The Ruth Gorge lies deep in the heart of the Alaska Range, comprising some of the most famous climbing in a state known worldwide for its alpine adventures. Mount Dickey stands along the west side of the 30-plus-mile Ruth Glacier, its mile-high east face topped by a looming wall of ice that regularly sends avalanches rocketing a mile down to the glacier below. It is a scene of complete alpine chaos. It is also the site of the fabled Blood From The Stone, first climbed in 2002 by Sean Easton and the late Ueli Steck. Many people consider this one of the greatest routes ever climbed in Alaska, but one question still remains: what if it was longer?
The Ruth Glacier may be up to 3,000 feet thick at the base of Mount Dickey. This means that if the glacier were not present, Blood from the Stone could be extended to at least 8,000 feet of vertical climbing. The same could be said for many of the classic routes in the range, from the Rooster Comb to Mount Barille to the Moose’s Tooth and beyond. Without glaciers, routes on Mount Huntington would be at least 25% longer. Over in the Kahiltna valley, Denali base camp could be nearly a mile lower than it is now, giving climbers a truly Himalayan challenge. Indeed, without glaciers, the Alaska Range could finally come into its own as the Yosemite of the north, opening up thousands of new routes on all aspects.
Jared Vilhauer, of Ridgway, Colorado, guided on Denali and has climbed in the Alaska Range regularly for a decade and a half. He has experienced firsthand the way the huge masses of ice and snow in the range often prevent even the world’s best climbers from accomplishing their objectives. When he envisions new routes, his imagination extends far below the level of the ice. “I dream of a future in which climbers can climb routes nearly two miles in length, and never be threatened by icefall or avalanches,” he said in a recent interview. He said that the climate in central Alaska is not currently amenable to this kind of climbing, but that we have the power to act now to create huge swathes of new climbing territory.
“Humans have already begun the process inadvertently,” said Vilhauer from the cab of his F-350, just idling in place. “We are already causing the glaciers and ice caps to melt, and we’ve made great progress in getting rid of the coral reefs. But think of what we could accomplish if we really set our minds to it!” He told me about the greenhouse effect, in which tiny molecules of greenhouse gases hold heat from the sun and the Earth’s core close to the planet and provide the conditions necessary for life. By burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, humans have added considerably to the ‘blanket’ of greenhouse gases surrounding the planet. This in turn has disrupted the delicate balance of global weather patterns and resulted in an unprecedented heating trend, melting ice around the world and opening up new climbing every year.
But Vilhauer isn’t happy with the pace of the process. “I see a lot of positive route growth happening every year,” he said. “But I’m in a hurry. Some scientists are predicting that the Greenland ice sheet won’t totally collapse for another century or two, but you and I won’t get to climb the hitherto unknown routes there at that rate.” To speed up the process, in 2017 he formed the non-profit Climbers for Climate Change, which is dedicated to promoting climate-change awareness and organizing the outdoor community to increase the rate of global emissions. “Many people feel that climate change is too big an issue for them to have any impact,” Vilhauer said. “But we all have a tremendous impact already. I want to show people that we can all make a small difference if we try, and that a lot of small differences can add up to a really big one.”
To that end, many of the activism suggestions on the Climbers for Climate Change website are oriented toward individuals. “We ask people to build their homes with thin walls that don’t retain heat,” said Vilhauer. “That way you have to use more energy to heat your home. It’s a win-win situation: you’re warm all the time and you get to contribute to a greater cause.” He suggests that climbers avoid electric and hybrid vehicles and instead opt for big trucks and SUVs that require large volumes of gas. “It’s amazing how much of a difference you can make simply by making small, everyday choices,” he said. Replace your LED light bulbs with incandescent bulbs that use more energy and require changing more often. Buy new clothes every month from fast-fashion outlets. Eat as much meat as you possibly can, and if possible avoid any products that claim to be ‘grass-fed,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘no hormones added.’ More than anything else, get political. Support politicians who prioritize short-term profits at the expense of the environment, especially those who accept kickbacks for the their work in making the government as pro-business as possible. Indeed, one of Climbers for Climate Change’s main fundraising efforts is to provide those kickbacks.
Vilhauer claims the outdoor industry as a whole will benefit from increased greenhouse-gas emissions. “Sure, rock climbers will have longer routes,” he said. “But there’s more: alpine climbers will no longer be threatened by avalanches or ice falls if there’s no snow. Mountain bikers will have year-round riding seasons. Kayakers and rafters won’t have to contend with dangerous and unpredictable spring runoff anymore.” He cites special benefit to surfers, who have by now scoured the Earth’s coastlines and have no more new areas to discover. “Climate change will raise the ocean level, redefining coastlines all over the world and allowing surfers to discover new surf breaks in previously dry areas,” he said. Better yet, the increased number and intensity of storms will almost certainly provide bigger waves for surfers. “We all have something to gain by committing to climate change,” he says.
What about skiers who depend on snow? “That’s not a problem,” Vilhauer said. “Skiers are already accustomed to spending large portions of their winter seasons on man-made snow, so it won’t be a huge shock to extend that all the way through the winter.” He says more skiers will be able to ski inside on slopes similar to those at SkiDubai in the Persian Gulf, largely eliminating the discomforts of cold and wetness that define natural skiing. “At the end of the day, this is going to bring more money to more people by both expanding and mechanizing the outdoor industry.”
To become part of the global movement, Vilhauer recommends people join Climbers for Climate Change and follow the list of Simple Directives that help people change their habits to be more fossil-fuel-intensive. “We have a long list of activism recommendations on the site,” he said, “from driving and flying more to using plastic bags to larger-scale productions like investing in fossil-fuel interests. We need to create a society that is entirely dependent on fossil fuels and foreign production, and we need to do our part to make sure developing nations have their share of fossil fuels to burn.” As a long-term strategy, he cites the need to increase global wealth inequality and ramp up the material quality of happiness. “I want people to know that they can never be happy without buying stuff,” he said. “Money needs to be the foundation of happiness.”
Overall, we need to trust in our human ability to be a geological force with the power to radically alter the Earth’s climate systems and the subsequent environments that each climate fosters. “Few people realize the power they have to make the planet completely unrecognizable,” Vilhauer said. “I want to show the world what we are capable of.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Now what, lovers of wild places? Where do we go from here?