The Snowy Mountains Backcountry Showed Me The Effects of Climate Change First Hand - Protect Our Winters - Australia

The Snowy Mountains Backcountry Showed Me The Effects of Climate Change First Hand

This blog was originally published on We Are Explorers and is used with permission.

Before she started guiding through the Snowy Mountains backcountry, Alex was somewhat oblivious to the effects of climate change on Australia’s snow-covered rooftop. Now she’s teaching others about the fragility of this ecosystem and sharing her story with Together We Can to call for action on climate change now.

I first fell in love with Australia’s snow-capped mountains when I was 12. I still remember driving to the snow from Sydney, and the excitement I felt when I caught my first glimpse of white on the distant mountains. I’m happy to say that 20 years later, after working in the snow for 13 seasons, this excitement remains.

I still feel utter wonder when the snow gums are coated in ice, when the granite tors are patterned with rime from blizzards, and when snow falls silently from the sky. But the mountains are changing.

The snow’s receding. I’ve witnessed this happening first hand, so now I’m sharing my story with our leaders and everyday Australians to show how much climate change is affecting this unique and precious environment.

Starting Out as a Snow Chaser

It was Australia that began my love affair with snow but it led me all around the world as an instructor, media coordinator and Olympic course builder. The snow life was fast-paced, full of new friends around every corner, powder days, and party nights.

South Korea

Mt Hutt, New Zealand

Nozawa, Japan

I’d usually come back to Australia to work the southern winter and each year the seasons seemed to begin later, there were less powder days and we’d be working in the rain when the temperatures would stubbornly hover above freezing. That’s just the way it was in Australia, I thought.

Becoming a Guide and Seeing the Big Picture

It was 2018 when I first started guiding in the Snowy Mountains, and a few years later I was a fully-fledged backcountry guide. It’s my great joy to take skiers and snowboarders past the resort boundaries and out into the wild mountains, where there are no chairlifts. Out there you finally get above the ridgelines and walk among Australia’s highest peaks.

You’re on Ngarigo Country, where the Traditional Custodians have walked for thousands of years and the rounded hills have been weathered for millions more.

As I learned more about guiding, I also learned more about the environment I loved. I spent most of my time up in the alpine, so high that the trees don’t grow there. I learned that this alpine zone is a UNESCO listed Biosphere Reserve, home to 21 animal and plant species only found here, and that it’s shrinking every year. I learned that the snow has been measured at Spencers Creek since 1954 and that the average depth of snow accumulated during the winter season has decreased by 24% – a quarter in just over 50 years.

It’s easy to forget about diminishing snow when you’re riding in-bounds on man-made snow. Plus, there’s the odd bumper season, full of wild blizzards that dump huge amounts of the white stuff. But look a little closer and this is part of the problem too.

Climate change is leading to more unstable weather with less predictable storm cycles that dump more snow in a shorter period of time. These come with strong damaging winds and at times rain.

From a guide’s perspective, this means less stable snowpack in the backcountry that’s more prone to avalanches, along with elevated exposure and ice risks. Yet the problem with climate change affects much more than our recreational skiing and snowboarding.

This is Bigger Than Us

As I walk among the ice of the backcountry every day, I’ve realised that snow isn’t just for skiing and snowboarding. It isn’t just for marvelling at and having fun. It’s an entire ecosystem and everything’s connected.

I’ve learned that warmer temperatures lead to faster snow melt, destroying the habitat of the critically endangered Mountain Pygmy possum. These adorable little possums fit in the palm of your hand and only live at the highest elevations in Australia.

A 2016 National Recovery Plan for the Mountain Pygmy-possum by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning states that, ‘Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the Mountain Pygmy-possum’. This is because it needs a thick blanket of snow to keep warm while it hibernates for up to seven months of the year. Or tries to.

Warmer temperatures and more rain are waking them up throughout winter, making them burn critical energy resources, leading to fewer surviving through the season. The earlier snow melts are a big problem too.

Normally, spring snow melts coincide with the migration of the Bogong moth, a prime food source for the pygmy possum. But with earlier melts, possums are waking up from their winter sleep earlier, and the moths are yet to arrive, so the possums go hungry.

Photo thanks to Lochman Transparencies

To make matters worse, in December 2021 the once plentiful Bogong moth was listed as endangered, with one of the causes being climate change.

But the plight of the mountain pygmy possum is just one story of many. I could talk about our iconic snow gums or the critically endangered Southern Corroboree Frog, with an estimated 50 left in the wild. I could tell you about the chubby-cheeked Broad Toothed rat or bright Flame robin that are both under threat too.

The truth is, our entire alpine environment, and nearly every endemic plant and animal in it, is at risk of disappearing as temperatures increase and our snowy ecosystem shrinks.

Gone in Our Lifetime?

In 2020 the winter season ended earlier again, with rain and warm temperatures melting the snow – both natural and man-made. Resorts closed but backcountry tours operated well into October, with some snow remaining at the highest elevations.

The mountains were nearly empty, but I still walked among the crags with guests, creek hopping as the snow dissolved around us.

I couldn’t help but think how in my lifetime, this could all be gone. Climate change models have demonstrated that just a few degrees increase will see this beautiful landscape disappear. No more snow gums coated in ice, no more distant peaks dusted with snow, no more backcountry tours, and no more pygmy possums.

It’s an unbearable thought, that everything I love could melt away, and maybe I won’t ever get to show my future kids an Australian snowscape. Maybe I’ll be telling them about the fabled days when we skied in Australia and there were little possums that used to sleep under the snow.

Spreading the Word

Last year I became Head Guide, and along with my Manager, we decided that backcountry tours should have more focus on the environment. I want people to feel the land, understand how unique our mountains are, and to fall in love with the Snowy Mountains the way I have – while also grasping how utterly fragile it all is.

Gone are the days when tours were for hunting out snow and nothing more. Now we include a strong focus on environmental interpretation, the effects of climate change, and Leave No Trace principles as we guide guests through the mountains.

I take long time skiers and boarders who have never left the resort and show them the beauty of the backcountry, how quiet it is, and try to inspire them to look after it for years to come. I’m a firm believer that by showing people how beautiful an environment is, by allowing them to enjoy and learn about it, they’ll feel passionate about it and want to protect it.

Add Your Voice for Climate Action Too

My time in the Snowy Mountains and exploring the remote backcountry has drastically changed my perspective on climate change.

I’ve gone from seeing the mountains as a place to have fun and admire the beauty of it all, to learning how fragile the alpine environment is, and now educating others and campaigning for its protection.

With the help of the new movement, Together We Can, my story will be carried to our national leaders and join a choir of thousands of voices – many with stories similar to mine, and all who want to see urgent action on climate change. Together, we are bringing to light the effects of climate change that are already being felt across the country.

Everyone can add their voice to this movement too. You don’t need your own story to sign up. But if you do have a climate story of your own, please share it with Together We Can and join the thousands of Australians demanding immediate action on climate change.

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