Mount Everest Gets the John Oliver Treatment

24 Jun

The commodification of Mount Everest got the 22-minute feature treatment on John Oliver’s HBO series Last Week Tonight. Overcrowding is the biggest story from the world’s tallest peak this season, thanks to the infamous viral image of a long line of climbers waiting to get to the summit. Picking up with that photo, the segment from the June 23 episode touched on the problems associated with climbing the mountain in 2019, none of which are especially new.

Oliver started with the trash pileup, including the “fecal time bomb,” left by the people, qualified or otherwise, who are paying minimal fees to make the climb the result of a disastrously unregulated guiding industry on the Nepalese side of the mountain. The feature then reminded viewers of the Sherpas who do the bulk of the work for their clients, acknowledging that most of the people paying to summit would be unable to do so without such guides and porters.  

Overtourism is having a moment. Long lines, smog, piles of waste, and needless deaths have become common problems at popular destinations around the world. Visitors are served by a growing underclass they can’t recognize, like the oblivious climber from the segment who declares himself “family” with the Sherpas hired by his expedition. And even getting to where you’re going requires a massive expulsion of greenhouse-gas emissions. These issues aren’t unique to Everest, but at least they are somewhat fixable on the world’s highest mountain.  

Author Mark Jenkins laid out a coherent plan to address these problems in an essay we published last week. “So the first and most fundamental way to reduce traffic jams, frostbite, and death on Everest is to radically reduce the number of permits,” he says. He goes on to recommend steps like establishing a concessions system for guiding services, requiring no-trace practices, and even the audacious suggestion that climbers take responsibility themselves. 

There are already a handful of destinations that require permits for adventurers, including Grand Teton and Denali National Parks. As long as the crowds keep growing, more places will have to start considering tighter regulations that might not be popular with travelers or the localities dependent on the revenue they bring. 

But Oliver does offer one viable solution for the Instagram-obsessed hordes—Photoshop. If you just want to climb Everest for the photo, why not save tens of thousands of dollars and make your own with the services of Adventures Indoors Luxepediations

BLM Removed Sustainability Language from Press Releases

16 May

There’s something different about the Bureau of Land Management’s press releases as of this week. A sentence from the BLM’s mission statement referring to its role as the steward of the more than 245 million acres managed by the federal agency. Four sentences focused exclusively on the economic value of our public lands are still at the bottom of every press release, including those that predate the current administration.

The removed sentence read:

The BLM’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Here’s the text that remains:

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. Diverse activities authorized on these lands generated $96 billion in sales of goods and services throughout the American economy in fiscal year 2017. These activities supported more than 468,000 jobs.

The change was first reported by the Huffington Post on Wednesday.

If you click on the Our Mission page of the BLM’s website, the original sentence is still there, for now, right at the top.

This isn’t the first bit of rebranding the agency has done under the Trump administration. In March 2018, BLM employees got a new “vision card” to wear in the field that includes an illustration of cowboys and cattle grazing on one side and an oil rig on the other, along with the agency’s mission and principles. A year earlier, the agency took some heat for swapping out a banner image of mountains on its homepage for a picture of coal (currently the images on the top of the page highlight recreation). Posters featuring national monuments were removed from the walls of the BLM’s Washington, D.C., headquarters in 2017.

It’s more than a casual redecoration. Those changes reflect the agency’s expanded effort under President Trump to prioritize fossil fuel development and mineral extraction over conservation, in spite of the fact that nearly one quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from federal lands.

Please Don’t Land Your Helicopter on the Super Bloom

27 Mar

If you’re (un)lucky enough to be alive 100 years from now and your grandchild asks you what the United States was like before global temperatures rose by 6 degrees, just tell them about the couple who landed a helicopter in the middle of the exploding poppy fields of Antelope Valley, California, on Monday, March 25, during the 2019 super bloom.

People aren’t content to see a beautiful thing; they feel the need to ruin a small part of it in the process.

We know nothing about these two chopper-bound sightseers, other than that they fled the scene before rangers could identify them. On another weekend, they might be might be driving up the coast with a “Live Simply, So Others Can Simply Live” bumper sticker on their Model X. Or maybe their 7,000-square-foot house in the hills has a living room full of safari trophies and a card on the fridge from their dear friends the Mercers. 

