January 24, 2013
Climbing the Parador de Navas last week, I felt it happen—a ping of pain in the rear of my leg, four inches above the heel. An ache set in as we crawled to the top of the pass, and I knew it was back—my recurring Achilles tendonitis. I spent a week in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 16 months ago lying in a hostel bed, reading, typing, visiting the local gym, sitting on benches, eying the distant Rhodope Mountains and waiting for a similar Achilles strain to heal up—and I know the boredom that can arrive with athletic injuries. But this time, I have limped into Quito, Ecuador, a fast and modern hub of sophisticated people, energy and activity. Boredom should not be an issue here. Mangoes may cost $2 a piece from sidewalk vendors—a harsh reminder for the hungry cyclist that he is no longer in the boondocks. But there is life beyond cheap mangoes, and it can be found in Quito’s clean public parks, brewpubs, wine bars, bicycle shops, historic center and so much more. Here are a few things to do that can keep one entertained in this highest (when measured from the Earth’s center) of big cities.
Sample Local Microbrews I have no love for Peruvian wine—and as an alternative, my brother and I have taken to the abundant if boring South American lagers available in every corner grocery store. Thing is, I have no love for cheap lagers, either. So when I learned that two brewpubs operated within blocks of the Hostal del Piamonte, where I have been icing and elevating my leg, I ran for them. Limped, anyway. At Cherusker German Brewery, we found a club-like scene with leather sofas and a rustic brick interior—and four beers on tap. That could leave many an American beer nerd thirsting for more options, but in Ecuador, the chance to drink a Belgian-style dubbel and a dark, smoky stout provided much needed respite from lesser beers. After one round, we walked north several blocks to sample the other city brewpub, Turtle’s Head Pub and Microbrewery. A pilsener, a Scottish amber and a stout made up the extent of the house-made beers. The amber was malty, thick and chewy, the stout creamy, smooth and sweet.
Hunt for Espresso Machines Each time we emerged from the desert or jungle into a village in the past three weeks, we listened for that sweet song of the espresso machine. One time I even asked the villagers, “Please, for mercy, is there an espresso machine in this town?” I was thirsty and desperate and hopeful, and the town’s main street boasted some relatively upscale establishments. Several men gathered around me, all frowning and shaking their heads in befuddlement. “Say, Fred, what’s this kid talking about, what with machines that make coffee and all?” “Beats me, Leroy. Does he think he’s arrived in the future?” I even made the whooshing-hissing noise that coffee drinkers so love to hear at 7 a.m.—but the men shook their heads. “Let’s go! His mind is gone.” They had not heard of an espresso machine. But Quito is fast, smart, slick, modern. In hundreds of bars, cafés and eateries, espresso machines hiss like the finest apparatuses of Europe. Cafe lattes arrive with hearts and mountains shaped into the foamy milk, and espresso comes in cups like thimbles, as smart and sophisticated as coffees enjoyed in the bistros of Paris. Top recommendation: Este Cafe, on Juan León Mera street.
Work Out on the Exercise Bars in Parque El Ejido As we rode into the center of Quito on our first day, I had my eyes peeled for that sure signature of any modern metropolis undergoing swift and progressive social development: outdoor exercise bars at the public park. After checking into our hostel, we walked several blocks back to Parque El Ejido, where we had seen among the people and the trees some playground-type structures that looked very promising. Sure enough, we found them—a rock-solid, two-tiered set of pull-up bars in the shade of the trees. A security guard (they stand around every corner and behind every tree in Ecuador) paced slowly around the jungle gym while Andrew and I got to work. My brother, ten pounds lighter than he’d been in Lima, started with an all-time best set of 20. I did only 17—but, really, who’s counting? See you at the bar. Note: The same park comes alive with scores of market vendors and thousands of visitors each Sunday. It’s a good time, but you’d better get your bar time in early, before the kids arrive.
