On Risk and Mountains

In the summer of 2022, two well-known and experienced mountaineers died on a technical climb in Glacier National Park. Their status as local legends and their engagement with the climbing community in the area cast a pall over the rest of the summer season. Throughout the rest of the season, our outdoor conversations naturally drifted toward death and risk. Furthermore, I could tell that tragedy was present in our minds when making decisions.

I often talk to people who think climbing mountains is crazy, reserved for those who don’t value their life. Adrenaline junkies. My go-to response: driving my car to the trailhead is probably the most dangerous part of any day I spend in the mountains.1While it varies by mountain activity, this factoid is broadly true. Cars are insanely dangerous, and America accepts a ridiculously high level of driver, pedestrian, and cyclist deaths. If you want to see what real progress on car safety would look like, I’d point to both other forms of transportation (the NTSB’s incredible work in aircraft safety) and other countries (Finland’s actual commitment to Vision Zero as more than a buzzword) This framing is striking, but I don’t find it convincing to others. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s convincing to me.

The truth is that those who spend a significant proportion of their lives in the outdoors consider, consciously or not, whether they are willing to die there. This framing may seem overly dramatic, but I believe that responsibly engaging in activities like alpinism, backcountry skiing, and climbing demands this calculation.

The mundane nature of statistical risk on the road can mask the immediacy of one’s mortality. By contrast, the obviousness of danger in vertical terrain tolerates no façade of control. We can’t rationalize risk in the mountains as a necessary evil like we can with the latent risks of everyday life. The danger is inherent; at least for me, it’s essential to why days in the wilderness mean so much. 

A successful trip is as much about managing risk and associated fear as it is about beauty, physical challenges, or companions. For me, the necessity of managing risk is its own source of pleasure and growth.  I find it a great excuse to grow intellectually— for example, backcountry skiing breeds amateur snow scientists out of necessity. Cody Townsend’s ongoing documentary The Fifty is so beloved among skiers in large part because it doesn’t skip to the skiing porn but spends so much time showing the decision-making that goes into skiing consequential lines.

If the chance of severe injury or death was not present, I think alpinism would lose some of its intensity. At its best, that intensity demands intention and quiet focus. As someone that struggles to control my post-boredom stupor enabled by the information age, that meditative state is increasingly challenging for me to find in everyday life. Climbing with someone new necessitates a new discussion and feeling out of different risk levels. It’s excellent fodder for relationship building; indeed, this post is primarily an organization of various conversations I have had on climbs. 

These characteristics probably provide little consolation to the families and comrades of those who have died in the mountains. It does not answer what larger value these pieces of rock have against the grief. But searching for that answer, finding peace with it, can be a catalyst for growth and self-actualization.

This summer I was climbing with a friend of mine who is very experienced in the mountains. This day, however, they seemed much more apprehensive than I would expect. Despite the relatively low risk of storms, we almost turned around when they expressed discomfort over clouds in the sky. They told me this was their first outing since a day-trip climb on Kintla Peak the previous fall. Over 30 miles with much of the distance off-trail, this grueling outing stretches the definition of a “day.” On top of that, they took a lesser-known route that ascended from Boulder Lake. While they summited successfully, the brief weather window slammed shut as they traversed through the Peabody Glacier basin that evening. Rain started to fall on the steep, slippery descent as lightning intermittently lit up the basin. In that moment of danger, they thought, “This isn’t worth it.” As the night wore on, multiple bear encounters in the pitch black only accentuated that danger and disillusionment. Almost a year later, it was clear that that experience still impacted their risk calculus on a much less committing climb.

Recovering from a moment of “this isn’t worth it” isn’t just limited to one’s outdoor pursuits. Living intimately connected to outdoor experiences often involves tradeoffs in other aspects of life. What happens when those mountains can’t be seen with their prior unmitigated bliss? Do those justifications and sacrifices for this lifestyle still make sense? 

