Thursday, 13 June 2013

How Far Would You Go?

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) host a series of talks through the winter, and the two that I have managed to attend this year have been both totally inspiring and a little overwhelming. Inspiring in the challenges that they undertook, but overwhelming for the same reason. They were both focused around the idea of doing something ‘big’ to raise awareness for environmental issues, although neither of the speakers really started off with that focus. They got me thinking about how far I would go for the cause?

The first I attended was called “Swimming on top of the World”. Having spent 7 summers on the Arctic island of Svaalbard, Lewis Pugh observed first-hand the devastating effects of global climate change on ice cover and decided that he needed to do something about it.

As a swimmer, Lewis decided that he would swim in vulnerable ecosystems to raise global awareness for his plight. He wanted world leaders to sit up and take notice of the devastating effects of global climate change. So, where better to start that the North Pole, which as a rule should be frozen over? In a literal sense, he went to the limit - geographically, physically and mentally in order to raise awareness for a cause that he believed in. The water temperature was a staggering -1.7°C and Lewis swam 1km in just under 20 minutes, earning himself the nickname “The Human Polar Bear”, which is also in reference to his ability to increase his body temperature before he undertakes these swims. The water was so cold that the cells in his fingers froze, causing his hands to swell so that he couldn’t move them, and it took 4 months to regain full feeling in them.

Lewis pushed his body and mind to the end and beyond comfort zones, so why are the rest of us sitting comfortably watching our world suffer beyond belief? Personally I think that it’s because the problem of global climate and environmental change feels so big and beyond our control that we can’t possibly do anything to change it. And if I think about the problem for too long I can feel pretty pessimistic about the whole thing. But Lewis gave me hope for the first time in a long while. Global leaders listen to him, he’s got power! But should we have to put ourselves through the ultimate challenge in order to make politicians sit up and listen? Why don’t they see it as a big enough problem already? The video was made to raise awareness of this and I highly recommend watching the other videos available on TED, even if only to catch a glimpse of the power of Lewis’ story-telling.

Aside from the environmental plight of his cause, this man’s mentality and physical endurance is incredible. As a motivational speaker, his engagement and take-home messages are truly inspiring. I might not be able to gain the global recognition that Lewis has, but I can do my bit so that I don’t regret not trying. However, I have read his first book (also highly recommended) and am waiting for the upcoming UK release of the second. Maybe I can pick up some tips. . . Whether our actions are big or small, I believe we all have the power to make a difference. World, look out, I’m coming to get you!

Friday, 5 April 2013

Does Norway hold the key to sustainable skiing?

Last month I spent a week ski touring from hut to hut in Norway’s spectacular Jotunheimen Mountains. Navigating the snow-enveloped landscape, we crossed frozen lakes, climbed several mountains, and managed to get ourselves down the other side in one piece (if not in style). We covered close to 100 miles in 6 days, and our appetites certainly knew it; after a (surprisingly) delicious dinner of tinned reindeer meatballs and rice, we would finally collapse onto our bunks with the glow of another perfect day of Norwegian friluftsliv (outdoor life).  
Sletningsbu Hut
Attempting this journey would have been virtually impossible without the infrastructure of DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association. The huts are owned and maintained by DNT who operate a whole network of serviced, half-serviced and un-serviced huts based on a trust system. We borrowed a key from them (which they had arranged for us to collect on a Sunday night at a bus service station half way from Oslo to the Jotunheimen) and this opened the padlock on the doors of the self-service cabins. These cabins are basic wooden huts without electricity or running water. They have a stove, several bunk beds with blankets (you simply bring a sleeping bag liner, or hut sack) and are kept stocked with tins and packets of food, firewood, cooking utensils and a supply of candles. Being lucky enough to be the only inhabitants, arriving at the hut meant falling straight into homemaking mode – getting a fire lit (it took over an hour to get the temperature inside the hut above 0C) and melting snow to get water for dinner and the numerous cups of tea drunk while reflecting on the day’s journey and planning tomorrow’s. The one downside was that needing to go to the toilet in the middle of the night usually meant a headtorch-lit icy scramble through a snowdrift to the long-drop. The toilets are treated with organic composting chips, although at -20C they don't tend to smell too bad anyway.  

Frozen lakes: useful for navigating in a completely white lansdcape
Upon leaving each hut, you fill in one of the DNT’s envelopes, detailing what food you used and how many nights you stayed and tally up your bill accordingly, adding cash or your credit card details and then simply post this into the box provided. The fact that this system of trust obviously works and enables the whole network of huts to exist is a refreshing taste of how simple tourism can be effective, not to mention low impact (no chairlifts, piste-makers, snow canons or resort complexes) and take you to some pretty awe-inspiring places.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Responsible Skiing

As the European ski season heads to the end of another year, it’s time for a post on the sustainability of the ski industry.  With climate change becoming an increasingly present reality, snowfall patterns are likely to change and the ski industry affected. We need to assess not only the impact of changing climates on skiing, but the skier’s impact on a changing climate. “Responsible Travel” has been a phrase used in the tourism industry for some time now. This encompasses more than just environmental responsibility, but ensuring that your travel is culturally and socially responsible too, as Responsible Travel put it; “travel like a local”. My visit to the Responsible Skiing Conference in October 2012 gave me a chance to explore this through the eyes of the ski industry.