Stalk the Aisles of the English Bookshop Quito is great—but if you need to get away fast, step into the compact, book-stuffed space of the English Bookshop, in La Mariscal. Owned by London native Mark Halton, the store—at Calama and Diego de Almagro streets—provides a refuge of wisdom and intelligentsia for English speakers craving some bookish conversation and quiet time. The shop is crammed with used quality literature (well, there’s also some sci-fi, but never mind), plus a selection of Ecuador travel guides for rent.
Enjoy the City’s Many Miles of Bike Paths Quito bears many marks of a sophisticated hub of culture and style—enthusiastic brewpubs, art museums, numerous sporting goods stores and air-conditioned supermarkets. What more could one want? Bike paths, of course. Leading through the city are miles and miles of them—two-directional lanes separated by barriers from the auto traffic and leading to all corners of the city. But bike paths can always use improvement. In Lima, for instance, the hip locals dump heaps of trash in the bike lanes and set the rubbish on fire. In Quito, businessmen who haven’t ridden a bicycle since they were 8 years old use the lanes as personal sidewalks, and at intersections pedestrians gather in the bike lane as they wait for the light to change. No—not all Ecuadorians are totally wise yet to the concept of the separated, designated bike lane. But parts of Quito are almost as cool and edgy as Amsterdam or Portland, and locals will catch on.
Ride the Gondola to Cruz Loma Lookout Taking a ride on a gondola is a bitter pill to swallow for a proud cyclist with a leg injury. But the TelefériQo Cruz Loma chairlift, beginning at the western edge of Quito, ascends 2,700 feet in eight minutes, taking passengers to the best vista point in the region—Cruz Loma, near the top of Mount Pichincha. The cost is about $9, with discounts for privileged locals and even the option to bring a bicycle to the top and ride the trails back down to the city. Sounds like a blast—but I’ll wait until I can make the entire journey by my own strength.
Get Screened for Malaria at a Local Medical Clinic If you’ve got the shakes, the shivers, nausea, achy joints, stomach troubles or a headache and have traveled in malaria hot zones anytime from a week to a year prior, you had better get checked out. That’s the logic we followed when Andrew came down with sluggishness and other flu-like symptoms on our second day in Quito. We decided that if his condition persisted in the morning, we would go to the hospital. He woke up in a sweat, and off we went on a new adventure. The Clinica de San Francisco was just four blocks away from us, and by 9 a.m. Andrew was having blood drawn and his internal organs examined by stethoscope. The doctor said that Andrew’s relatively mild symptoms did not appear to be malaria-related, but Plasmodium falciparum is a disease to be taken very seriously. The most deadly type of malaria, it is especially dangerous if not identified and treated within 24 hours of the first visible symptoms. The doctor said the test results would be e-mailed within three working days—plus two weekend days. Isn’t that cutting it close, we asked? Don’t worry, the doctor answered; Andrew does not have malaria. We hope so.
And Keep That Leg Elevated
January 15, 2013
Virtually nothing lives in much of the dusty, rocky sweeps of desert along Peru’s coast. But as evident as the mere absence of life is the prominent mark of death along the sides of the Pan-American Highway—hand-built crosses occurring almost as regularly as the kilometer markers themselves. They stand coldly in the sand bearing the names and dates of death of accident victims. The crosses are too numerous to count, but there are certainly thousands of them. That this highway is so stained by blood doesn’t surprise us. The truck traffic is heavy and aggressive, buses race wildly north and south lest they reach their destination late by a few minutes and cars honk first and brake later. These reckless vehicles share the road—well, they use the same road, anyway—as three-wheeled moto-taxis, donkey-drawn carts, motor bikers, pedestrians and a few cyclists. We move to the gravel shoulder when we hear large vehicles approaching from behind, for if the abundance of roadside death memorials tells us anything it’s that no drivers on the Pan-American should be fully trusted. In one village, I saw a cross scrawled with a death date just two months prior. Two-hundred meters away was another marking a fatal accident last April. The heavy presence of death, it seems, never quite leaves this place.
Just ten kilometers north of the town of Casma we passed a small woven-bamboo shack with an open side facing the road. Inside were more than a dozen crosses. Each person, it appeared, had died on the same day—August 13, 2005. Some later research revealed that this was the date of a horrific bus-truck collision involving some local commercial fishermen and a vehicle carrying flammable liquids. The crash resulted in an explosion, and 14 people died.