But actually evaluating our risk requires getting to that feeling of being beyond one’s limit; being at the point where it isn’t worth it. I have experienced fear and unexpected danger in the mountains, but still haven’t seen death or severe injury in myself or close friends. But almost everyone I know with this lifestyle has. Fundamentally, I am still naive. How can I genuinely evaluate risk when I haven’t seen those consequences firsthand?

In this contemplation lies a more profound question about one’s motivation for accomplishment outdoors. I think it’s common for mountain athletes to tie their self-worth to not merely spending time outdoors but accomplishing hard and dangerous things there. Validation is a dangerous thing to look for in the mountains, and that siren song can easily cloud judgment. “Seeking something missing, missing something left behind.”

By contrast, I think of Kilian Jornet, the legendary sky-runner and ski mountaineer. A short documentary chronicles his attempt to climb the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in Norway. When confronted with the slightest risk of icefall, he abandons his goal with nary a disappointed word. 

It’s important I think when conditions are not perfect just to say…  mountain will stay always here but not we. So it’s always nice to be out and then… to plan for tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day, ah? We don’t live in the past, ah!”

In my opinion, this mindset is much more sustainable. Making good decisions can be the source of pride, even if that decision turns you around. That mindset can be hard to find, especially when our own irrational fear in the mountains often limits us far before real danger does. That feeling of pushing beyond that limit, finding comfort in the previously inconceivable, is so common when starting out in these activities. But as time goes on, more of that perceived risk becomes objective risk, just as we become more confident that all risk is perceived. 

Preliminary research seems to find addictive properties in activities like rock climbing— particularly that cycle of chasing a bigger dose of danger as our tolerance increases. I’m reminded of (as I often am) of Vernon Garner’s writings about Glacier National Park.

“Do you come here often?”

“Oh sure…as often as possible. Because when I’m face to face with these peaks there are no greater mountains on the planet. I mean, I know that’s not true, but during the time spent on them, in their midst, no other possibility exists. To use a kind of common vernacular that gives a sense of perspective…well, they’ll just about blow the top of your head off.

Yeah, I keep coming back. It feels good as the everyday layers peel away, feels good to fill my mind with what is here. But I do admit that it gets harder to leave all the time. This place has a certain quality about it—I guess maybe you’d call it Wildness—which in no way can be avoided, or ignored…not that that’s the sort of thing you’d ever consider resisting. And even though that quality isn’t in the least compatible with life back home, invariably causing no end of conflict and depression through drawn-out days of ordinariness, and despite that you know perfectly well those feelings will happen every time. Still— you can’t help but take them with you. Sometimes it is really tough leaving. You keep looking over your shoulder.

So anyway…yes. I come here whenever possible. Always will.”

Vernon Garner

Moving through the mountains is an internal conversation between a romantic and a realist.2perhaps a professor of logic! The romantic sees risk as a far-off possibility, something that heightens the senses and deepens the experience. The realist sees risk up close, sees its consequences and its cold indifference to intention or skill. It’s easy to balance these impulses as opposing forces. The true challenge is to integrate the romantic and the realist into one.

  • 1
    While it varies by mountain activity, this factoid is broadly true. Cars are insanely dangerous, and America accepts a ridiculously high level of driver, pedestrian, and cyclist deaths. If you want to see what real progress on car safety would look like, I’d point to both other forms of transportation (the NTSB’s incredible work in aircraft safety) and other countries (Finland’s actual commitment to Vision Zero as more than a buzzword)
  • 2

Environmental Groups Need to Start Caring about the Environment

Just after 3:00 a.m. on March 19, 2016, Flydubai Flight 981 was attempting to land in at Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Captain Aristos Sokratous and First Officer Álava fought with the strong and unexpected wind as they attempted their descent. Captain Sokratous, convinved the plane was pitched high in the air, dove the plane down as his first officer pleaded for him to pull up. The plane hit the runway at over 350mph. All 62 people on board died.

