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The New Reality: Crested Butte Winter Camping in a Changing Climate

For winter explorers like Eric Larsen, the realities of climate change are evident in the places he trains in like Crested Butte, Colorado. Meyvn Creative photo.

“What’s our next step? I’d like to get the tent set up before dark,” I said to polar adventurer and expedition guide Eric Larsen. I was winter camping for the first time and in rare form: on the tail end of a head cold and comically swallowed in a gigantic 800-fill down jacket, beanie, and Baffin boots rated at -58 degrees Fahrenheit. My attitude started to flirt with irritability. The whiney tone flowed over Larsen like water. He was completely in his element—decked out in jeans, a nanopuff, and a flat-brim hat—and cool headed.

But as I looked around, what was most concerning to me was the lack of snow.

Over a dozen other students were scattered around the semi-covered snow-field and bent over their own personal micro-explosions of gear as the sun began to slump behind the mountains. We were west of Crested Butte, CO—which is ranked as the coldest town in the nation—to complete a condensed version of Larsen’s annual week-long polar camp: The Level 1 Polar Training Course, which he hosts on Lake Winnipeg in Canada each January.

Ironically, December 2017 marked Colorado history as the lowest snowpack average in 37 years, and the backend of the Centennial State’s third warmest year on record. The lightly dusted grassy knolls and bare ridgelines surrounding CB reflected the drought. There wasn’t enough snow for us to backcountry ski with our sleds. We hiked to our basecamp via snowshoes.

Such national and worldwide temperature spikes pose a huge threat to Larsen’s lifelong mission. As a modern-day Sir Ernest Shackleton, his work occupies the most remote, extreme landscapes on Earth. In the past two decades, he’s led more polar expeditions than any other American in history. To that point, he is the first-ever and only person to complete the Three Poles expedition—tagging the South Pole, North Pole, and the top of Mt. Everest—in a 365-day period.

While Larsen was teaching his Polar Explorer class, the harsh realities of this winter's poor snowfall were evident in the dirt and grass peaking through the normally abundant snowpack. Meyvn Creative photo.

Recently, Larsen moved to Crested Butte. Naturally, he was attracted to the region’s cold conditions as a means to help maintain his training.

“Unfortunately, the weather isn’t reliably cold enough in Minnesota anymore to teach these same skills. When I was dog musher in the early ‘90s we were guaranteed to have a decent snowpack and cold weather in Northern Minnesota by Thanksgiving. Now, there’s an equal chance for rain and—on average—warmer temperatures,” said Larsen.

He relocated his training north to Lake Winnipeg in Canada, but the warming trend followed.

Likewise, Larsen witnessed the Arctic Sea ice drastically change. His most recent accomplishment, the Last North expedition in 2014–in which he traversed 500 miles across the Arctic Ocean to reach the North Pole in March 2014—was plausibly the last North Pole traverse to be completed by humans. Larsen and his trip partner, mountaineer Ryan Waters, each hauled 317-pound sleds for 53 days on a totally self-supported sufferfest battling temperatures of -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

“My first expedition to the North Pole was in 2006. Now, the character and nature of sea ice is thinner, it breaks up more easily, and the overall coverage is reduced,” described Larsen. “I’m in this position where I have this knowledge about specific types of expeditions to the poles—which has captivated polar explorers’ imaginations for hundreds of years—that I may not be able to pass down. It may not be possible in the near future.”

During their 2014 expedition, the weakened, frozen slabs shifted apart and buckled against one another, which created hellacious piles of SUV-size ice-mounds for Larsen and Water to traverse over. Melted ice led to more open bodies of water, which required them to swim through freezing sea. The arduous travel required additional time compared to former explorers who traversed across a relatively flat surface. As they slept, the unstable ice also drifted more than it had in the past—sometimes backwards—and they lost significant mileage. Not to mention, they were tracked and threatened by hungry Polar bears. It was literally an arctic hell.

An accelerated warming period and the increasingly tough conditions meant that the window for the North Pole expedition was shorter than ever before. After Larsen’s mission, the sole flight operator that offered a North Pole pickup ceased operation. The ice was too precarious for carriers to continue service. “Snow and ice is finite and our earth’s patterns will continue to change with shorter seasons and less snow in areas,” said Larsen. “Locations that have been traditionally frozen, such as the Arctic Ocean, will not be like we’ve known.”

Larsen moved to Crested Butte from Minnesota in the hopes the climate would allow him to train more regularly. Since then, the warming atmosphere has continued making Larsen's job more difficult. Meyvn Creative photo.

“You can’t look at an instance of climate change in one location and make a broad assumption, but when you start to see these wider trends you can. In Lake Winnipeg, we would usually have -50 degrees Fahrenheit with rain chills. In the third week of last January, it rained and finally chilled of to 20 degrees,” said Larsen. “One reason CB is a good choice for me is because I can be at altitude and get a great chance of cold and snow at that particular time of year.”

Hopefully, the Butte returns to its normal, frigid and blustery self. I intend to put the lessons from Larsen’s polar training course to use on multi-day backcountry ski trips.

Larsen’s class covered the fundamentals of equipment, logistics, skills, and nutrition for below-zero expeditions. Day one kicked off with a two-hour crash course on layering. Then we fixed our 50-pound duffle bags to tangerine-colored hardware-store sleds, pulled on body harnesses, and hauled the load three miles via snowshoes into the mountains. Perched on a 10,500-foot high overlook near, we set up our tents for a freezing night in the backcountry, and prepared for a quick meal.

Enter, Larsen’s Lesson One: Always pack piping hot Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Cup-A-Soup.

“Soup is a philosophical snack: It’s warm, convenient, has electrolytes, and you look forward to it,” Larsen said during our first snack break 1.5-miles up and into the woods.

Larsen also urged the importance of regiments.

“I try to create better systems where I am idiot- and ego-proof, in order to be as efficient and safe as possible,” he said. Larsen suggested having a routine travel plan. For instance, stop to rehydrate and refuel every fifteen minutes with precise amounts of water and calories. Keep your pack consistently organized to save time and energy. When your body temperature rises, swap out layers to avoid sweating, which prevents the chills and chances of hypothermia.

While it might be a down year in the Rockies, Crested Butte is still as beautiful as ever. Meyvn Creative photo.

It sounds counterintuitive, but in regards to self-care, be selfish. Look at it this way: “If you end up hypothermic, that puts you and the entire crew in danger,” said Larsen.

Such survival lessons are becoming increasingly important for the two million skiers and snowboarders who head into non-lift served backcountry each season. The warming trend could push adventurers to hike and skin further distances in order to reach snow. As yurt and hut systems throughout the Rocky Mountains continue to gain popularity backcountry trips may be plausible or more enjoyable with winter camping.

“For backcountry skiers and snowboarders—a population that is growing—the extreme snow fluctuations creates unpredictable snowfall and potentially less stable snowpack,” said Larsen. “In the future, people may need to put more effort into finding [lower-risk] snowpack.”

“We need to look at the bigger picture of society, the implications of laws, and the political will to sign onto global climate agreements to maximize our use of renewable resources and renewable energy,” said Larsen.

And Larsen’s personal solution to engaging meaningful dialogue about climate change? It’s simple: we need to keep our adventures alive. “We need to be diligent about keeping the conversations going about expeditions and winter. Go skiing. Do the things that you love to do in winter and cold, and support the snow sports industry.”

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