How Rock Climbers and Snowboarders Became a Political Force

Original publication by Blake Hounshell for on 26 September 2022

Tommy Caldwell, one of just three people ever to scale El Capitan’s 3,000-foot Dawn Wall, is a member of Protect Our Winters.
Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

Jeremy Jones, an extreme snowboarder, filmmaker and owner of his own clothing brand, never dreamed of becoming a lobbyist.

More comfortable in snowboarding bibs and puffy jackets than a suit and tie, the laid-back Jones has quietly become a force in Washington’s power corridors — and this year, his coalition achieved its biggest victory yet.

Protect Our Winters, a group Jones founded in 2007 to bring together winter athletes for advocacy on climate issues, has grown steadily in influence over the past decade. Made up of climbers, skiers and other outdoor athletes, P.O.W. played a small but crucial role in helping pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains $370 billion in climate and clean-energy programs.

The group’s origins, though, were pretty humble.

“Someone should be doing something about this,” Jones recalled thinking around 2005. He began seeing rain in the middle of winter “in places where it doesn’t rain,” he said, or signs of glacial retreat in the German Alps.

So Jones decided that “someone” was him. Before long, he was cold-calling climate scientists, who told him he needed to use his celebrity to call for federal legislation, which they said would be the only way to achieve meaningful reductions in emissions.

Jones has done so, largely, by building a coalition he calls “the outdoor state”: skiers and snowboarders, backpackers and cyclists — and soon, he hopes, the even larger community of anglers and hunters.

These advocates talk up the economic importance of recreation in ways that resonate with politicians who tend to care more about jobs than endangered species. As Jones put it, “We don’t go to Capitol Hill with pictures of polar bears.”

For Jones, the Inflation Reduction Act was a sweet victory. P.O.W. came up short during the cap-and-trade fiasco in 2010, when the Obama administration prioritized health care over climate.

That defeat set the climate movement back by at least a decade — until a conservative Democrat from a coal-producing state became an unlikely champion.

Many outside groups and individual Democratic senators tried to sway Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia one way or the other as he wavered over whether to support a revived version of Build Back Better, the $1.9 trillion spending bill he torpedoed last year.

Executives at Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia’s largest ski area, grabbed Manchin’s attention when they informed him that outdoor recreation was the second-largest engine of the state’s economy. Patti Duncan, the resort’s president and chief operating officer, laid out her argument in favor of the legislation in an opinion essay for The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

After the law passed, the White House invited delegates of P.O.W. to a ceremony in September to celebrate — a recognition of the group’s growing clout on Capitol Hill.

One of those present was Dani Reyes-Acosta, a multisport athlete who calls herself an “uphill snowboarder,” because of both the physical terrain she snowboards on and the metaphorical terrain she navigates as a climate activist.

Reyes-Acosta said that sharing her concerns with the head of the National Park Service, whom she met in Washington, was “surreal.”

She recently moved to rural southwestern Colorado, where she is drawing on her background as a Latina from California’s Central Valley.

“My mother’s family was the first generation not to pick food,” she said — and so she focuses her advocacy work on how climate change threatens not just outdoor recreation up in the mountains, but also the agriculture downstream.

“Adventure feeds our soul,” she said, “but food feeds our bellies.”

For Jones and his allies, their very survival can depend on a stable climate. He recently filmed an expedition for the HBO series “Edge of the Earth,” in which he and several other top winter athletes skied and snowboarded down a 10,000-foot glaciated mountain in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska.

A freak ocean blizzard delayed their arrival on land and was followed by unseasonably warm temperatures that turned their base camp into a sweltering, soupy slush and nearly scuttled the project.

One of the athletes working with Jones is Tommy Caldwell, who happens to be one of the most recognizable rock climbers on the planet.

Caldwell has led a wild life. He’s been kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan and lost part of a finger to a table saw. Over 19 days in 2015, he became one of the first two people to scale El Capitan’s fabled 3,000-foot Dawn Wall; just one other climber has repeated the feat. Along the way, returning to the same spots year after year, he has noticed the subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — ways in which the shifting climate is changing the mountains.

Outdoor meccas like Chamonix, in the French Alps, are no longer reliably blanketed in white throughout the winter. The best climbing season in the Yosemite Valley has shifted to November from October because of the heat. And in Patagonia, where climbers and mountaineers test their mettle against legendary peaks like Fitz Roy — Caldwell named his son Fitz — the weather patterns have become unrecognizable.

As the ice that often holds the rocks together melts, Caldwell said, “chunks of the mountain can fall off and kill you.”

Climate politics seem to be reaching an inflection point in the United States, after years of being a second- or third-tier issue for voters.

Young Americans regularly tell pollsters that climate change is one of their top concerns, leading President Biden to make extravagant promises during the 2020 campaign that he has struggled to meet.

In Alaska’s recent House special election, a centrist Democrat, Mary Peltola, defeated Sarah Palin, the Republican former vice-presidential nominee, in part by speaking to voters’ concerns about declining fishing stocks and warmer temperatures while supporting economic development.

Peltola’s all-of-the-above approach to discussing climate change is exactly what some Democrats have been urging for years. One of them is Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a craft-beer entrepreneur who won his seat in 2020 in part by linking his Republican opponent, Cory Gardner, to Donald Trump’s climate policies.

Last winter, Caldwell, who lives in Colorado, took Hickenlooper on a climbing trip in Clear Creek Canyon to highlight P.O.W.’s work.

Hickenlooper, who has been afraid of heights his “whole life,” found the experience “terrifying,” he said in an interview.

He likened reducing climate change to inching your way up a big granite wall, like the El Capitan face that made Caldwell famous beyond rock climbing circles.

“It seems daunting at first, but you take it one step at a time,” Hickenlooper said.

Tommy Caldwell leading the ascent of the last pitch of El Capitan in 2015 as his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, belayed.
Max Whittaker for The New York Times

P.O.W.’s secret weapon is Alex Honnold, who became famous for the film “Free Solo,” which depicts his rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite. In 2019, P.O.W. sent a delegation to Washington, including Honnold, to capitalize on public interest in the movie.

That year, I went to a rooftop party in Washington where Caldwell, Honnold, Jones and other well-known athletes were throwing back bottles of Miller Genuine Draft and marveling at how they had just testified at a congressional hearing. As Honnold told me then, “I do live in a van most of the time, so it’s pretty wild.”

Honnold’s celebrity has made him especially effective in talking to hard-to-reach lawmakers, just as his long limbs and unique amygdala lead him to take risks that make other climbers blanch.

“Every Republican senator I’ve met loves Alex,” Caldwell said.

Love has not yet translated into votes. The closest thing P.O.W. might have to a Republican ally on Capitol Hill is Representative John Curtis of Utah, the leader of the Conservative Climate Caucus in the House.

Curtis represents a heavily Republican district just outside Salt Lake City that contains some of the country’s most popular ski areas, including Alta and Deer Valley.

He attended the United Nations climate summit last year in Glasgow, Scotland, and a former member of his staff attended P.O.W.’s retreat this summer outside Reno, Nev., which the group saw as a breakthrough moment. And on two occasions this spring and summer, P.O.W. arranged for Curtis to meet with a group of Olympians to bend his ear on climate and energy issues.

But zero Republicans voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, despite a noticeable shift in how many G.O.P. politicians now talk about renewable energy and other climate-related topics.

“It’s at a tipping point,” Hickenlooper cautioned, “but it has not yet tipped.”

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