Global warming hit hard in 2021. Record warm temps in Anchorage and Valdez in mid-April rocked my AK ski world. When temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in early July exceeded previous historical highs by up to 10 degrees, uncertainty about climate change evaporated. But this heating is not linear in nature, rather there is a “redistribution of precipitation,” and more catastrophic weather events than in the previous 70 years or relatively settled weather. Some call it “global weirding.” For example, in my youth Utah and Targhee got the snow (450 inches/year,) and Jackson got only 250. The Tetons now average higher snow totals than the Wasatch.
While some areas are receiving more snow, all mountains are seeing rising snow levels, more rain on snow events, and larger fluctuations in seasonal snow totals. The problem is real. The questions is, can humans slow the disaster (we know we can’t stop it) or should we just adapt? Answer: we have to do both!
Adapting is easier. Adam Fabrikant, Billy Haas and partners actually took advantage of warming this summer. As Fab put it, “warmer temps are the ally of the steep skier in the high peaks of the Alaska Range. Ice becomes edgeable and the improbable becomes skiable. This is a silver lining for select lines. Unfortunately, the warming overall is a detriment to normal powder skiing objectives that most skiers seek out; especially in Alaska where most of the skiing is at lower elevations.”
I was one of that unfortunate majority. As I escaped Salt Lake City in April to meet clients in Anchorage, it was frigid in Valdez. Yet our arrival ushered in the first storm in seven weeks of toe-numbing arctic high pressure (weirding?) We woke at Valdez’ Totem Inn to quarter-sized, damp flakes falling at sea level.
What to do on a warm storm-day in Valdez? We knew it was socked in up high. Adapting, we hired a landing craft and skied seaside pillow lines in the Valdez Bay. Tommy, owner/operator of a 40’ jet boat with a drop down bow, ferried us to a perfect, pebble beach, 10 miles out. We stormed the idyllic shore like soldiers in Normandy in World War II.
The new snow was deep and dense. Trailbreaking was tough. But, 6-6 Valdez Avalanche Forecaster, Gareth Brown, lifted his splitboard high to cut a path along the shore, and up a friendly draw. We soon reached a wall of stacked boulders below a rocky crest, and decided to take a lesson in pillow-line skiing.
“Should I make turns?” I wondered aloud. “No, you just pretty much wanna straight-line it!” Gareth advised. It was a blast, but intimidating, like launching down rapids on a rubber raft. I pointed my boards down, airing over vertical drops in-between snow mushrooms. One pillow line led to another. Guys skied the snow-covered boulders in sections, as I spotted from below. Fear gave way to euphoria.
The next day we sampled the snow near Thompson Pass. As the storm grounded helicopters, we skinned 5,000 up and skied the Cracked Ice Glacier. The warmest and wettest day of the low-pressure cycle brought rain up to 1500 feet, a sad state of affairs in powder paradise. We rallied the Chevrolet Suburbans over the 2700-foot pass, and basically motored inland until the atmosphere dried out. Skinning from the Richardson Highway near mile 50 rewarded us with fun, funky snow in the “Tiekle Trees.”
Patience pays off. Finally, on day 5 it cleared, revealing a freshly whitewashed landscape to love. A heli dropped us near Grand Parais. We gazed in wide wonder at the joy we had found! We had really arrived! Mesmerizing views of endless snow cones spanned 360 degrees. And gazing west, the deep blue sea of Valdez’ Harbor beckoned.
First we skied east, celebrating the morning sun by shredding one of those rare, moderate runs in the bastion of the gnar. Skinning back up, we admired our wiggles, before dropping north for run 2. The first pitch fell away precipitously, and a firm crust under the fresh fluff kept us sharp on our edges.
The glacier rolled over beautifully in the middle, then finished with low-angle love to its confluence with an east-to-west flowing river of ice. We lunched on a breezy knoll, then skinned back up along the rim of an expansive ski and snowmobile zone, the Hogback. Meandering among the kletter along the scenic rim eventually led us to a weakness where we dropped south onto the immense, rolling canvas.
The dry powder we’d skied up high became shmoo, sun-crust and breakable corn. Our transformational journey to the sea continued with another short skin to a rocky hump, the hogback itself.
The warm week had pushed this low-altitude snow to the brink of isothermal mush. We clung to snowmachine tracks for support along the rolling ridge. Finally we plunged into the trees after scouting routes across the broad Valdez Glacier outflow. One party headed to the Richardson Highway, where we hitched through Keystone Canyon to retrieve a vehicle. The others braved the now mushy moraine to grab the other car.
This had been one of the finest ski adventures among dozens in the Valdez Mountains. Mother Nature threw us a bone, perhaps a reward for keeping our skis on during four stormy days, when most Valdezians were stuck in lodges watching the snow (and rain!)
Stable weather set in for the next 10+ days with blue skies and rising temps. Thermometers showed 60F at 5,000’ in mid-April! High altitude, north facing aspects became the only terrain still yielding cold snow. Heli skiers went deep into the Chugach National Forest for untracked. We found a few such slivers accessible to single-drops, and carved corn on our exits back to the Tsaina Valley.
On our last day, we flew north from the Tsaina Lodge specifically seeking corn. We started on east facing aspects, then worked south by midday, and finally southwest. On our home run we encountered collapsing, indicating a “cornslab” was rapidly settling, due to our weight, on isothermal, water-saturated grains below. It was time to get off of and out from under avalanche terrain. Fortunately, we were able to contract a heli-ride out of the backcountry; a costly ride home, but better than the alternative cost of a potential avalanche.
