“It’s hot!” As I slog my way up another step, sunscreen drips down my forehead and stings my eyes. I’m battling my skins, which keep sliding backwards as I focus on staying upright. The snow beneath my skis is slicker by the minute. The sun and the snow fuse in radiating heat waves. It’s January in the San Juans and today it will be 48 degrees at 9,300 feet. What the hell is going on?
I remember most winters in the San Juans having a January thaw, but this feels extreme. It will later surface that January in 2012 was four degrees warmer on average than any January in the past 30 years. That’s a big jump. In lower-elevation western states, like Montana and Idaho, there are now periods of rain that used to be periods of snow, and the snow that does fall is melting earlier. For people who like to ski, this is a bad trend. For people who don’t care about skiing, this is still bad news. Seventy percent of the water in the western United States comes from snowmelt. In mining towns turned ski towns, this could be the final bust.
I reach the top of the ridge. The only safe line to ski is crusted over from unseasonal heat. We’ve had little snow this winter and the snowpack is shallow and weak from a near-barren December. Snow couloirs that are normally winter white remain stripes of black and gray granite this year. Steep, snowy peaks that normally beckon skiers are instead speckled with brown rock and high alpine tundra. Climate models suggest that skiers will have to go to higher elevations to find snow. I’m at 12,400 feet today. How much higher can I go?
On the western skyline, the La Sals rise from Utah’s desert floor. In all other directions, 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks joined by craggy ridges meet the horizon. I see my life in these mountains – ridges walked, summits climbed, high benches wandered.
In the snow just to my left is a pair of large cat tracks – a lynx. I follow the tracks to where they intersect with tracks of a snowshoe hare. Both sets of tracks then disappear down a steep avalanche path. This canyon has been home to a Canadian lynx (some suspect a pair) for several years. I’ve only seen him once – he was deeply intent on whatever he was stalking – but his tracks appear regularly. The Canadian lynx is in jeopardy of extinction. This one seems to be finding what he needs to survive.
How long will he make it? Lynx like the spruce and fir forests that stand just below tree line, but the forest that cradles this high canyon is beginning to show signs of sickness. The ravenous pine beetle is devouring our dry western forests and a snow year like this one will make the trees even more susceptible.
Below me rest the upper basins of the canyon I’ve called home for 23 years. These basins are my sanctuary. This is where I retreat in the early morning or at the end of the day to separate – from my work, my family, my life. I know I can make a run for it when life becomes discordant and be alone for a few hours in the mountains. This is my favorite place on earth.
My 3-year-old daughter, Sonja, also knows this canyon well. She camps in its high basins and drinks icy snowmelt from its creek. She knows where to find wild strawberry patches and tells us that the red mushrooms with white polka dots are poisonous but that there are other mushrooms we can take home to eat – if we cook them. She has found delicate pink and yellow lady slipper orchids hidden beneath the grass and has eaten handfuls of bluebells but knows that the purple monkshood that grow over her head are poisonous. She talks about the bear that wreaked havoc in our neighborhood and the rogue moose that appeared for the first time last fall. This canyon is imprinted on her; it beats in her heart.
When Sonja was an infant, I hauled her up and down these mountains every day, first in a front pack, and then as she grew, on my back. Sometimes she’d awake to the sound of me pulling off my skins and together we’d sing “Wheeee!” as we skied down, carving turns in spring snow.
I want this all to endure, and I know I’m not alone. I want the river to run through the fall. I want winter to stay cold. I want the snow to fall. I want to see the smile on Sonja’s face as she navigates the trees through the Enchanted Forest on her tiny skis. I want to continue our extreme sledding expeditions.
How long will I tolerate what is unacceptable? Alec Loorz, from Ventura, California, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for not protecting the atmosphere for future generations. He was 16 years old. I use Sonja as an excuse, an excuse not to go to Washington to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. An excuse not to get mixed up in politics – I don’t have the time. But as Pericles, the great leader of Athens said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
The ten warmest years on record occurred in the last fourteen years. We’ve waged a war against ourselves and now we’re all entangled in the same messy problem. It’s time to elect leaders who are going to take climate change seriously and develop national energy policies that counteract, rather than accelerate, global warming. Because some day, each and every one of us will wake up and realize that something we love is gone – and our hearts will break.