The Descent of Man

Middle age, climate change, and the end of skiing

I stood under a cloudless sky near the peak of Mont Fort, at Verbier, Switzerland, staring at the glaciers of Grand Combin, which shone like starched sheets. Mont Fort is one of the steepest ski runs in Europe. Most of the people who came up on the tram went back down on it. My friend Ken and I had come to Europe to ski and escape ourselves. We were in our fifties, a shadowy decade. Looking down at the canton of Valais, I felt a combination of exhilaration and fear and simple awe. The world laid out, endless in its possibilities. Though the price was a treacherous descent.

It was a suspension of not just gravity, but time

It was a suspension of not just gravity, but time

It was late in the season and the moguls were large, rutted from spring thaws, and shiny with ice. A few people picked their way down carefully, making long hesitant traverses across the hill.

We stood in that familiar lacuna, waiting for the right moment to go down, a moment when the path was clear, when courage was high. After several minutes, Ken launched himself without warning. On the second turn, he crossed his skis and fell. He slid quickly on the ice. Both skis blew off, then he lost both poles. He hurtled down the steep pitch headfirst, picking up speed, his helmeted head bouncing off the moguls. It occurred to me that he might not stop until the bottom, more than 300 metres away. There was a crevasse near the bottom, off to the side. It was marked with colourful racing poles to warn skiers away. He was moving at high speed in that direction.

Speed was part of the attraction of skiing for us. Beside me, near the tramline, there was the residue of a speed course that had been set up a month earlier. Speed skiing is simple: you get into a tuck and go as fast as possible. The skis are 240 centimetres long, and specific aerodynamic helmets and clothing have been developed for this rarified sport. There are only about thirty courses in the world. Speed skiing requires a very steep start and a long run out. The fastest anyone has ever gone on a pair of skis is 251.4 kilometres an hour, achieved by an Italian, Simone Origone. What is remarkable is that he reached that velocity in fifteen seconds, roughly as fast as the 690 horsepower Lamborghini Aventador (which gets to 250 km/h in 14.4 seconds). It was Origone who set the course record at Verbier with a speed of 219 km/h.

In my youth, speed had been a visceral affirmation, an extension of my natural optimism (I won’t crash, I will live forever) and, more, part of my inchoate search for limits and meaning. But it had become something else in middle age, something I hadn’t fully articulated, though I still sought speed, perhaps simply as a way to prolong youth. Skiing has remained a balance between hope and fear, the hope that it will preserve me, that it will amplify my existence, and the fear that it might do the opposite.

Ken had managed to get himself turned around so that his feet were pointing downhill. His boots sent up sprays of snow and ice as he rocketed down. The late morning sun was brilliant. Had we waited another hour or so the hill would have softened up. People stopped to watch Ken, a Gore-tex missile now clearly heading toward the crevasse. I had a sudden vision of gleaming Swiss hospitals, the sense that I was witnessing a cautionary tale.

He skied, he had told me, to take himself out of his own head, a head that was filled with screenplays, resentment, political rants, women, and, more than anything, himself. A head that struggled to contain an expansive ego that now flowed over the moguls 100 metres below.

The act of skiing is visceral, and at a certain age it provides welcome relief from our thoughts, our mortgages, and disappointments. We were both aware that there wouldn’t be many more years of skiing like this. We could ski into old age, but it would be a different sport, a different experience.

Switzerland was having a nervous year. More than half of Verbier was closed, a brown ring around the bottom of the resort. While it was late April, this was unusual. Swiss glaciers, like glaciers everywhere, were in retreat, and had lost eighteen percent of their surface area between 1985 and 2000. Seventy percent of the Swiss glaciers could be gone in the next three decades. The glaciers feed the Swiss river system, and half of the country’s power is hydro-electric. Low river levels will affect energy, transport-ation, and the many ingenious farms scattered through the valleys and crawling up the mountainside.

Swiss ski resorts have already felt the effects of glacial retreat. In 2005, Andermatt wrapped the disappearing Gurschen glacier in a protective foil made of polyester and polypropylene designed to keep the sun off and the cold in. Mont Fort followed suit.

Standing at the top of Mont Fort in the perfect spring sun, the snow receding below me, Ken slowing down, I wondered if the sport would die before I did.

Perhaps we would all go together. Though Ken seemed poised to go first.

