I’ve Come To This Mountain All My Life. What Will It Be Like In 20 Years?

As climate change reshapes beloved places like the Cascades, much of it will exist only in memory.

What Will Be Lost is a series of reported stories and essays exploring the ways climate change is affecting our relationship to one another, to our sense of place, and to ourselves.

PORTLAND, Ore. ― On the night before we drive through the snow toward the mountain of our youth, we tell the kids a story about nachos. The ski lodge, where we’d be heading the next day, bakes them on a cookie sheet — it’s just like at home, but better, because they make them for you. You eat them before the ride home so the beans can fuel the car over the pass.

The girls, both 10, and their 13-year-old brother look at us the way kids do when you talk about your life before they existed. The story doesn’t measure up with how they understand us in the present. It’s about a time before we were an aunt and a mom, when we were just teens driving a Toyota Tercel over a snowy mountain to go skiing. But they laugh, of course. Fart jokes are always funny.

Two decades later, the drive is the same, even if it seems like so much else has changed. There’s the thump-thump-thump of the chains on the snow, the way your ears pop as you drive over the pass. You still have to keep your eyes directly on the road as you lean into the final curves before the turnoff, that remarkable view seen only in the periphery: Three-Fingered Jack in one direction and a burned-out forest on the right, all black silhouettes frosted with snow. That’s how we learned to drive on icy roads, we tell the kids. It is a story from long before I became someone who writes about climate change, from before I understood the value of time.

When we arrive at the lodge, the sky is spitting sleet and rain. The wet weather isn’t unusual. Hoodoo sits at 4,668 feet in a part of the Oregon Cascades where wet winter storms from the Pacific often wash the snow away with rain. Its future operation promises to be even more erratic.

Just a few weeks before we arrive, the federal government released the 2018 National Climate Assessment predicting that low-elevation ski areas in the Cascades, like Hoodoo, will struggle to stay in business in the coming decades. It’s already happening; during the 2015 drought that struck the West Coast, Hoodoo was open only nine days. Ski areas across the West closed early that year. The sight of empty chairlifts dangling over brown hills and patchy snow foreshadowed the grim future climate.

Hoodoo’s charm derives mostly from the cheap lift tickets and ample beginner runs, just like when we were young. It’s the kind of place with a day lodge where families on a budget plug in crockpots of chili, where $15 and a warm sleeping bag buy you an overnight parking spot. The kids aren’t good enough snowboarders for us to splurge on $100-a-day lift tickets at the fancier, higher-elevation ski resort 60 miles away, where it is less likely to rain.

My sister and I deliberate for a moment in the rainy parking lot. They all live in South Africa now and aren’t acclimated to the cold. They have no ski goggles. Do we want their first experience on the slopes to be a wet, miserable one?

But the kids love it, even if the memories we are making are already about a time gone by. They laugh when they fall in the snow, even if it’s mushy and damp, and they whine when they can’t get back up on their boards. They throw snowballs at our butts. At lunch, they beg for quarters to feed the machine that dries their wet gloves. Everyone pigs out on the nachos, which are as good as we remember. Maybe better. My brother-in-law eats a whole tray by himself, or at least that is the tall tale we will tell.

A Fixed Place

“We sell memories,” says Matthew McFarland, Hoodoo’s general manager. “We sell fun.”

He is less eager to talk about climate change, or what it might mean for this place. “There have been years where there’s 20 feet of snow on the ground,” he says. “There also have been years where there’s never more than two or three feet of snow on the ground. And, of course, a few years where there was never any snow on the ground.”

People often confuse weather with climate. Weather is when it snows on any given winter day. It’s what’s happening outside your window right now. Climate is when it usually snows in the winter. Climate change is when you can no longer count on it to snow in the winter.

Philip Mote, a scientist at Oregon State University who helped write the National Climate Assessment, says future skiing will be the least of our concerns. Everything in the Pacific Northwest connects to how much snow we get in the mountains in the winter.

“If you have a very warm winter and the snow doesn’t accumulate as much, then it doesn’t matter if you had normal precipitation,” he says. “You have below-normal snowpack heading into the summer.”

As a reporter, I write about these changes mostly in other places. The tides that come in a few inches higher each year on Miami Beach. The summer nights that never quite get cool in New York City. The deer that rut later and later, making hunting season unpredictable in the Midwest. The rainstorms fueled by a warmer Gulf of Mexico that dump more rain in Houston than we can measure.

It all creeps up on you over time when you’re fixed in place, making it hard to see. But it’s different when you return after a long absence. Twenty years away from Oregon is enough to notice the change. Time and distance offer me another unasked-for advantage: I can easily envision what home might look like in another 20 years.

Indicators Of The Imperceptible

The summer before our ski trip to the Cascades, in July 2018, I hid with my laptop in the coolest spot in our 120-year-old house, built at a time when air conditioning was unthinkable in temperate Portland.

“Just reached 90°, making today the 12th day the airport has reached 90° this year,” the National Weather Service tweeted. “How many days a year, on average, does PDX reach 90 degrees? You probably guessed it...12. And we’re not even half way through the season yet.”

“You guys allowed to say climate change?” another Twitter user responded.

By the end of that summer, Portland had 31 days that were 90 degrees or hotter. I looked up 1994, the last full summer I’d spent in Oregon. Only 13 days got that hot.

I was working on a piece about pyrosomes, which are dildo-shaped bioluminescent creatures that had started washing up unexpectedly on Oregon’s beaches. None of the scientists I spoke to could say exactly why the jellies were showing up in such cold waters. But they are anomalies, like the red algal blooms fouling Florida waters or the purple sea urchins mowing through the offshore kelp forests of California.

I begin keeping a list of all the weird stuff, the physical manifestations of the invisible gases heating our planet. One climate scientist, Heidi Roop at the University of Washington, told me about another anomaly: early spring snowmelt, reduced snowpack and warmer winters mean bears may emerge from hibernation too early. Drawn by the smell of human waste, curious bears break into the portable toilets set up at snowmobile and snowshoeing trailheads.

Roop has the perfect phrase for my list: “indicators of the imperceptible.” The poetry of it gives me chills. I asked the University of Oregon library for help researching whether anyone else has used such a phrase to describe the phenomenon on my list. Not that we can tell.

The words linger with me months later as I ride the chairlift at Hoodoo. I sit next to a bearded man in his 70s who’s there to ski with his grandkids. He tells me he is on the ski patrol at another mountain to the south. I tell him I have not skied in at least a decade, but that it is an unexpected pleasure to discover how much my body remembers, even the way you clip your boots into skis. I’m not as fast or as fearless, though, so I assure him I am sticking to the blue runs. He laughs and tells me that one benefit of age is that our knees make us appropriately cautious.

This little ski hill in the Cascades has been here his entire life. It, and the others like it, might be gone in a few decades, their empty lifts another indicator of the imperceptible. I ask the ski patrol to get a note to my companion on the chairlift, so I can interview him about climate change in his lifetime. No one knows who I am talking about. He is, I decided, just some bearded mountain sage with skillful, practiced turns made perfect by decades of days just like that one.

We drive home back over the pass, nachos warm in our bellies. If I had been able to have children, and if those children had been able to have children, they wouldn’t be able to ski there. My sister’s children already know this. It’s why they look at us as though we are telling tall tales. Because we were. They might remember the nachos. But they would never return to the same mountain of their youth.

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