The impact of climate change? These winter Olympians have seen it

Jamie Anderson competes in snowboard big air at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea
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The summer camp that melted

Jamie Anderson was 15 years old the first time she showed up at Camp of Champions, a snowboarding and freeskiing camp that was founded in 1989. Based on Horstman Glacier in British Columbia, the camp featured a massive summertime snowpark, complete with pipes, rails, and jumps.

“Athletes would come from all over the world,” Anderson, a three-time Olympic medalist, recalled.

Like Anderson, many of her fellow campers went on to win Olympic and X Games medals.

Shaun White, Devin Logan, Mark McMorris? All former campers.

“It’s hilarious how many people that came to camp ended up as rockstars,” said Camp of Champions founder Ken Achenbach. “It was the magic of camp.”

Kaitlyn Farrington, Sebastien Toutant, Cassie Sharpe? They all went to Camp of Champions, too.

According to Achenbach, former campers who competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics racked up so many podium finishes that “if we had been a country, we would have finished eighth” in the overall medal count.

Olympic snowboarder Jamie Anderson, age 17, training at Camp of Champions in July 2008. (Credit: Camp of Champions/Angel Rodriguez)
Olympic snowboarder Jamie Anderson, age 17, training at Camp of Champions in July 2008. (Credit: Camp of Champions/Angel Rodriguez)

But the medals were just a bonus for Achenbach. “What I loved about camp was just influencing all of these kids to have amazing lives,” he said. “Camp was the place where all these people could discover what makes them happy.”

Two of those kids? His daughters, Kaia and Caprii. They grew up playing on the glacier, where they got to know Anderson as “my friend Jamie” before she became a snowboarding legend.

When Kaia was five years old, she announced that she wanted to become the “boss of camp” once she turned 25. Initially, Achenbach could imagine a future in which he’d be able to pass his business on to his daughters.

But in 2017, nearly three decades after it opened, Camp of Champions declared bankruptcy and closed for good.

“I lost my job because of global warming,” said Achenbach, who now works in real estate. “The glacier park that we were on is pretty much gone.”

In a 2017 letter about the camp’s closure, Achenbach detailed how he had seen the ice at Horstman Glacier drop by over 140 vertical feet in just 30 years.

“Every year, the final pitch of the Horstman T-Bar shrinks more and more making it harder and harder for Whistler Blackcomb to maintain,” he wrote. “To give you an idea of how much melting has happened the last few years, in 2015 alone the glacier lost 35 vertical feet of ice.”

Of course, it’s not just Horstman Glacier that has seen the impacts of climate change.

A 2018 study found that by 2050, nine of the 22 prior Winter Olympic host cities will be too hot to host the Games. And in the United States, nearly all ski areas are expected to have a season that is 50% shorter by the middle of this century, according to a 2017 study in the Global Environmental Change journal.

But not every member of the winter sports community has always been in agreement that climate change was happening, let alone worth addressing.

In 2019, Gian Franco Kasper, then President of the International Ski Federation (FIS), told a Swiss newspaper that there was no proof of climate change. (In the same interview, Kasper also expressed his preference for working with dictators over environmentalists.) Kasper, who later apologized, retired from FIS in June 2021. He died the following month.

Anderson, who denounced Kasper’s 2019 comments, donated her prize money from that year’s World Championships to Protect Our Winters, a non-profit organization that promotes climate change legislation.

“I do think that athletes [can make] a stand,” Anderson said last week. “You can speak your truth.”

You can’t out-ski global warming

While the worst impacts of climate change are still years away, athletes who compete on snow and ice have already seen the impact of rising temperatures and less predictable snowfall. Many winter sports hold events at the same places at the same times each year, providing athletes with a close-up look at just how quickly the environment is changing.

“Climate change is real. It’s here and it is 100% affecting our sport,” two-time X Games champion Maggie Voisin said at last month’s Team USA media summit. “I think back to when I was younger when there was way more snow earlier in the season and at the end of the season.”

“Halfpipes are getting fewer and fewer all over the place just because it takes so much snow,” said two-time world championship medalist Maddie Mastro.

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“We’ve gone to sites [where] normally we would have snow, but instead it’s been raining,” aerialist Winter Vinecki explained.

“It’s really scary to all of us, especially as winter athletes, to see these changes happen,” said cross-country skier Gus Schumacher. “I think it’s really important to focus on… because otherwise, we’re not going to have a Winter Olympics.”

In recent years, Anderson has attended pre-season training camps in Saas-Fee, a glacier village in Switzerland. But while Saas-Fee’s Allalin Glacier is rideable, at least for now, Anderson has made note of some worrying changes.

From an increase in the amount of ice breaking off to the visible decline in the glacier’s size, it’s “a pure, physical testimony to how gnarly climate change is,” Anderson said.

Two-time Paralympic snowboarding medalist Keith Gabel, who has also trained at Saas-Fee, shared a similar story.

“We’re watching ice chunks break off from the glacier every day. It sounds like avalanches,” Gabel explained. “To see how much the ice has shifted just in the last couple of years, it’s mind boggling.”

When loving something might mean letting it go

While winter sports are undoubtedly impacted by climate change, they also – like any other carbon-emitting event – are contributing to its progression.

Anderson often finds herself feeling conflicted. If she wants to be an elite athlete, she needs to attend pre-season training camps. But on the flip side, what sort of environmentalist is she if she takes a transcontinental flight in August or September just to find snow?

“I’ve considered making a promise to myself to not ride in the offseason and not travel across the ocean to go ride glaciers. It’s really hard to find that balance,” she said.

“I know I’m just as much a part of the problem as I am the solution. I’m still here snowboarding.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC