employer that we should cut our business travel. If you break "its not the same" culture millions of business flights could be eliminated and most of people who would stop flying would not sacrifice anything - who would not like to work online and have private life in real life rather than other way round. If I could stop my business flights, than on balance flying for climbing once a year would not feel so bad.

For me flying hypocrisy is a big factor. We have all technology to go carbon neutral and we need "only" a culture change. This is all setting example game and I think that those who speak loud should also lead by example. The idea that I fly and then tell other people that they should see the Rockies only in David Attenborough movie will not fly.

Finally, this is very controversial topic and if I made you angry with anything that I said I apologize. I think a lot about it and somehow want to share my thoughts on this friendly forum without character limit (I wonder how long this is going to last :-) )

11 Dec, 2019

Why do you have to wait for others to do what you think they should do? Why can't you just get on with it yourself? If it's the right thing to do, it's the right thing to do, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

And from a purely business point of view, if you can do everything you need to do online, then flying for business is a waste of time, money and energy.

11 Dec, 2019

As someone who used to attend the global summit for work I can tell you that nothing is as good as face to face discussion and interaction, especially when so many different cultures and languages are involved.

On the flip side, it is perfectly reasonable to expect everyone (including the COP delegates) to cut back on (not cut out entirely) the amount they fly.

11 Dec, 2019

The real benefit of attending conferences is the networking and behind the scenes meetings, including informal and serpendipious meetings.

As Harry says above anyway if you believe it to be the right thing why not do it now?

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