Two hundred and fifty metres below me, Ken finally came to a stop. He lay motionless for more than a minute, then one arm rose and weakly waved, indicating he was alive, at least. His head wasn’t occupied with the messy details of his life now. He was mentally gauging the pain, tracking its source and intensity. Was anything broken? Had the helmet saved him from concussion? He had a bad back that was now much worse. He had knee issues, a sore wrist, and a lifelong case of existential angst, and he travelled with a cache of celebrity-grade painkillers that would come in handy.

I started down, stopping to pick up his skis and poles, moving carefully on the ice, muscles straining, my head empty of conscious thought, reduced to a purely physical being, focused on survival. Speed was no longer a friend; I was no longer young.

I learned to ski on a small hill perched inconveniently on the endless prairie. Mount Agassiz had a modest vertical of about 150 metres. It featured one T-bar and a rope tow that ran off the flywheel of a tractor, and was operated by a grumpy farmer who cursed us when we fell off or slid backward on the ice. The hill was a three hour drive from Winnipeg and rarely seemed to be warmer than -20 F, and we had to stop every half hour to warm up in the modest chalet. From the summit you could see conifers and low scrub and hard-scrabble farmland that had been cultivated a century earlier by hopeful immigrants. My Scottish great-grandfather had tried to farm to the east, but finally gave up on that impossible land and moved to the city to become a minister in a particularly pessimistic branch of Calvinism called, paradoxically, the Free Presbyterians.

Mount Agassiz is one of three in North America named for Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1808-1873), a Swiss geologist who was the first to suggest that the Earth had experienced an ice age.

He argued that the ice age replaced the biblical deluge, that all (sinful) life was wiped out then began anew. Agassiz kept his faith and resisted Darwin’s evolutionary theory for his entire life. During the Pleistocene epoch, glaciers ploughed through Manitoba, leaving a few upturned hills that were gradual on the side where the ice was coming from and broken off where the ice had pulled down huge slabs of rock as it went by. Geologically, this glacial till plain was an unlikely spot for a ski resort.

When we were seventeen, a group of us drove 1500 kilometres across the frozen plains to ski at Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains. Going up the Olympic chair lift, staring back at the immense scale of the valley and the Slate Range that stretches beyond it, the possibilities of not just the sport were suddenly laid out, but the possibilities of life. Chief among them was the concept of freedom. In part, it was the post-adolescent freedom of being on the road, of being in another place, unsupervised. But the summit of Lake Louise invited a larger sense of freedom, a phenomenological escape that changed my sense of the physical world. Above it all was the ecstasy of speed, the harmless physics of the prairie given way to a thrilling acceleration that was both existential and visceral.

The search for speed may be a natural defense against aging. Time does in fact slow the closer you get to the speed of light, though you have to get closer than fifty km/h. It is certainly a useful symbol for trying to escape the inescapable.

Our Banff trip was a collage of hard skiing and wasted nights. Our lack of success with the few girls we met was epic. We turned to adolescent stunts: locking one of our number out of the hotel room, naked. We drank beer in crowded taverns and wished we were dancing with girls and stayed until closing time hoping for a miracle and woke up at 7 a.m. and ate pancakes and caught the first lift up.

No one returned to Mount Agassiz. It was irretrievably diminished now, a fondly remembered childhood relic. The following year I moved to Calgary and started skiing seriously, getting out fifty days or more each year. But after six years even the yawning scale of the Banff area became too familiar. It seemed as finite as Mount Agassiz had. Or perhaps it was my life that was becoming finite, and I needed to get away from ingrained habits and familiar hills.

After graduating from university, I went to France to ski. In the Grenoble train station I saw a man my age wearing a ski jacket who told me that Val d’Isére was the place to go; that’s where he was heading. He looked like Robert Redford and introduced himself as Bob. He had seen the Redford film Downhill Racer several times and had adopted the star’s mannerisms, and occasionally seemed to be acting scenes from the movie, without crediting them.

At the time, Downhill Racer was a touchstone for a certain kind of skier. Redford’s character, David Chappelet, was a perfect late-sixties anti-hero, handsome and aloof and a bit of a shit. The movie trailer had a voiceover that asked the quasi-existential question “How far must a man go to get from where he’s at?” That question didn’t really parse, but it sounded deep, and Downhill Racer was a gritty, European-looking film, and I wanted to be like Redford, though not as badly as my new friend Bob. I spent the whole season in Val d’Isere, living in the basement of a massive eighteenth-century stone house with Bob and a handful of expatriates. The scale of the resort was immense; we could ski to other villages, to Italy.