Captain Sokratous was an experienced pilot, with over 6,000 hours of flight time, a commitment to protocol, and a good safety record. He undoubtedly possessed a potent toolkit of habits and intuitions that had served him well as an airman. Despite this, the aircraft’s reaction to his inputs was completely unexpected. Faced with an existential threat, Sokratous’ actions were wholly incompatible with what the situation demanded. Convinced that he was saving the plane from disaster, he dove it into the ground, fighting his First Officer for control in the crucial seconds of the flight.

Since the 1960s, environmentalists and the groups they formed have reliably fought for ecological protection in the face of monied interests and an often uncaring establishment. In the course of those battles, they developed a potent toolkit of community engagement and media relations that allowed them to successfully oppose harmful projects. As the existential threat of climate change continued to demand rapid action, environmental organizations regularly champion their commitment to radical corrective action.

But as these organizations gear up for this journey towards a green economy, their intuitions and solutions are wholly incompatible with what the situation demands. Instead, the very methods that conservationists have employed so effectively to fight pollution and habitat destruction are actively harmful; misusing the power of well-intentioned donors, volunteers, and voters to ignore and actively protest the requisite actions for drastic emissions reduction.

Environmental groups are now used for their green vibes as a façade for backward-thinking, pearl-clutching NIMBYism. Those fighting for progressive solutions to our economic and ecological crisis face incredible headwinds technologically, economically, and especially politically. The last thing we need is our ideological co-pilots fighting us at every turn.

Interregional Electric Transmission and Hydropower

Maine’s CMP Corridor

In June 2018, Central Maine Power and Canadian utility Hydro-Québec, agreed to buy electricity generated by Canadian hydroelectric dams and transport it primarily to Massachusetts via new high-voltage transmission lines through relatively sparsely populated Maine and New Hampshire. The project was projected to eliminate 3.5 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. Projected, past-tense, because in the 2021 election a ballot measure passed prohibiting the construction of 53 miles of transmission lines through public forest lands. On November 23rd, the project was suspended indefinitely.

The endeavor was loudly opposed by so-called environmentalists such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine(NRCM) and Sierra Club. Of course, conservationists were supported in their opposition by fossil fuel companies threatened by hydropower. Natural Gas companies spent millions on ads opposing the project in the face of projected revenue losses of 120 million per year. This results in some very well-funded environmental studies and reports, summarized by the NRCM:

This destruction would clear trees and plants through 263 wetlands, across 115 streams, and near remote Beattie Pond. It would harm Maine’s deer herd by blocking access to deer winter shelter and feeding areas. It would cut right through the heart of Maine’s brook trout habitat, including areas where public agencies and private citizens have spent millions to protect brook trout.

I just want to clarify that this project was not for the construction of a new dam, or a new power plant, or literally anything that takes up a significant quantity of real estate in an untouched forest. It is a 54-foot wide strip of cleared land, in an area that has long been home to commercial logging and has hundreds of miles of logging roads. It is a series of power lines transmitting zero-carbon peaker power to a region where 52% of electricity is generated by natural gas plants. Allowing for millions of tons of carbon to spill into the atmosphere because some deer have to walk across a dirt access road is the very definition of missing the forest for the trees. 

FERC and Interregional Transmission

Direct electricity production is currently responsible for around 25% of carbon emissions (measured in CO2eq). Electrification of heating, transportation, and some industrial processes will hopefully increase that percentage to something approaching total energy production, which accounts for 73% of GHGs. Carbon offsets have their place, but ultimately converting the electric grid to 24/7 carbon-free energy is urgently required to fight climate change. At most environmentalist organizations, however, it seems that this project ranks below just about any other concern.

Renewable energy sources like geothermal, solar, wind, and hydro are fundamentally limited by geography. In particular, generation potential mostly lies in the west and offshore, while population centers in the midwest and southeast are far from these zero-carbon sources. 

America needs more interregional electric lines

Furthermore, the fundamental variability in electricity generated by these renewables on any particular timescale requires the need for either expensive, scale limited battery storage or the ability to bleed excess supply to other regions. Therefore, building a 24/7 zero-carbon grid necessitates interregional infrastructure to transport electricity from supply to demand. 

In some sense, you can understand why Mainers would reject this project out of pure self-interest. The benefits of transmission lines like the CMP corridor going through a state are very diffuse; most of the project’s wealth is realized by the supplier in Quebec and the population centers in Massachusetts. Outside of some short-lived construction jobs and limited permeant maintenance staff, the economic benefit of merely being a pass-through is negligible. As a result, building interstate transmission lines is incredibly challenging, with many different state and local agencies along the path holding veto power over the entire project.

For natural gas pipelines, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has the authority to override these local concerns. A similar approval process doesn’t exist at the national level for electric corridors and attempts to change that have failed for decades. And short of federal action, environmental groups should vociferously support electric transmission with the same energy that they oppose oil and gas pipelines like Keystone XL.

While the largest conservation organizations support interregional transmission in the abstract, it just so happens that the particulars of each project are uniquely disqualifying for their local chapters. Environmental organizations should recognize that greenhouse gases don’t respect state borders. If they insist on opposing transmission corridors that encourage the adoption of renewable energy, the least that environmentalists can do is promote the development of zero-carbon energy sources that don’t rely on geography. How’s that going?

Nuclear Energy

New York’s Indian Point Power Plant 

Indian Point Energy Center, a 2GW nuclear plant built in 1976, provided energy for 25% of New York City’s energy supply for decades. Indian Point provided zero-carbon, cost-competitive baseload power in the face of onerous and inconsistent regulation.

And despite the massive technological advantages in the affordability of wind and solar energy installations, Indian Point alone produced more clean power than all wind turbines and solar panels in the state. This didn’t stop environmental organizations from protesting the plant since its inception, with amorphous concerns around the plant’s proximity to New York City and water usage killing fish. The opposition had significant weight behind it, with Bernie Sanders urging the plant’s destruction during his 2016 campaign. In early 2017, Governor Cuomo announced the plant would shut down its remaining reactors decades earlier than expected in 2021.

In response to this vital source of baseload carbon-neutral electricity going offline, New York immediately approved massive investments in equivalent renewable energy that rendered the shutdown immaterial. Just kidding, Indian Point’s capacity was replaced, point-for-point, by fossil fuels and New York’s carbon emissions from electricity generation immediately rose 35%. It’s no surprise, therefore, that top former aides to Cuomo lobbied on behalf of natural gas companies to kill Indian Point, actions that led to federal prosecution for influence-peddling.

It isn’t fair to decry the decommissioning of every nuclear reactor as a carbon catastrophe— if a plant fails to be cost-competitive, we should shut it down. But light-water nuclear reactors such as Indian Point have tremendous upfront costs and relatively low maintenance costs. Shutting down these cost-effective, incredibly reliable, zero-carbon facilities before their time is ludicrous. 

Our World In Data

The average age of nuclear power plants in the United States is40 years old, and new designs of light-water reactors hold great promise in both cost and safety, not to mention the tremendous potential of  Small Modular Nuclear Reactors and Microreactors. These innovations hold additional promise as a technology for resilient, decentralized energy for resource-limited countries. The Nuclear Alternative Project has demonstrated the feasibility of these systems in places like Puerto Rico.

Triage in Times of Crisis

Left-green skeptics of zero-carbon megaprojects like nuclear and hydropower will often point out that less invasive renewable energy technologies exist, and much of the power generated by these sources could be replaced by those sources or other initiatives like energy conservation efforts. A good example of this mindset exists in Washington, where a movement exists to remove four hydroelectric dams from the lower Snake River. Save Our Wild Salmon provides a good representation of the movement in their fact sheet 

Can we replace the dams’ power with clean energy?

