Last January, I traveled to Salt Lake City for both the Sundance Film Festival and the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show (OR) (which brings together companies that make gear and clothes for skiers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts). The events overlapped, so it was a chance to connect with two distinct groups: outdoor people and film folk.
In my world, these two groups are very much related as I program a film and ideas festival in Telluride, Colorado, called Mountainfilm, which takes place every Memorial Day weekend. The festival started in 1979 as a gathering of mountaineers who wanted to climb during the day and watch mountaineering movies night. It has since evolved into a vibrant intersection of artists and activists, filmmakers and philosophers, go-getters and game changers. This year, we brought to Telluride a diverse group of people, such as Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea; New Yorker writer George Packer; mountaineer Ed Viesturs; and the actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith.
Another one of our guests was Tim DeChristopher, a young man who I consider to be the Rosa Parks of the climate movement. In December 2008, the Bush Administration was hastily auctioning off oil and natural gas leases on 150,000 acres of land right near Arches National Park in Utah. DeChristopher went to protest, but he wanted to do something more than stand outside the BLM building and shout into the wind. He ended up walking into the building and was asked if he was there to bid. Surprised, he said yes and was handed paddle number 70, which he used for what is arguably, the most significant and effective act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement. DeChistopher, a 27-year-old economics major at the time, snapped up 22,000 acres of land for $1.7 million, a tab he had no intention or capability of paying. Soon after, the auction was declared null and void, and the land was saved, but DeChristopher is facing a federal trial in Salt Lake City this summer that could send him to prison for ten years.
DeChristopher was one of the few people I saw both at Sundance and OR. He was at the film festival to take in movies about the environment, which included the important film Gasland, which we will also play at Mountainfilm this year. Additionally, he went to a showing of Freedom Riders (which Mountainfilm will also screen) about civil rights activists who bravely challenged Jim Crow laws throughout the Deep South. He'd gone to the film because he wanted to see what the climate movement could learn from the civil rights movement. What struck him was how the Freedom Riders were so willing to sacrifice their own personal safety and well-being in comparison to our current refusal--even among ardent environmentalists--to make real sacrifices that could stave off the imminent apocalypse of climate change.
DeChristopher was at OR to talk about his latest climate action, which revolves around Dick Bass, an amateur alpinist who was the first man to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each continent) and the owner of the famed Snowbird ski resort outside of Salt Lake City. Bass--a hugely successful businessman--is also the lead investor in a massive coalmine in Alaska, called the Chuitna Coal Project that had inspired DeChristopher and his group, Peaceful Uprising, to start a boycott called "Don't Ski Coalbird."
Frankly, this boycott was a tough sell at OR because many of the people there--including myself--love to ski, and Snowbird is a particularly renowned mountain. DeChristopher spoke to one famed mountaineer at O.R. who has been to the Himalayas dozens of times and has personally seen the recession of the glaciers. This talented and charismatic alpinist also knows Bass, yet he awkwardly dismissed attempting to influence him by mumbling banalities about how everyone has to work within their own comfort zone.
As it happened, OR coincided with a major winter storm, so a lot of folks at the tradeshow made plans to ski (to hell with business, it's a powder day!). Of course, the place to be, according to all of the well-meaning locals, was Snowbird.
I thought I was down with sacrifice, having given up tuna (because of its imminent extinction), shrimp (because of the environmental impact) and Jamba Juice (because of styrofoam cups). I miss these treats, but giving up a powder day--and perhaps an epic one--at Snowbird was a different sort of sacrifice that cut to my core.
Of course, as I wrestled with this moral dilemma, I knew that my sacrifices were small potatoes and largely irrelevant to the bigger issues we face as a planet. I also knew that forgoing a powder day was laughable compared to what DeChristopher was giving up: his liberty.
Nevertheless, it deepened my realization of how bloody hard it is to live a sensible way of life. Thanks to the films and people that come through Mountainfilm (last year, writer Bill McKibben spoke about his important work at 350.org; this year, artist Maya Lin spoke about her essential project about extinction titled "What is Missing?") I am well aware of the nightmares that await us if we don't change our ways and make sacrifices that will hurt.
So I started by honoring Tim DeChristopher's boycott of Snowbird. My buddy and I skied Solitude, which doesn't have the vertical of Snowbird but is still pretty great. I know--it wasn't such of a sacrifice, but if we don't all start making real and sustained changes in the way we live, powder days on any mountain are going to be a thing of the past.