Going up a large tram one day, a man who turned out to be from Brooklyn recognized me as North American, and said, “Want to take a walk on the wild side?”

In an urban setting, this could mean a number of different, largely uncomfortable things. But here it meant he knew of a secluded powder-filled bowl. I followed. We climbed and traversed for three hours from where the lift let us off, sweating heavily and panting in the thin air.

We finally arrived at a massive, very steep, untouched bowl. We hurtled down, floating in the bottomless powder. The run took less than two minutes, but that speed and the ethereal sensation of the light powder made it feel longer, a suspension of not just gravity, but time. It was like a dream of skiing, perfect and rhythmic, two minutes of uncomplicated harmony. I was too young to grasp how few of these moments there would be.

The sense of freedom, the possibilities of life that I’d first sensed at Lake Louise, were all magnified in Val d’Isére. Just over the mountain was the world conjured by my literary imagination: Paris and Spain and doomed love affairs with tragic Europeans.

In the spring, my peripatetic Calgary girlfriend flew over and the tenor of my expatriate life changed. We skied and argued, then left for Italy. We ended up in Greece, admitting finally that our relationship, which had been largely defined by break-ups, wasn’t working. She decided to fly home and I stayed. After she got in the taxi to the airport, I walked to the harbour and sat on the hard sand of a vast empty industrial beach at Piraeus. On the horizon, a figure approached in the heat shimmer, a woman carrying something. It turned out to be a wooden box filled with cigarettes that she carried with the aid of a neck strap, the kind that cigarette girls in nineteen-thirties nightclubs used to have. She stood over me.

“Cigarette?” she said in a heavy accent. She was perhaps forty, and her legs, which were at my eye level, had small bruises on them. I bought a package of Marlboros and sat on the deserted beach smoking, pondering the end of my relationship with my girlfriend.

It proved to be the effective end of my relationship with skiing for the next decade as well. I moved east and skiing withered amid the dwarfish hills of Ontario. I was trying to be a writer, and my world became almost exclusively urban. On those few occasions that I did get out skiing, I was reminded of Mount Agassiz and its limitations and the whole experience depressed me. Years went by without skiing.

In my thirties, I inched back, going to Quebec a few times. By my forties, the winters seemed increasingly unreliable. One March I drove to Jay Peak Resort, in Vermont, where a large thermometer at the top of the hill informed me it was 61 F. The snow was heavy and wet, and it was like skiing through peanut butter. A storm of tropical force that had been lurking on the other side of the mountain suddenly released a hard rain. Those of us who wanted to persevere were issued green garbage bags with armholes.

By fifty, both winter and myself were getting unreliable. I couldn’t count on snow, and I couldn’t count on my ability to negotiate some of the runs that had once thrilled me. Skiing claims to be our oldest sport (a five thousand-year-old ski was found in Sweden) and now it is showing its age. The sport and I appear to be grappling with similar issues: doubt, deterioration, financial worries, environmental dread. As I lose strength and stamina, the glaciers retreat in solidarity, the snow dries up, the resorts dwindle. The number of US ski resorts dropped from 727 in 1985 to 481 in 2008. Mount Agassiz closed in 2000, though I didn’t hear about it for another decade.

The esteemed glaciologist Lonnie Thompson warned in his 2010 paper “Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options” that glaciers are disappearing at an accelerating rate. The glacier atop Kilimanjaro, that Hemingwayesque symbol of mortality and loss, could vanish entirely within two decades; future readers may be perplexed as to what “snows” Hemingway was referring to. Ninety-nine percent of the glaciers in the Alps are in retreat. “As a result of our
inaction,” Thompson wrote, “we have three options: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.” Not coincidentally, these are the three options that late middle age offers.

Louis Agassiz was the first glaciologist, before the word was coined, his reputation made with the publication of his two-volume Études sur les glaciers (1840). He described the landscape transformed by glacial activity as if it was a woman’s body, a breathless and detailed pensée on the striations and valleys, the rounding and hollows, the cruel results of time and friction.

At the time that Agassiz published his seminal study of glaciers, the Columbia Icefield on the northern border of Banff National Park was roughly twice the size it is now. In geologic terms, 187 years is a blink, but the Athabasca Glacier (one of the thirty that make up the Icefield) has retreated 1.5 kilometres since then.