Would it shock you if I said that nearly 75% of annual (2007) greenhouse gas emissions from Saint Martin de Belleville (Les 3 Vallées, France) came from tourists travelling to the resort? And that’s from flying. Whilst we would all assume that flying was the cheapest and quickest option, Snowcarbon would love to differ. So many people don’t even think about options aside from flying and sometimes driving. But what about the train? Not only can this compete on price, but also travel time, and you can often fit an extra days skiing in, as well as dramatically reducing your carbon footprint. Check out their most recent video for proof:

And now to the slopes. Don’t you just love those huge expanses of fresh white pistes, dotted with snow-covered trees? The environmental impacts of this are obvious; large-scale tree-felling, the loss of a natural carbon sink, machine grading of the land and all of the knock-on effects that come from the removal of trees. And then what about that continuous supply of snow that seems to appear even on those bluebird days? The long list of impacts of artificial snow-making include an excessive use of water, chemical inputs to natural ecosystems, alteration of water courses, and high energy use. With shifting climate patterns, it ensures a more reliable snow cover for the industry, and Scotland has recently dabbled in it for help. But it does still require low temperatures in order for the snow to form, so can it really work as a sustainable solution, especially with all of the impacts involved?

And then there’s your accommodation, which brings with it all the “normal” sustainability issues such as energy use, heating, food choices, water consumption, excessive laundry. . . The graph again shows that heating tourists’ accommodation is a huge chunk of the emissions within Saint Martin de Belleville. This is an area that has recently seen a shift in many European resorts. There is now much more recognition for “responsible” accommodation providers, which can be seen through companies such as Green Traveller, Responsible Travel and Much Better Adventures and cover a wide range of choices such as cross-country skiing, which places less pressure on the environment, “eco-chalets”, or staying closer to home in Scotland. If you prefer tour operators, then you can check out their sustainability policies which are usually widely available on their websites.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, there are ways to make your ski holiday guilt-free. You can make your entire resort selection based on environmental or “responsible” factors. For example, Austria has banned the use of chemicals in artificial snow-making, to maintain an organic farming area. Travel to Zermatt by train, and with cars banned in resort, look out for the silent electric buggies zooming around stacked with luggage. Or make simple choices such as eating in a locally-owned and run restaurant with local food specialities, choose not to have your towels changed every day in the hotel, or swap your skis for some snow shoes for a day to reduce your pressure on the environment.

 Obviously this doesn’t cover the whole area of Responsible Skiing, but it is possible to make some conscious decisions to make your holiday that bit more sustainable, and to give the European ski season a bit more longevity. Ultimately we need to protect the environment that we want to use.

Thursday, 14 February 2013


The month of romance, apparently.

Now I know that the Great British weather doesn’t exactly lend itself to romance, but instead of the ‘classic’ Paris, or Venice, much as they are wonderful, why not try something a bit different? Glamping!

Looking out the window at the rain, sleet, ice and wind that some of us have been experiencing recently might not inspire your thoughts to the Great Outdoors, but there’s a new style of camping to be had, glamorous-camping.
Camping seemingly no longer requires the mud, sleeping bags, and perseverance that are potentially the lasting memories for many.  Another page that is regularly is my browsing history is Canopy and Stars, whose choice of accommodation is a far cry from some of my personal camping experiences (another story, another day) with images so charming they make you drool a little. Not only is the choice of accommodation delicious, but yes, they’re as sustainable as possible too. People too often assume that glamour and sustainability don’t, or can’t, go hand-in-hand.

“We believe that you can live in a sustainable and responsible way without having to compromise on fun, excitement, or comfort” Alistair Sawday (founder)

You can take your pick on accommodation, from yurts to treehouses, and gypsy caravans to eco-pods. Most of the accommodation listed includes various “eco-friendly” components, such as composting toilets, wood-burning showers, a lack of electricity, and are often located on farms or land where you can access local produce. But my favourite might have to be the wood-fired hot tub available at several locations; it’s not eco-luxury without one surely?!

They’ve even partnered up with the wonderful Sustrans to offer a free weekend away (plus a bike and other cycling goodies) to a lucky visitor from 2012 who managed to make their holiday carbon-neutral and travelled by means other than a car. Definitely pressing all the responsible travel “buttons”!
“Holidays with a dash of eco-panache” –

In 2012, one lucky winner went on a whistle-stop tour of some of the offerings, which gives you a snapshot of the places to visit and activities on offer, definitely one to whet the appetite for some UK travel. And if this still leaves you stuck for ideas, their staff have even compiled a list of choices for Valentines itself.   

(This is not an endorsement, but pure unadultered lusting)