“Beyond the Summit” showcases the fragility of the Arctic’s ecosystem and the importance of protecting it
Photos by Nate Leubbe
Professional skier and POW Athlete Alliance member, Kit DesLauriers became acutely aware of the impacts humans can have on the land, especially in remote places, at 10 years old. She was reading about the oil crises in 1979 while waiting for gas in the back of her mom’s car for 3 hours. The front page newspaper story was about the oil that lived under the ground in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the porcupine caribou herd that migrates there to breed.
This news story resonated with her, especially as she journeyed through her career as a professional skier. After skiing the world’s seven highest summits, she decided her next big project would be to travel to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Her goal was to ski the Brooks range and study the snowpack of this critical ecosystem and the impacts it would see should it be open for drilling oil.
Her expeditions began in 2010 and have evolved in scope and purpose. DesLauriers gives us an inside look at her learnings over the last twelve years by taking us to the Arctic in her new film Beyond the Summit.
“The film shares the story of my journey to adventure in the mountains and measure snow on the Coastal Plain to increase awareness of the issues and add more data to the scientific efforts happening up there,” said DesLauriers.
The First Expedition
In 2010 DesLauriers made her first trip to the Arctic to see the landscape for herself. “It was during my first expedition to the Arctic Refuge when I realized this ecosystem needs to be protected,” said DesLauriers. “I say that because I intentionally had a neutral mindset as I went up there wanting to see it for myself without anyone else’s filter.”
While there she skied Mt. Michelson where she could see the Beaufort Sea located 60 miles north. On her journey up the peak, the things she saw were eye-opening. “We camped on snow among melted polar bear tracks, saw wolverines running through the river drainage and listened to the wildest silence I’ve ever heard,” said DesLauriers. “As we skied deeper into the mountains we followed wolf tracks up the highest mountain in the Brooks range before seeing the wolf cross over a pass which gave us new knowledge about the best way to connect the drainages.”
After skiing Mt. Michelson, her team skied north across the Coastal Plain and finished at the Beaufort Sea. They shared the terrain with arctic foxes and snowy owls and watched flocks of ptarmigan take flight from their caves in the snow mounds. Despite not seeing the caribou she read about as a kid, she had already formed a conclusion.
“I’d seen enough to know that this ecosystem was worthy of protection and none of its inhabitants recognize the arbitrary boundary of the wilderness vs. coastal plain designation because they use it all as one,” said DesLauriers. “At that point, it wasn’t as much about the climate as it was about justice: social justice for the people who live nearby in harmony with the land and environmental justice for the sake of it.”
The Arctic’s Fragile Ecosystem
DesLauriers has since taken seven more trips to the Arctic, each offering new experiences. “They’ve shown me another layer of the story that has evolved to the realization that it’s not just about social and environmental justice or wilderness for the sake of wilderness, but it’s also about the fact that the conditions don’t exist for responsible oil drilling,” said DesLauriers. “It’s been an evolution of awareness; how’s that as a metaphor for life?”
Not only have her expeditions given her a deep love for the landscape of the Arctic Refuge, but they’ve also shown her how critical this ecosystem is and the detriment drilling would have on it. “The Coastal Plain is the heart of the ecosystem in that the abundant wild animals such as caribou, polar bears and muskox depend upon it,” said DesLauriers. “Another critical piece of the ecosystem is that humans will also be in danger if it were to be developed”
DesLauriers used her observations and awareness of the political issues surrounding the Coastal Plain in combination with her experience as a skier to continue the fight to protect the Refuge. “I know the snowpack is generally quite minimal and likely wouldn’t support the presence of heavy equipment,” said DesLauriers. “If the tundra were to be damaged by [heavy equipment] then we’d also be contributing to a hyper-acceleration of climate change thanks to increased melting of the permafrost beneath.”
Over the last 12 years of expeditions to the Arctic, DesLauriers has seen noticeable changes in the landscape. “Two-thousand-and-eighteen was a year with such minimal snow on the Coastal Plain that there was more brown than white for hundreds of thousands of acres visible from our high point,” said DesLauriers. “That was a stark contrast to what I’d seen at similar times in 2010 and 2014.”
The Bureau of Land Management has a nine-inch minimum snow depth coverage for industry activity in the winter months to protect the land underneath. “From my experience, this minimum doesn’t exist reliably, so I decided to go in and measure it,” said DesLauriers.
DesLauriers recognizes her experience in the Arctic only offers anecdotal visuals, but she also can’t deny what she’s seeing. “Those aren’t enough experiences to say that I’m seeing change, versus moments in time, yet in 2022 there was far less snow in the mountains than I’d seen previously, with evidence of higher winds over the winter and increased ice exposure,” said DesLauriers. “This also happened to be a deeper snow year on average on the Coastal Plain, yet there were still many places where the tundra was visible above the highest tussocks.”
DesLauriers doesn’t think anyone without insider knowledge of the Refuge knows about this. “How could this oil program still be legal if it were known,” said DesLauriers. “The goal is to establish protections for this rugged yet fragile ecosystem.”
Protecting the Arctic
Prolonged protection of the Arctic depends on the existence of climate champions in political office to enact specific policies to safeguard the Refuge.
“Science tells us that the Arctic is warming at a greater rate than lower latitudes and that the melting permafrost releases methane gasses which threaten to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations exponentially,” said DesLauriers. “Protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling is just one piece of managing our climate crisis. It’s backed by science; yet science, like policy, needs champions.”
Despite the science being there, there is still a lease sale mandated for 2024 in the Arctic Refuge. DesLauriers encourages people to learn about the issue, get engaged and take action for the continued protection of the Arctic. “This ecosystem is meaningful to me for so many reasons,” said Deslauriers. “I think there are many reasons which most everyone can rally around.”
DesLauriers says signing up for the Alaska Wilderness League newsletter is a great way to learn more about the Refuge fight, including how to support the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign. She also encourages you to get in touch with your senator and other elected officials to let them know that you oppose drilling in the Arctic, and ask the White House to deliver on the United States’ climate emissions goals.
You can watch Beyond the Summit below to learn more about Kit DesLauriers’ journey and as a starting point to educating yourself on why it’s important to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Author: Stacie Sullivan
Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]