The short answer is “YES!” In the Northwest right now, generating “new energy” through investments in conservation is cheaper than generating new energy from coal or other fossil fuels. Here’s how: The low-cost estimate ($80 million, see Question 2 above) for replacing the four lower Snake River dams’ power is based on creating 90 percent of this new energy through investments in conservation (efficiency) and 10 percent from new, truly clean, salmon-safe renewable energy like wind or biomass. This is an attainable, cost-effective goal. Further, cost-effective investments in conservation (efficiencies) that can generate an additional 850 average megawatts (enough for a city like Portland OR) are also clearly achievable.

This analysis may hold water (zing!) if we had already achieved a carbon-neutral economy. In a world where electricity generation by coal, oil, and natural gas are eliminated, it would make sense to get picky about environmental disruption from dams or long-term storage for nuclear. Unfortunately and obviously, the actual state of the country’s and the world’s electricity production is much, much different.

CleanShot 2021-12-07 at 12.49.45@2x.png
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Our World in Data

With this in mind, environmentalists in Washington should embrace the obvious solution: invest that $80 million into energy efficiency and wind farms while also not getting rid of the renewables we already built. By arguing that new renewable sources can replace current renewables, conservationists seem to think that the pitiful percentage of electricity generated by renewables right now is perfectly fine. Instead, meaningful progress on climate change requires adding an overwhelming amount of zero-carbon capacity to the energy grid as soon as possible. Prioritizing the second-order consequences of that renewable capacity is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If you really care about Washington salmon, then it’s pretty clear that the acute problem of spawning routes in the lower Snake River should be a much lower priority than the massive destruction of salmon habitat across Washington and the world due to climate change. 

Solar, Wind, and More

Once you recognize this trend among the environmentalism movement, it’s easy to see that their objections to hydropower, nuclear, and transmission lines are not that specifically important. This greenwashed, progressive form of NIMBYism will apply to every type of ultimately beneficial project. What we have is a situation where mainstream environmental organizations are in strong support of the new development of renewable energy while in blanket opposition to any specific new development of renewable energy. Furthermore, they often end up fighting alongside the same oil&gas industries that they theoretically oppose the most.

The Left Caucus of Nevada teamed up with tea party activists to successfully block what would have been the largest solar farm in the US. from being built in the middle of the desert. Their complaints were qualified with the assertion that everyone really supported solar energy! Just not here, and not now.

The project would be an eyesore, hinder hiking, driving 4-wheelers, and deter tourists from visiting artist Michael Heizer’s environmental sculpture, Double Negative Hurvitt emphasized that board members are not anti-solar energy. The purpose of the moratorium is not to discourage commercial solar projects, she noted, adding that the board has questions about safety issues, the potential impact on the environment and related concerns.

In California, the Audubon Society is suing to block the construction of a new 80-MW wind farm due to the deaths of thousands of birds of prey. In the same area, they successfully forced existing turbines to be shut down ahead of schedule. In the course of their opposition, the Audubon Society was careful to reiterate their general support for wind farms, except for the new ones and the old ones.

“Audubon supports responsibly developed wind projects and works collaboratively with wind developers that are authentically interested in avoiding impacts to birds, but we have been forced to file this lawsuit because Alameda County has broken its commitments”

This dynamic plays out across the country and across industries. Just one example of this same problem outside of electricity generation lies in the housing market, where the environmental impacts of restrictive zoning and land-use policy are incredibly wide-ranging. Responsible climate policy necessitates a focus on dense, transit-oriented, walkable urban areas, as I talked about in my last post. But environmentalists are on the front lines of opposing new developments, weaponizing environmental laws like CEQA and shadow regulations to veto housing across places like California.

Just Say No

For as long as I could remember, I called myself an environmentalist. Growing up around Glacier National Park, I saw the romanticism of our most treasured spaces in the actions of conservationists like John Muir and George Bird Grinnell— I still do. And whenever I saw new construction in the Flathead Valley, I shook my head, wondering what the world was coming to and how society could be so shortsighted in its pursuit of growth. In my mind, anything new, anything that wasn’t conservation, was evidence of that excess. 