Glaciers don’t melt at arithmetic rates. As they become smaller and their bulk provides less defense, as the climate warms, and as more detritus is exposed and its darker hue attracts more sun, they melt at something that is closer to a geometric rate. Like certain people, one day they are suddenly old. You saw them only a year ago. And now, in the glare of the supermarket, there they are, the face subtly collapsing, a blurriness, a weight in their eyes that hadn’t been there before. Or perhaps it had always been there but you just hadn’t noticed it.

The year I turned fifty, a group of old friends from Winnipeg reconnected via e-mail and decided to return to Banff to ski. We came from Winnipeg, from Vancouver, San Francisco, Hong Kong. I flew out from Toronto. I hadn’t seen some of them in thirty years. We caught up, reminisced. There were missing friends. Phil, who on our first trip disappeared with a woman ten years older than himself one evening and came back at 5 a.m. and perched naked on the sink pouring water over himself in Catholic penance, was now stricken with a degenerative disease. There was a suicide, and the usual complement of tragedy, medical issues, alcoholism, divorce, and debt.

I was long married, the father of two, in reasonable shape. I had a touch of plantar fasciitis, a small arthritic spur on my hip, and an ongoing bout of existential angst. “Something has happened to me,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Nausea,
“It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward…I was able to persuade myself that there was nothing wrong with me, that it was a false alarm. And now it has started blossoming.”

This confronting of existence alights at some point, a quiet argument that we carry within us. Where is this all headed? The answer too obvious to state out loud.

Skiing was a perfect, if temporary distraction. Skiing takes you out of your head—the act of negotiating a steep hill requires concentration. And unlike many other sports, it doesn’t force you into the unpalatable head of your opponent. It is pure experience.

Both Sunshine and Lake Louise had expanded dramatically since I’d last visited, twenty years earlier. The forty-five minute wait at the Olympic chairlift was no more; the high-speed lifts eliminating line-ups. The frequent breakdowns that left us swaying in bitter crosswinds for nervous lengths of time were also mercifully gone. We were still good skiers, among the better skiers on the hill, but that was because everyone under the age of forty was on a snowboard. We were part of an evolutionary slow fade.

At lunch the next day, my friend Martin checked his phone constantly for news of pending interest rate hikes. His nickname was Captain Leverage, I was told, due to his heroic relationship with debt. He had stayed in Winnipeg and when his father died he’d taken over the family manufacturing business. I remembered his taciturn father washing his Cadillac in the driveway, and his beautiful mother pouring vodka over Tang crystals in the kitchen.

Neale was the only one on a snowboard, though it wasn’t a nod to hipness or progress. He had a leg injury that made skiing painful, but somehow  allowed for boarding. He had aged very little, and was living with (and has since married) his high school sweetheart, the woman he’d been dating when I’d left Winnipeg thirty-three years earlier. His life seemed miraculously intact, though this was an illusion. There had been two marriages, two kids, and two divorces.

I spent time with Paul, my closest adolescent friend who was now a successful developer in Vancouver. In the mornings, as he drove the rented SUV up to the mountain, he would phone his father, who was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, talking to him in cheerful repetitive tones.

Paul and I recalled a summer night out at the lake when he was behind the wheel of his mother’s Thunderbird, an otherwise responsible boy heading for law school, racing wildly on Highway 1 in the dead of night, trying to pass a white Grand Prix on a blind hill, that reckless teenage faith. The memory of that hunger for speed still brought an unsettling frisson of mortality.

All of our worlds contained secrets now. Certainly it had been true of an absent friend who had killed himself by driving a jet boat into a bridge support on the Red River. He had managed to keep his world contained until that last desperate act. This anarchy lies in many of us; not necessarily suicidal ideation, but an anarchy of the mind overburdened by disappointment and doubt, or simply time. The hill had been a testing ground for us when we were young, a release of pent-up energies. It was more relief now, the visceral experience of skiing displacing, at least for a few moments, other thoughts and worries. It was another kind of freedom. But our speed was only a temporary relief; at the bottom of the hill, our worries regrouped.

