This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of The Nature Conservancy. All opinions are 100% mine.
The best day of climbing I ever had, the air was on fire.
It was summertime in Squamish, a small town just north of Vancouver in British Columbia Canada. This town, up until recently had been known as a sleepy kiteboarding destination and—to those who cared— a place where you could find some of the best bouldering in the world.
And technically ‘the interior’ was on fire. This was the ubiquitous term for whatever lay east of the Rocky Mountains and north of Calgary, as far as I could tell. Whenever I asked local Canadians exactly what ‘The Interior’ was, I received a similar vague answer with a hand wave generally north east of us. The smoke from the interior was wafting through the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains and covering Southern British Columbia, Washington and northern Idaho in a thick orange grey haze. It didn’t help that Oregon was also on fire, as were parts of Idaho. Basically, the Pacific North West was shrouded in smoke from several thousand acres of un-contained wildfire.
An increase in wildfires is directly related to climate change, which is what I want to bring your attention to today, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
If you want to skip ahead, check out The Nature Conservancy’s Let's Talk Climate guide to learn more!
In Squamish as a rock climber, you will more than likely find yourself far above the tree line, clinging to the side of what the First Nations people called the Stawamus Chief.
The Chief is a slumbering titan, a 2,300 feet tall, grey granite dome that can be seen from anywhere in town. The Chief is a massive grey presence, struck through with deep green patches, signaling the presence of more pine trees. When climbing the Chief, it can often feel like you’ve wandered into another world. For long stretches of time you’ll be climbing to the side of a sheer granite face, with oceans of white and grey rock in all directions, when all of a sudden you’ll pull over on to a ledge the size of an apartment building with its own ecosystem of trees, vines, grassy mosses, and colony of chipmunks who must never have set foot on the ground below.
If you brave the full 2,300-foot face you can make it to the top to see the town of Squamish nestled next to the turquoise ocean bay, cut through by a railroad track hauling lumber from the interior BC down to the shoreline. As a past time, while waiting at a particularly long belay, it’s easy to watch the tugboats in the harbor pull a never-ending stream of logs from shore out to the open ocean to presumably be turned into houses, picnic tables or paper.
However, on the best day of climbing I ever had, the air was on fire.
The smoke from these fires made your skin feel dry and scratchy, the air was grey and the stale smell of smoke clung to everything. The sun never came out but was a weak yellow glow that passed over our heads every day, the sunsets were burnt orange unhealthy wounds in the sky.
The day started out in the pale grey morning that would eventually turn into a pale gray afternoon. Me, my friend Jason, and his two friends ‘Tash and Mike were going to do a long route up to the top of The Chief called The Ultimate Everything. While we were climbing, we could smell the smoke, but other than that it barely affected us. I remember sitting at a belay early on in the day and grinning ear to ear, a spontaneous surge of joy released itself from my chest and flew out my mouth in a loud ‘Whoop!’ I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, doing something I loved, with great people, and I had nothing—I mean nothing— better to do.
The climbing was just good ole’ fashioned fun.
We scrambled up ledgy sections, through beautiful splitter cracks, pulled over onto amazing forested ledges with tiny ecosystems of their own, and even did some hiking through a bush covered gully that no non-climber has ever seen. We sweat and swore and laughed and got a little scared, and finally made it to the summit.
As we stood at the top of the Chief, we could barely see the outline of the harbor and freeway below. The smoke from the fires was thick and grey, and as we hiked off the top of the Chief, breathing heavily we coughed and wheezed.
That night, camped under the grey haze, we drank tired beers and slipped easily into bed, saying our farewells tinged with the happy exhaustion that comes after a long day of climbing.
The next morning I woke up with a splitting headache.
My brain felt as if it was frying inside my skull. I rolled painfully out of bed and gulped down some water. Later that day I found my friend Jason in bed with a fever, he had been hot and cold all night. Our other friend Mike went to the hospital in the middle of the night with his jaw locked shut.
Each one of us spent the day in bed drinking water and feeling awful.
According to the CDC, wildfire smoke can cause a variety of symptoms including headaches. I don’t have proof that these illnesses were caused by breathing in wildfire smoke all day, but I can’t imagine what else could have been the culprit. We climbed less the following week and did our best to heed the stay inside warnings.
These wildfires are becoming more and more common in the Pacific Northwest.
According to the Scientific American, this increase in wildfires in the last few years is likely related to human-induced climate change. These wildfires are becoming more deadly, more intense, and are lasting longer each year.
Each year climbing in the summer destinations in Washington, Oregon and Canada are going to see the effects of climate change in the form of wildfires. Just chatting with locals for a few minutes in places like Index, Squamish, and Smith Rock they will tell you that there have been more wildfires in recent years than when they grew up. These natural disasters are devastating for the lives they take and the structures they burn down, but what about the air we breathe?
What will happen to climbers when the air quality is so bad we can’t even go outside, much less summit a climb? Will climbing be known as a winter sport from now on? Will the summer months be our training time instead of the winter months?
These are important things for us as rock climbers, as vanlifers, and as people to consider going forward. Just one of the ways we can fight climate change is to talk about it.
Many rock climbers and vanlifers have to have awkward conversations about where they pee, when they plan to get a job and how often they shower. The conversations we need to be having will affect rock climbers and vanlifers far before it affects people living and working in cities or towns.
I’ve partnered with TNC to get people talking about Climate Change. As a vanlifer and a rock climber, climate change is one of those things I feel personally affected by on a regular basis, mostly in regards to wildfires. This summer as I was driving south from Washington along the 395, the smoke from one of the California wildfires was so intense I couldn’t see farther 100 feet in front of my van. I could barely breathe and the smoke was stinging my eyes making it difficult to drive. If I’d had to camp in that smoke it would have seriously affected my health.
I want to encourage you all to download the “Let's Talk Climate” ebook attached here and to learn how to start a conversation on climate change. Many of us don’t have the funds or the time to donate or to volunteer, but everyone can have a conversation about climate change.