Just several kilometers later I caught a glimpse of something more ghastly on the west side of the highway. I turned around and crossed over and leaned my bike on the dune and stared. It was a human skeleton, bones splintered and smashed and roughly assembled before a crude headstone stuck in the sand. Beside the bleached bones lay the greater portion of the person’s skull, accompanied by a tangle of long brown hair. Andrew had also turned around by now and come back to join me. After a few moments we took several photos, then left to hunt up dinner and a place to sleep in Casma. We asked a local man about the two sites. He said the first was the memorial to a crash three years ago in which 24 people died in an explosion—not quite accurate, but the same general story we gleaned off the Internet. And the skeleton? He shrugged. Probably some crazy person. “Do the police not care or come and collect the body when vagrants die?” I asked. Again he shrugged and said that authorities tend not to bother here with accidents or deaths that go unreported. Still, we wondered why the bones were so broken to pieces (both of the lower legs were entirely snapped, and the back of the skull was knocked out) and, of course, who had taken the effort to assemble the remains as we found them.
Though the crosses along this roadway serve as a constant reminder of what bad driving can do, many, many people both on the Pan-American and on city streets drive recklessly, brazenly shirking basic courtesy and caution. We frequently must stop in the middle of intersections for drivers who refuse to yield in making left turns. The “right hook” is another popular move, by which motorists cut sharply in front of us, then make a quick right, forcing a complete stop on our part and often leaving us in a choke of dust. The honking is incessant—though not solely an act of aggression: laying down the horn in another’s ear also seems to be the way that gentlemen say hello in Peru. Still, the rude racket does little to calm our nerves. Within the towns, three-wheeled moto-taxis swarm like bees. They leap over speed bumps and push through the narrow walkways of outdoor markets. Their horns make strange beeping-bleeping noises, and they zip about with a curious insect-like demeanor. Moto-taxis have been the culprits in vehicle-pedestrian deaths, though on the open road (in the places where they are permitted) they hug the shoulders, like us, and are as vulnerable as we are to the giants of the highway. Sadly—or maddeningly—most accidents here could probably be avoided. One article names human error as the cause of 83 percent of Peruvian auto accidents. According to the same story, 3,243 people died in Peru in vehicle accidents in 2009, with more than 43,000 people injured. Another article reports that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 14, and second among people 15 to 44.
We took a bus from Chimbote to Chiclayo. I have never been particularly frightened during bus rides—but this was no ordinary bus ride. We were seated in the upper deck in the front row, which gave us a prime view of the highway madness that unfurled before us. Our driver was an efficient man, concerned with each half second that went by. He swerved into oncoming traffic to overtake slower vehicles and gain a few seconds of time. He ran smaller cars off the road and angrily blared his horn to show who was boss. While we momentarily tailgaited a slow and lumbering gravel truck, waiting for an opening, another bus passed us and the truck—and had a very close call with an oncoming tanker, probably carrying flammable liquids. Horns blared north and south as the tanker took to the shoulder. Andrew and I covered our eyes and watched through our fingers. A moment later, we overtook the same bus. Beside us was a buoyant, spirited man bouncing his little boy on his knee as the desert highway blew past. What a ride! Night came, and each oncoming car became just a pair of blinding headlights. Our only consolation came from knowing that if we did connect with a sedan or pickup, this bus would smash it to pieces. Flying past us regularly were the roadside crosses, illuminated in the bus’s headlights but having no obvious effect on our driver’s actions.
We reached our destination at 9 p.m.—right on schedule—and we couldn’t complain about that. Or could we?
December 27, 2012
As we approach 2013, the possibility of entering a sealed aircraft, buckling up and exiting the atmosphere in the name of leisure is no longer science fiction. Rather, space tourism is so close to reality that talks of orbital hotels and space property rights are underway, a space runway has been built, a touristic spacecraft from Virgin Galactic is ready, and hundreds of wealthy travelers have prepaid for their seats at $200,000 a head. While the starting price of a space ticket is for now only an option for the extremely rich, analysts say that streamlining of costs and energy outputs, and bringing large numbers of tourists into orbit at once, will eventually make orbital holidays relatively affordable and, possibly, an option for the masses.