Whatever they do when they’re not landing helicopters in poppy fields doesn’t matter. This couple, whoever they are, just dropped in to become the worst example of people bahaving badly in the middle of the Movjave bloom boom. 

Most visitors abide by the rules, but others have ventured off the trail and destroyed part of what they came to see. But even those scofflaws weren’t directly endangering the safety of others.  

“We never thought it would be explicitly necessary to state that it is illegal to land a helicopter in the middle of the fields and begin hiking off trail in the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve,” officials from the reserve, which is part of the California State Park system, said in a since-deleted Facebook post.

A super bloom usually occurs once a decade, but this is the second one in the last three years. The area was overwhelmed during the 2017 bloom, the first one of the social media era. Park staff were more prepared to direct the crowds this time around, but that hasn’t alleviated many of the problems that come with the massive influx of visitors.

Throngs of people—described on the Lake Elsinore, California, official Instagram account as “Disneyland-sized crowds”—have swarmed super bloom sites in California like Antelope Valley and Walker Canyon this month. Lake Elsinore declared a public safety crisis and shut down access to Walker Canyon on March 17, after the town was inundated with 150,000 visitors in a single day. Traffic jams have turned area roads into something more akin to the 405 in Los Angeles. Parking lots are full, and local officials have had to ask visitors not to park their cars on the interstate.

The most common offense has been leaving the trail. Someone steps off the path to get that perfect selfie and stomps out a small patch of flowers in the process. Another person comes along and pushes off the trail just a little further at that spot, killing more flowers and threatening wildlife in the process. Then another, and another, and so on.

Others have skipped the trails altogether and jumped over the barbed-wire fencing and straight into the poppy fields.

Getting off the trail also comes with its own risks. At least one visitor and a dog have been bitten by rattlesnakes this year. Another was hit by a falling rock after venturing off the path in Walker Canyon.

A few of the overeager flower stompers this year received an extra souvenir from rangers in the form of a citation. That’s a less effective deterrent than a snake bite or a boulder to head, but it is at least more punishment than what the helicopter couple received.  

Telling people to stay away from super blooms and packed national parks isn’t exactly realistic. But there are other ways to alleviate the problem, like creating more parks and monuments, increasing the number of park staff on hand, and being more thoughtful tourists.

Most of us aren’t rich or stupid enough to consider landing a helicopter in the middle in a field of poppies, but it shouldn't be too much to ask anyone to bring just a little self-awareness when they visit these places.

How to Watch ‘Free Solo’ Online

22 Feb

Last September, we declared Free Solo to be the best climbing movie ever made. Now, it's bagged another prestigious achievement. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s film documenting climber Alex Honnold’s historic rope-free ascent of El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite took home the statue for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. 

Free Solo follows Honnold as he prepares for the climb and deals with “the circus” of being the sport’s most recognizable figure, someone who’s been living mostly out of a van suddenly having a camera following his every move for months on end. It’s that insight into Honnold that forces the audience to confront bigger questions about life, death, and risk-taking and make this much more than just another climbing flick.  

In an interview with Outside in September 2018, Vasarhelyi described the film as a story about “this kid who is so scared of talking to other people that it was easier for him to climb alone, with no ropes, than to ask for a partner. I feel like we all have something in our lives like that. It was really important to see Alex’s eyes before he did it. What did his eyes look like the morning he set off?”

That approach goes a long way toward explaining why Vasarhelyi, Chin and Honnold were on stage together accepting the Oscar in February. 

Watch It Online

If you haven’t seen the film, or just want to see it a second (or third) time, you can watch it online whenever you want. You can stream it right now if you have a subscription to Hulu. If not, it’s available for rent or purchase on all the major streaming services, including iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and Google Play.

National Geographic, which funded and distributed the movie, has it available on their TV app (cable or satellite subscription required).

See It at the Theater

And if you can see it on the big screen, you definitely should. It’s still popping up from time to time in theaters around the country.

Here’s a full listing of theatres showing it.