I headed home in late April, but Billy, Adam and friends speed-climbed and skied at new levels in the Alaska Range. Haas, Fabrikant, and team flew into Mt Hayes (13,832). Their original plan, to ski the South Buttress, was thwarted by Global Warming. “It was apparent there had been massive glacial calving since the last known party [visited], and the South Buttress was unclimbable in that state,” Billy wrote. “When we compared photos from the year before, it was very apparent.” Adapting, they skied the 1976 SW Face Version, which includes an incredibly aesthetic, steep couloir.
Haas attributes their first descent in part to warmth. “While counterintuitive, in cold mountains such as the AK Range, the warmer temps allow for more moisture-laden storms to produce higher snowfall totals. With warmer temps, snow is also able to bond to steeper faces…snow surfaces are warming up and undergoing true freeze-thaw cycles instead of just staying frozen…more edgeable overall and obviously more skiable in the thaw state. That said, our descent was still very firm skiing, and required supreme edge control.”
Fabrikant, Michael Gardner and Sam Hennessey climbed up the classic testpiece of mixed alpine, the Cassin Ridge, soloing steep ice in the Japanese Couloir and 5.8 rock at 17,000’, all with skis on their backs! After traversing the broad summit plateau, they made the first ski descent of the NW Buttress, and tramped across the tundra to Wonder Lake. All of this in a single-push that took some 60 hours, truly a breakthrough accomplishment.
Adam said, “I feel the warming temps produced more snow on the route. Breaking waist-deep trail up to 15,000′ was not in our favor. However, our 8-ish hours at 18,000′ without sleeping bags was cold and unpleasant, but maybe more survivable due to global warming. On our ski descent we encountered both skiable and unskiable ice. Overall I would say that warmer temps will continue to help progress harder alpinism and ski mountaineering in the Alaska Range, allowing more climbers to push through the night. The endless Alaska daylight already promotes the 24 hour plus push, [but] the warmer the hours in-between the suns rays are, the better.”
It’s nice to note that in a few isolated cases, benefits accrue from climate chaos. Yet overall skiers are losing heaps of terrain to receding glaciers, rising snow lines and rain on snow events. And specific areas, like South America’s high Andes, have seen major losses of snow and ice. Ice climbs in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and ski lines in the Aconcagua region north of Santiago, Chile, have disappeared.
In Bristol Bay, Alaska, Salmon Gillnetters, aka ski bums working summer jobs, savored another record Sockeye catch, 62 million pounds. It was also the coldest and stormiest season in a while: 54 degrees, blowing and raining in July! A nice change for me from the drought, wildfires and 100-degree heat back home in Utah. The salmon love to run and jump in the waves and wind. Skippers have to fish through the blows to load their boats, while deck hands get their asses kicked by rough seas.
Here again, perhaps Global Weirding was enhancing the catch. However, most would attribute the steadily increasing catch more to decades of well-managed escapement. Fewer fish make it past the nets and the brown bears than before the wild fishing resource became closely monitored by the University of Washington. But the eggs these few fish lay have a far higher survival rate, simply because there are fewerof them. Human management enables stocks to build, even as harvests get better.
I get off the Karen II after the “peak” of the fishing season, and visit Katmai National Park to watch brown bears fight over salmon heading to spawning grounds, fly home, and head to Jackson to lead new friends up the Grand Teton for Exum Guides. As I gas up in Sugarhouse, I notice a huge, grey cumulous cloud exploding over Parleys Canyon. WTF? It’s either a nuclear bomb or a fire igniting the tinder-dry Gambel Oak. I soon hit standstill traffic. Evidently, a motorist’s faulty catalytic converter sparked 2 blazes along I-80.
The flames engulf the precious conifers we bike and ski through, and race uphill. 8,000 homes in Summit Park are evacuated! I make a U-turn and drive north on I-15 to my old hometown, Idaho Falls. It’s a fine route to JH, and I’m pleased to find Bodhisava, Seattle’s finest IPA, for sale there. But the California smoke clouds the air. It keeps temperatures cooler, but it can’t be good for our lungs. Even though I’ve hiked through smoke to climb the Teton every summer since ’99, I still don’t like it. And in 2021, California smoke stretched to North Carolina!
When I wrap up summer guiding season in my beloved Wind River Range, I’m sad to see the smoke thick af, (as the kids say,) obscuring Squaretop as I lug a load up the Green River Valley toward Gannett Peak. It’s reassuring to see the Green flowing strong, with plenty of the suspended glacial silt that gives its name. But when I we reach the Mammoth Glacier, it has receded immensely since my last Gannett climb from the west, in 1982.
Inferno summers keep eclipsing one another in the west. Any solutions? Prescribed burns and intelligent forest management helps. Global warming enables bark beetles to proliferate. Pheromone packets save individual trees, but not forests. We can pray for the safety of skiers who live in woodsy cabins- Ideal to ski from, but fire-prone in summer.
There’s no silver bullet to kill climate change. We must adapt, and appreciate the rare plusses of “weather weirding,” even as we reduce our carbon footprints. If we as a species do all we can to peacefully coexist with our burning planet, and rise above divisive political pandemic pandemonium, perhaps we’ll make headway. But feuding, denying and ignoring the issue are getting us nowhere. Hopefully after the record hot and smoky summer of ’21, we can agree that the time has come to act.