There are other accelerations to be concerned about, of course. In 2004, the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica drilled to a depth of 3,270 metres, providing a geologic record that goes back eight hundred thousand years. The methane and CO2 trapped in bubbles in the ice provides a record of carbon emissions that stretches back to the mid-Pleistocene epoch. During glacial periods, CO2 concentrations varied between 180-190 parts per million per volume (ppmv).

During warmer phases, that figure rose to roughly 280 ppmv. After the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, CO2 concentrations spiked. From 1975 to 2005, emissions increased seventy percent. The current concentration of CO2 is 391 ppmv, the highest in eight hundred millennia.

If this trend continues, the sport of skiing may erode at a rate faster than the glaciers; skiing may be entering the winter of its life. Switzerland noted a six percent decline in skier visits in 2012. American resorts have winnowed by a third in thirty-five years. At Whistler, the number of skiers dropped from 2.3 million in 2001 to 1.7 in 2009. The 2011-2012 skiing season in the United States started with the weakest snowfall in twenty years, which prompted a fifteen percent decline in skiers from the previous year.

Snow conditions are increasingly unreliable, though partly mitigated by sophisticated snow-making machines. But the unreliability of snow means that there are fewer advance bookings, as skiers wait to see where the snow is. This creates problems for resort owners. The economic downturn took a toll as well; uncertainty, in all its forms, especially plagues the ski industry, which is an expensive and time-consuming sport for individuals, let alone families. The sport needs snow and prosperity to survive.

There is a point in middle age when you feel that there is still time to right the ship, that whatever you have neglected—health, teeth (a particularly sore and expensive point), partners, finances, children—can be dealt with through a concerted push. If we just cut carbs, buy flowers, start putting money aside today, sit down and have that conversation about drugs with our teenagers, then all can and will be well.

Climatically, this feels like the moment we are at; if we install solar panels, buy a Prius, rein back our consumption. But there are scientists, many scientists, who think we have passed the point of being able to right that ship, that it has, in fact, sailed; regardless of our best efforts, we’ve already done too much damage, and it will all end badly.

In 2007, the legendary Northwest Passage—impetus for three centuries of exploration—was free of ice for the first time in recorded history. It was an apocalyptic year for ice, and satellite photographs showed that twenty-four percent of arctic ice had disappeared in the previous twelve months. In the nineteen-eighties, sea ice covered an area roughly the size of the U.S.; now it is half that.

Climate can change on a dime, more or less. The catastrophic lurks. Exhibit A for this theory is Ötzi, the Tyrolean ice man, whose frozen body was discovered in the eastern Alps north of Bolzano, Italy, in 1991 after it was exposed by a melting glacier. His body had been in the ice for 5,200 years. He’d been shot in the back with an arrow, and had managed to escape his enemies, only to bleed to death. Within days of his death, there was a ‘climate event’ that was large enough to cover and preserve him for fifty-two centuries. Otherwise, he would have begun decaying or would have been eaten by scavengers. Evidence suggests that the climate event wasn’t local. The isotopes in the water molecules that compose the remaining ice on Mount Kilimanjaro also show a decrease at this point, indicating colder temperatures. In the Middle East, 5,200 years ago seems to be the start of a very sudden and prolonged cold snap.

Ötzi was forty-five, relatively old in the Copper Age. It is thought that he might have been a shepherd. Because his corpse was the best-preserved example of primitive man, it has become one of the most minutely studied in history. His lungs were blackened by campfires. He showed degeneration of knee and ankle joints, and had tattoos that may have been related to pain relief treatments. He was lactose intolerant, and may have been suffering from Lyme disease. The arrowhead that killed him was still lodged in his back. Perhaps he was a skier. Whatever else he was, Ötzi was a middle-aged man with health issues, trying to survive in a hostile environment.

As Ötzi sat on the mountain, bleeding out, what was he thinking? Perhaps he was thinking about his beautiful mate and their golden children, or maybe he was thinking about the cruelty of this world, the difficulties of finding food, of avoiding enemies and predators. Or he was looking at the stars trying to divine man’s purpose. Maybe all he thought about was the pain of that arrow in his back, the coldness in his limbs. Whatever he was thinking, while he was thinking it, everything changed. The earth suddenly got much colder. It snowed for days, temperatures plummeted, and he was buried along with his dreams of love and survival.

We dream of those things still. As we age, perhaps more so. We descend, becoming increasingly conscious of the speed, the acceleration, of the blur in our periphery, of those events and possibilities now just out of reach.

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