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Less is More: How Elite Climbers Benefit from Local Adventures

Emily Harrington, Graham Zimmerman and Brette Harrington discuss its advantages

Photo by: Anthony Walsh

Having a conversation with your climbing partners about climate change can be difficult. Among innumerable important issues unfolding each day, mentioning climate change (again) can quickly make your partner’s eyes glaze over. Especially while non-essential international travel is discouraged, and Canadians are left to dream about Yosemite granite and Spanish limestone, discussing how we can limit our gas consumption once it is possible to hit the road again is not the most popular conversation. But, like any intuitive climber switching onsight beta on the fly, we climbers have honed the ability to adapt and overcome.

The thought of climbing exclusively close to home was an intimidating concept for climbers when the COVID-19 pandemic began to make headlines in March. When crags did reopen across the country weeks later, many climbers were happy to make use of any boulder, cliff or bridge to feel like a climber once again. Local projects were viewed with new vigour and elicited countless hard sends.

Becoming a more environmentally aware climber doesn’t mean your next climbing trip is cancelled. Or that you are confined to the rickety home wall you slapped together during lock down. Climbing trips, like most activities, are predicated on carbon emissions to build our gear and fuel our cars. Limiting the usage of either can benefit the planet — and, strangely, our climbing. 

Emily Harrington is no stranger to travel. She has climbed Mount Everest, crimped hard limestone in Peru and travelled to Myanmar for alpine expeditions. She understands travelling is part of being an incredibly well-rounded climber. In recent years however, Harrington has learned that less is more when it comes to big climbing trips. As a professional climber it’s easy to get stretched thin with sponsorship obligations, training and personal goals, “I’ve learned over the years to not say yes to everything,” Harrington said. “It’s better for my health, my climbing and the [environment].” Harrington said she climbs her best while training at home in Lake Tahoe, CA thanks to the routine she finds there. Ironically, when her schedule is busiest Harrington often overtrains to compensate for the lack of personal time. Now, she said, “Resting is the most important thing I can do for myself.”

 

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Harrington is an ambassador for Protect Our Winters (POW); an environmental organization striving to reduce our impact on the natural world. Other big names including Tommy Caldwell, Conrad Anker and Beth Rodden are all onboard to support the idea of “imperfect advocacy”, where climbers are not shamed into vacating crags because of the greater carbon impact it elicits. Instead, POW aims to progress by showing the outdoor community ways to limit its carbon footprint, and offset their adventures along the way. 

While protecting our winters seems like the obvious choice for those who prefer climbing on high, snow-capped peaks, the organization strives to protect the environment for all types of outdoor users. Though you may not ice climb, or have aspirations to go to the Himalaya, varying weather patterns can flood the landings of low-lying boulder fields, and a warming climate will make “sending temps” just a painful, illusive memory.

Limiting our climbing trips and playing closer to home has hidden benefits for those who frequent alpine terrain. Graham Zimmerman is the athlete team captain at POW and the author of many impressive alpine first ascents in the world’s greatest ranges. Zimmerman said rather than embarking on the classic, perpetual climbing trip, he has chosen to limit his big, international expeditions to the greater ranges once every two years to limit his own environmental impact. He said by choosing his climbing trips with more intention, he has time to train specifically for each objective — bringing with it a higher chance of success. This two year training cycle allows Zimmerman to manage the logistics of his climbing trips, prepare mentally for the impending effort, have more quality time with his family and significantly lower his carbon footprint. 

Brette Harrington is another world-class alpinist who is an ambassador with POW. Although she recognizes travelling to climb is a great way to re-establish motivation in the alpine, there are huge advantages to sticking to local mountains and walls. “One of the coolest things about exploring local mountains and peaks is you understand them and their weather patterns better,” she said. Revisiting alpine zones allows you to better grasp the terrain and how it responds to specific weather and sun orientation. 

In recent years, Harrington said she has focussed on the terrain surrounding the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Lake Louise and is only now becoming truly comfortable with the area. She said learning the orientation of the mountains and potential escape gullies is best learned from first hand experience and has allowed her to push her limits climbing in them. Harrington said she notices visiting international climbers often have difficulties with the Rockies’ fickle weather conditions. By showing up for a quick alpine climb without having studied the area for days or weeks beforehand, jumping into unknown terrain — with any number of weather variables — prompts a greater chance of an accident.

For those who do not live with the Canadian Rockies on their doorstep, long term travel can be an effective way to gain information about an area while also limiting the plane tickets booked. Harrington said she has travelled to Argentinian Patagonia in winter for three month stints with similar success. “The more you visit an area [and the longer you stay], the more you become familiar and can expand what you try to climb,” she said. Harrington recognizes this tactic as a factor why American alpinist Colin Haley has had so much success in Patagonia, where his mental rolodex of information takes note of mountain conditions, rappel stations and requisite gear each time he heads into the massif. When it is time to go big, Haley, too, has done the leg work in the mountains to earn his success.

Zimmerman said he believes the goal of POW is to not discourage people from going on climbing trips. There are, however, better ways to plan your next international/cross country trip and it begins with knowing the cost of travel. The North Face developed and licensed a carbon footprint calculator to POW, allowing travelling climbers to weigh their carbon-collecting baggage and offset their travels through environmental donations accordingly.

Using carbon offsets to balance your adventures is a relatively cheap way to enjoy not-so-local climbing areas while making an effort to be environmentally conscious. Carbon offsets compensate for greenhouse gas emissions by giving a dollar amount to various environmental projects. While the emissions from driving a Sprinter van across the continent will still have degraded the environment, the money donated will improve a different part of our ecological world.

Zimmerman said although carbon offsets have a clear environmental benefit, there is still much work to be done to limit the impact of climbers on the environment. By supporting policies with environmental priorities and, when he does travel, bringing home stories about the importance of wild spaces, Zimmerman hopes to leave a lasting benefit on the mountains he loves. “[Climbers] are super focussed on doing hard, uncomfortable work. It’s what we thrive on. And [we need to] put just a bit of that focus on dealing with our changing climate —we’re built for this.”

Lead photo: Anthony Walsh