In many ways, space travel closely resembles prior phases of human exploration. Five centuries ago, government-funded vessels from Spain traveled across the Atlantic to the New World. Later, common citizens began to make the same trip, and the trans-Atlantic voyage would become a rather routine errand, for better or for worse. Powerful new nations were consequently born. In 1803, Lewis and Clark, working for the U.S. government, embarked on a scientific and cultural exploration of western North America. Their effort opened the West to millions of settlers—for better or for worse. Now, government space exploration has been a reality for more than 50 years—and it may be inevitable that the general public will follow. Proponents of space travel believe that bringing masses of paying passengers into space—and carrying them in reusable launch vehicles—will make space travel cheap enough to become a feasible everyday activity. This will facilitate research endeavors, and space explorers will likely make great discoveries as they move outward into this next, if not final, frontier. Space travel advocates believe that valuable resources—especially minerals, like gold and platinum, and solar power—could be accessed through missions into the wider reaches of our solar system. Further into an imagined future is the prospect of establishing permanent colonies for human habitation far away from Earth.
But as the industry gears up to go, critics are asking why we must tap into other worlds’ resource banks, why we must endanger the lives of astronauts, and why we should spend money on science-fiction-like undertakings while poverty, pollution, inequality, starvation and extinctions are rampant on Earth. A major concern addresses the pollutants that a space tourism industry could introduce to the Earth’s already strained atmosphere. In October 2010, Scientific American‘s John Matson wrote an article titled “What will space tourism mean for climate change?” He wrote that a mature space tourism industry, consisting of 1,000 flights per year, would spew about 600 metric tons of soot into the atmosphere each year—in addition to greenhouse gases produced during takeoff. Over a period of decades, this soot, seemingly negligible on an annual basis, would produce “a persistent and asymmetric cloud over the Northern Hemisphere that could impact atmospheric circulation and regional temperatures far more than the greenhouse gases released into the stratosphere by those same flights.”
Proponents of space travel are ready with their defense. In a 2009 report produced by Space Future, a company committed to “opening space to the public,” there are virtually no reasons for concern about realizing space travel. The authors, Patrick Collins (owner of Space Future) and Adriano Autino (founder of another space travel promoter Space Renaissance International), acknowledged that space tourism would incur small environmental costs to our planet mainly in its beginning stages. As efficiency increased, however, space travel would begin acting almost as a panacea for all of our planet’s ills. They write that in light of current and increasingly frequent “resource wars” between nations, “…opening access to the unlimited resources of near-Earth space could clearly facilitate world peace and security.” They also believe that space travel will generate valuable educational, cultural and emotional benefits.
Space Renaissance International has published a “manifesto” outlining the arguments for why we should travel beyond the gravity and atmosphere of Earth. The document begins, “If we, the seven billion people that make up 21st century humanity, want our civilisation to keep growing and improving, we must…”
But why must our species continue to advance? Do we really want to keep growing? I believe that the physical limitations and boundaries of our planet, if not insurmountable by our technology, might be worth respecting. I also believe we should employ our brilliance as a species in figuring out how to live sustainably on this planet, and I would argue that it’s not our business to plunder the natural resources of any other worlds unless we can at least learn to manage and preserve our own—a challenge at which we are failing. But Space Future, Space Renaissance International and other advocates of space tourism believe that we should now be tapping the energy and mineral resources of space precisely because we have failed to properly use and preserve our own. Deep space exploration may be inevitable, as it seems that the human will to conquer or discover eventually overpowers all obstacles and mysteries.
As long as the choice is mine, I’ll remain on Earth. But market research surveys have indicated that many people in certain countries—especially, it seems, Japan—would enjoy a vacation spent in space. Would you?
If you’re bent on going, reserve your spot. Just be sure you’ve got a window seat—and that it isn’t over the wing.
