Change in Chile

There is an unwritten rule in the ski industry, and it particularly applies to its ambassadors: No bad news.  Never write or speak of bad snow, a poor economy, a trip gone bad or an industry heavy-hitter behaving poorly.  It is winter, the snow is always soft and deep, the drinks flow freely, the opposite sex always more available, etc. etc.  

When the skiing is good you get skiing shots; when it's crap, you get landscapes.  Here's a great landscape.

In some regards I agree.  We should not complain.  As someone who gets to enjoy this sport regularly, even make a living doing it, I have no right to complain.  And I don't.  But that doesn't mean I have to pretend its all roses and unicorns either.

I'm in Chile now – for my eleventh winter in the southern hemisphere.  It is amazing how it has changed.  In 2005, I worked as a ski instructor and guide for Portillo.  We had a good snow year; it snowed 14-meters, 90% of which came before September.  The record is 21-meters in a season.  I fell in love with skiing in the Andes.  It was heaven on Earth.  

I have been here for three-weeks now.  I am no longer confined to one area; but I did visit Portillo.  With most of the normal wet season gone, Portillo has received just over three-meters of snow.  It hasn't snowed in twenty-two-days and there is no snow in the 14-day forecast.  They are well below 50% of average.  And this is the fifth-year in a row with such numbers.  It is really sad. 

So far, I have been able to scrape together a lot of great experiences for my clients.  We have managed to find good snow – although it is tougher than usual.  Not only is the good snow more scarce, it is in higher demand, and most of the people chasing it now have machines.  The  number of snowmobiles and helicopters here is astonishing.  The growth is exponential.  

The change in the mountains mirrors the change in the valley.  It was 90ºF (32ºC) in Santiago today – the same as Denver, Colorado.  Just like the mountains are filling with machines, the highways here are full of trucks, SUVs and luxury sports cars.  The city sprawls farther each year and on most days you can no longer see the mountains on the edge of town because the air pollution is similar to that of Beijing.  Chile is changing.

Some of this change is good.  When I first came here poverty was the norm, extreme poverty common and living conditions were tough for many.  Chileans aren't asking for anything the rest of the developed world doesn't have.  They want heated homes, healthy food and safe communities.  It's good to see these things become more common.  

But the cost of development is impossible to ignore here.  As it has all but stopped snowing in the north, is unbelievably warm in the valleys and rain (not snow) more and more common in the south, climate change is on many people's mind.  Personally, I know I am part of the problem – I flew 8000-miles to get here and use my fair share of fuel to explore.  I am not trying to point fingers.  Part of me wants to quit, to be satisfied with the great times I had and be more responsible in the future.  

Another part of me sees a tremendous opportunity in the challenge we face.  I do have a vision for creating a way of "living" deeper in the mountains, during the winter, in a manner that uses no fossil fuels.  I see a way to enjoy winter in accordance with one of its defining characteristics:  quiet.  I don't want to fuel myself or feed my clients pre-packaged, chemical-laden food; I want to eat real, healthy food – even in the winter, in the backcountry.  If I can do this in the Andes, in the winter, it is possible anywhere.

I cannot "save" winter in the Andes.  I think it will disappear in my lifetime.  As a skier, I am not taking a single day for granted.  But I won't pretend that the trends are a fluke, and that the "good times" will return any season now.  As someone who loves to ski, I believe it is my duty to acknowledge the reality of the situation and rise to the challenge. Maybe something truly good, even better than powder skiing, can come of it.   

Sorry for the "bad news."  But as someone who spends a lot of time in a place that is, and among people whom are, affected by climate change, I realize that we, as well-educated, talented, privileged people (skiers), are going to need to do more than "hashtag" environmental messages attached to photos of us (literally) living above it all.  The good news is that we can do something positive.  And we will enjoy some of the rewards.  It just won't be easy.

Donny Roth