Rose Pearson's Dilemma: New Climbs and Global Warming
By Nick Allen 18/10/2018 12:30 pm

“Five years ago, the route wouldn’t have been climbable,” Rose Pearson told me. Her tone carried an alluring sense both of sadness and opportunity. We caught up for lunch to discuss her most recent first ascent and talked about the dilemma of climbing in the shadow of global warming.

As one of New Zealand’s elite mountaineers, Rose is a senior member of the New Zealand Alpine Team. Last month, Rose climbed with Sam Waetford to establish a new route on the Sheila Face of Aoraki / Mount Cook. The highly technical route, called The Ministry of Silly Walks (5+ WI4 M4), is climbable because of newly formed ice – ice that is the result of global warming.

The Changing Landscape

Rose loves the alpine landscape and has a strong affinity with views from high places. I asked her to describe the most beautiful moment she has experienced, while climbing. She paused a moment and looked outside. “It was one of my early climbs at Aoraki / Mount Cook,” she replied. 

They had started early, in the cloud as they climbed up Sebastopol Ridge, towards Mt Annette. Reaching the summit, Rose turned and realized that she was sitting high above the clouds, which filled the valleys below. “It was a mind-expanding experience,” she said, and she’s been hooked ever since.

However, the landscape that she loves is changing. “It’s the massive, empty moraines that always get me,” she told me as she returned her gaze outside the window, her voice trailing. “The huge walls with no glacier to fill them – it’s a constant reminder of how much the glaciers have retreated, and how much ice we are losing.” 

Glacial retreat in New Zealand is alarming. Research shows that ice loss has accelerated rapidly in the last 15 years, and that the volume of ice in the Southern Alps has reduced by 34% since 1977. This is a problem for alpinism in New Zealand, changing the nature and form of climbing.  

The loss of ice radically alters the climbing (and climbable) landscape. Warmer winter temperatures, less precipitation and greater rock-exposure mean that more snow is melting at higher altitudes. As snow disappears from the mountains with more rock exposed, routes will become harder to climb. Anecdotal and photographic evidence shows this to be true around the world. 

During the summer, melting ice makes the mountains more dangerous. Ice holds our mountains together and with its departure, the rock becomes more unstable, with a higher occurrence of rock-fall. In short, it’s going to get harder and more dangerous to climb, all year round.

The Dilemma

Here, we approach the nub of Rose’s dilemma. Global warming is causing significant change in a landscape she loves and a sport she lives for. This elicits a sense of loss and frustration. However, global warming is also opening up exciting new routes. Under a decent cold snap, the melting snow creates water-ice where it may not have existed in the past. This means that routes, previously unclimbable because of snow, are now open during the winter. Global warming presents a grievous perk.

Further complicating Rose’s conflicted relationship with global warming is the reality that alpinism, as a sport, creates a carbon footprint. Modern climbing is facilitated through the use of lightweight plastics in ropes, tents, packs, sleeping bags, boots and clothing — petrochemical products that come with a footprint. Added to this is the volume of jet fuel required for access to some of the world’s best climbing areas. “I do enjoy a sport that produces an environmental footprint. I just do my best to offset it.” 

That's why she works hard to achieve carbon neutrality through careful and conscientious daily decisions. Rose, who lives in Christchurch, cycles everywhere, instead of driving. Rather than jet around the globe in pursuit of ice, she has chosen to minimize air-travel and forego some opportunities. “For example, I won’t climb at the poles. The carbon footprint is just too large,” she said. 

For Love of the Land

The Ministry of Silly Walks takes you to the top of Aoraki / Mount Cook. For Rose, reaching the top of New Zealand was more significant than she had anticipated. “It’s one thing to climb peaks overseas, but reaching the top of Cook, I felt profoundly aware of my place in my land. This is home. And I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me.” 

Perhaps it is this love of the New Zealand alpine landscape that fuels her ardor for preserving it for future generations. “The connection to this place, to our land, makes climbing more special," Rose said. "It gives you a deeper sense of peace and a longer feeling of satisfaction.” 

At Radix, we go to great lengths to minimize our environmental footprint. That’s why we are proud to support Rose and the other members of the New Zealand Alpine Team, who share our desire to secure a sustainable future. 

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Words: Nick Allen

Images: NZ Alpine Team