December 18, 2012
“Faces From Afar” is a new series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On September 6, 2011, excited North Korean soccer fans took part in a “wave”—that tradition of American baseball games in which spectators stand in unison row at a time, creating the effect of a moving swell of people that surges around the stadium. It may have been among the first waves to occur in Pyongyang international soccer stadium. To Michael and Larissa Milne, the two American tourists who helped initiate that particular wave, the incident bore underlying elements of conformity, fear and repressed freedom of expression. The wave took easily within the seating section of the Milnes’ 50-person tour group. The North Korean spectators, however, were wary, trained from birth in the arts of restraint, caution and passivity. They resisted through several false starts—but finally, the wave overpowered their inhibitions. Maybe it just seemed safer at this point to join. Anyway, the wave surged along with the seemingly unstoppable force of rapture and critical mass—before stopping dead as perhaps only the wave can in a dictatorship.
As Michael Milne described it on his blog Changes in Longitude, “When it finally reached the central seating area set aside for party VIPs, not a fanny left its seat. The wave didn’t just ebb there but was stopped cold, like it broke against an unyielding stone jetty.”
The party, of course, rules North Korea, where a line of dictators has run the nation with almost superhuman power since the years following the Korean War. While citizens are sternly guarded from outside influences—including Internet access and global film culture—traveling here is surprisingly easy for tourists. Thus, when the Milnes sold their Philadelphia home and most of their possessions in the summer of 2011 and commenced on a long and ambitious world tour, they quickly struck upon the wild idea of visiting one of the world’s most mysterious and forbidding places. They made mandatory arrangements with one of several government-permitted tour companies, paid a slight visa fee at the border crossing from China, temporarily forfeited their cellphones, computers, other handheld tech gadgets and even their books, and took a five-day plunge into full darkness.
“In North Korea, you’re totally cut off from the outside world,” Michael told me from New York City during a recent phone interview. “You have no idea what’s going on outside. We didn’t even know how the Phillies were doing.” (They made it as far as the National League Division Series.)
Military omnipresence and jeering loudspeakers bring the classic Orwellian distopia to life. Party members in North Korea are well-fed and prosperous, while citizens walk in straight lines and speak softly—and Big Brother is always watching. For natives, there is no exit. But tourists enjoy surprising liberty. They must remain either in the company of the group tour or within the confines of their hotel, and photography is restricted in places, like during bus rides between tourist attractions. Otherwise, outsiders may mingle with the people—whom the Milnes describe as being just as friendly and gregarious as can be—and take photos of the country’s grandest features. Popular tourist attractions include monuments honoring former national leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 and is now known both as Great Leader and Eternal President, various museums and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two Koreas. Here, no physical barrier separates the nations, and soldiers from each side stare coldly at one another. The DMZ offers tourists a rare opportunity for a telling side by side comparison of North and South Koreans.
“The soldiers on the South Korean side are muscular, vigorous,” Michael said. “But the North Koreans are swimming in their uniforms, and these are the soldiers they’ve chosen to put on display.”
The difference in stature can be attributed, the Milnes told me, to hunger. Food is of poor quality in North Korea, they said, and many people can’t afford it. Restaurants for tourists are a different story, providing lavish feasts that may leave visitors impressed by North Korea’s evident opulence—or just embarrassed, as the Milnes were, by the needless waste.
The Arch of Triumph is another showpiece proudly presented to all tourists. The monument was built in 1982 to honor Kim Il Sung and commemorate North Korea’s military resistance to Japan. It was also built a few inches taller than the Parisian Arc de Triomphe—which tour leaders, who speak a transparent curriculum of government-mandated material, are quick to point out.
Propaganda sounds from all directions in North Korea, and for outsiders it’s easy to identify. For example, state-run media perpetuates an altered history of World War II in which the military forces under Kim Il Sung supposedly defeated Japan singlehandedly. The Milnes also visited the ship-turned-museum USS Pueblo, which North Korean authorities captured, detained and kept as a military trophy in 1968. Here they saw a piece of U.S. Naval history wiped clean of fact and refurnished with exaggerations. The ship is now presented as a symbol of North Korea’s dominion over the United States—considered a great enemy of the state. Larissa, also on conference call, said to me, “For America, the Pueblo incident was a minor blip in a series of many, many world events, but for them, it’s a bright and shining event. It really shows how North Korea clings to the past.”