It’s a perspective I understand and sympathize with— one where 39% of 16 to 25-year-olds said they are hesitant to have children in the face of our ecological crisis. This Malthusian ethic is deeply embedded in the roots of the environmental movement, as its successes were found in opposition to genuinely harmful corporate overreach in extractive industries like oil&gas, mining, and manufacturing. Degrowth and opposition served the environmental movement well when the battles it fought were about pollution, litter, and the Crying Indian.  So well-meaning people like me, who see a seemingly uncaring world ignore its externalities, devote our time and money to environmental organizations.

But for where genuine optimism exists for climate change, it exists as a pro-growth, pro-development acceleration of innovation and technological progress, as Noah Smith writes:

Activists are understandably leery of the idea that new technologies will come along to save the planet just in the nick of time. After all, the incentives are in no way aligned for such a deus ex machina — given the fundamental externality of carbon emissions, there’s no reason why scientists and engineers should care enough about the climate to spend their lives inventing stuff to fix it.

And yet, they do. Even if the public doesn’t take the climate problem seriously enough, scientists and engineers do. And they have poured their hearts and souls and careers and fortunes into creating cheap solar, cheap wind, cheap reliable batteries.

An ethical and moral structure centered around degrowth and opposition is now a barrier to progress, a misguided maneuver by a well-meaning pilot. The truth is that humanity’s folly can only be defeated by its continued ingenuity. Environmental organizations need to learn to protect that ingenuity in addition to fighting that folly.

Montana’s Housing Crisis and ADUs

Growing up in Montana, a common explanation for the sometimes idiosyncratic nature of politics is that “Montana is a libertarian state.” Right off the bat, I am always skeptical of people and places with a supposed ‘libertarian streak.’ In my experience, these people support ‘small government’ whenever regulations threaten to affect them personally, and large government when it preserves their interests. This dynamic was captured perfectly by Montana State Legislature last week. The Flathead Beacon reports:

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CARE FOR ME Review: Beauty in Grief

In Chicago rapper Saba’s first album, Bucket List Project, every hopeful melody was imbued with a sense of urgency. The skits that bookend many of the tracks feature vocal snippets from different collaborators on the album, answering the question, “what’s on your bucket list?” Even in good times, these skits revealed an artist profoundly aware of the fleeting nature of life in Chicago’s West Side. Two years later, and three years ago, CARE FOR ME saw Saba try to cope with the tragic fulfillment of that warning.

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MF DOOM and the Value of Inside Baseball

I often hear the apologetic phrase “this is inside baseball,” in media, representing the reluctance of hosts to spend too much time talking about the annoyances of their microphones or Skype. This, at first glance, makes sense; you listen to Accidental Tech Podcast for the tech, and not meta-commentary about the making of the tech podcast. It is generally understood that content that relying too much on experience or highly specialized knowledge is seen as less interesting or important than that with broader impact. Despite this, I have always been very interested in these moments of inside baseball, where the façade of the media fades away and the intricacies of the craft are revealed.

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Evolving Opinions and Coronavirus

It goes without saying that the global response, and especially the domestic response, to COVID-19 was and is disastrous. Correctly assigning blame for the myriad failures that transpired would take more time and effort than anyone reasonably has. One undisputed aspect of the spread, however, was incredibly misguided public health information during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. These failures included methods of transmission and ventilation, to the importance of superspreader events, to the origins of the pandemic itself, not to mention the obvious failure of masks. Throughout the spring and summer, messaging around “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” obscured both the probable length of the pandemic and transmission vector of SARS-CoV-2. I distinctly remember the tenor of shame that colored news reports picturing thousands of people on beaches– conveniently overlooking both the telephoto zoom and the relative safety of the outdoors.

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