During an outing to a North Korean amusement park called the Pyongyang Fun Fair, the Milnes and the other tourists quickly noticed that something strange was at play here: There were no laughter, shrieks or cries of joy. The people were silent. “An amusement park without noise is a strange thing,” Michael said. Surely, the physiology of North Koreans is not immune to that electric thrill that most of us know from roller coaster free falls—but nobody dared raised their voice. At least, they didn’t dare until the British and American tourists did so first. Then, the effect turned contagious; whoops and cheers spread through the crowds, and vocal chords chronically underused began to explore uncharted territory of decibel levels.
The trained passivity of the people showed itself, too, at the aforementioned soccer match between Tajikistan and North Korea. Though the home team would ultimately beat the visitors 1-0, the Milnes watched North Korea play with a troubling absence of spirit. Michael wrote on his blog at the time that the players, after maneuvering the ball past the legs of the defending Tajikistanis all the way down the field, would turn sluggish, unambitious and reluctant each time it appeared there was a chance to score. Repeatedly, just shy of the goal, the North Koreans appeared to intentionally divert the ball away from the net. Michael and Larissa attributed this pattern to the North Koreans’ reluctance to be noticed and their fear of failure.
“This is a society where no one wants to be the standing nail,” Michael said.
Throughout their world tour, the Milnes had used a creative and surprisingly effective tool for breaking ice and building bridges across cultures: a six-inch-tall statue of perhaps the world’s most famous boxer, Rocky Balboa. Many times during interactions with strangers, when words between the people could not be produced, the Milnes took their little plastic prize fighter from a day pack, and what followed was nearly always laughter, cheers and shouts of “Rocky!” But when the Milnes took out “Little Rocky” for a photo op at the North Korean Arch of Triumph—part of an ongoing series featuring Little Rocky around the world—nobody in a group of bystanders recognized or knew the name of the muscled likeness of Sylvester Stallone, his arms raised, boxing gloves on his hands. It was only one of two times that Rocky was not recognized (the other was in the Kalahari, when the Milnes produced Little Rocky for a photo op with a group of San people). North Koreans, of course, are deprived of Internet access, of literature, magazines and newspapers from the wider world, of popular television and of most films. That a movie glorifying an American fighting champion has never publicly screened in North Korea is hardly a surprise.
The Milnes are currently resting in New York and plotting their next moves—which may include writing a travel memoir as well as beginning a tour of North America. Whatever they do, they don’t want to settle just yet. They are enjoying a rare level of freedom, a nomadic lifestyle void of belongings as well as that thing most of us believe is only a blessing—a home.
December 11, 2012
As polar bears watch their winter ice recede farther and farther from boggy Arctic shores each year, skiers may notice a similar trend occurring in the high mountain ranges that have long been their wintertime playgrounds. Here, in areas historically buried in many feet of snow each winter, climate change is beginning to unfurl visibly, and for those who dream of moguls and fresh powder, the predictions of climatologists are grim: By 2050, Sierra Nevada winter snowpack may have decreased by as much as 70 percent from average levels of today; in the Rockies, the elevation of full winter snow cover may increase from 7,300 feet today to 10,300 feet by the year 2100; in Aspen, the ski season could retreat at both ends by a total of almost two months; and throughout the Western United States, average snow depths could decline by anywhere between 25 and—yep—100 percent.
These, of course, are just visions of wintertime future produced by climatologists and their computers—an easy venue for climate change naysayers to assault. In fact, a recent report commissioned by Protect Our Winters, an environmental organization, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on declining snow levels also noted that annual snowpack depth has remained stable or even increased in parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Another study, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, foresaw similar outcomes, predicting that global warming could trigger counterintuitive winter cooling in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. But those findings seem tantamount to just the tip of the iceberg—which is undeniably melting. Because the thing is, global warming has already delivered serious wounds to the world’s ski industry. Europe, especially, has been hurting for years. Back in 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that 15 percent of Swiss ski areas were losing business due to a lack of snow. A few years later, in 2007, one ski resort in the French Alps—Abondance—closed down entirely after a 40-year run. The closure came following a meeting of local officials, who reluctantly agreed that there simply wasn’t enough snow anymore to maintain the Abondance lodge as a ski operation. For several years, low snowfall had been attracting fewer and fewer tourists, and Abondance—once the recipient of millions of tourist Euros each year—began stagnating. The Abondance lodge and the nearby town of the same name lie at a little over 3,000 feet above sea level—low for a ski resort and, so it happens, right in the hot zone of 900 to 1,500 meters that climatologists warn is going to see the most dramatic changes in annual snowfall.
But more alarming than the Abondance shutdown is that which took place at almost six times the elevation, at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Lodge, once famed as the highest ski resort in the world. Here, outdoorsmen came for decades to ski the Chacaltaya Glacier, which historically flowed out of a mountain valley at more than 17,000 feet. But that wasn’t high enough to escape rising temperatures. The glacier began retreating markedly several decades ago, and over a course of 20 years 80 percent of the icy river vanished. The lodge, which first opened in 1939 and was a training ground for Bolivia’s first Olympic ski team, closed in 2009.
Similar results of global warming can be expected in the American ski and snow sports industries. Already, as many as 27,000 people have lost their seasonal jobs in poor snow years in the past decade, with revenue losses as much as $1 billion, according to the recent study conducted for Protect Our Winters and NRDC. The study cites reduced snowfall and shorter winters as the culprits. In total, 212,000 people are employed in the American ski industry.
The irony of the ski industry’s impending troubles is the fact that ski resorts, equipment manufacturers and skiers themselves have played a role in fueling the fire that is melting the snows. The carbon footprint of the ski industry is a heavy one. Seventy million people visit the Alps alone each year to ski or otherwise play in the snow—and travel to and from the mountains is recognized as perhaps the most carbon-costly component of the industry. But excluding tourist travel, lodges and ski resorts are major users of energy and producers of trash. A 2003 book by Hal Clifford, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, details the many ecological and cultural problems associated with the skiing industry. Among these is clear-cutting to produce those dreamy treeless mountainsides that millions of downhillers long for on many a summer day. The ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, for one, was lambasted last year for plans to cut down 30,000 trees—a 74-acre grove of pines considered holy by indigenous nations. And just prior to the kickoff of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, in Italy, The Independent ran a story under the headline “Is it possible to ski without ruining the environment?” The article named “ski tourism-induced traffic pollution and increasing urban sprawl of hotels and holiday homes in former Alpine villages to the visually intrusive and habitat-wrecking ski lifts” as faults of the industry. The article continued, noting that with the “spectre of global warming … now stalking the Alps,” the ski industry of Europe “is waking up to its environmental responsibilities—just in the nick of time.”
Right: “Just in the nick of time.” That article came out almost seven years ago, and look where we are now. The earth, by most measures, is warmer than ever, and snow is declining. A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters reported that locations in Eurasia have set new records for lowest-ever spring snow cover each year since 2008. In North America, according to the same report, three of the last five years have seen record low snow cover in the spring. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that commercial use of snow machines is on the rise. These draw up liquid water and blast out 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute as frosty white snow. It may take 75,000 gallons of water to lightly coat a 200- by 200-foot ski slope, and the energy-intensive machines have been blamed for their role in pollution and excessive water use. And while snow machines can serve as a crutch for limping ski resorts, the snow they produce is reportedly quite crummy in quality—and they’re anything but a cure for the greater problem.
Where do you like to ski? Have you seen more exposed rocks and muddy December slopes and snow machines at work? This article offers a summary of how several major ski regions in the world will feel the heat of global warming. Every mountain range around the world will feel the heat.
Will warmer winters mean richer skiers? In 2007, the mayor of the French Alps town of Abondance, Serge Cettour-Meunier, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” explaining that soon only more expensive, high-elevation ski resorts would have enough snow for skiing.