Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls: From Climbing Big Mountains to Confronting Climate Emergency

NOTE: Kitty Calhoun, the author of this op-ed, is an old friend, rock climbing partner, and fellow Outward Bound rock climbing instructor who went on to become an acclaimed alpinist thanks to her drive, focus, ability to endure, and especially for her minimalist approach to big mountains. Now, decades later, she’s climbing a much bigger mountain, one that we’ve all got to ascend collectively. Climate emergency. Whether you’re a world class mountaineer or a casual outdoor enthusiast, we’ve all seen the changes in our outdoor environs. We don’t need scientific evidence to tell us, and that’s one reason stories like Kitty tells are important. She shares her thoughts on this below, and will be hosting a zoom meet-up for POW (Protect our Winters) later this month aimed specifically at our home state, North Carolina. Info and registration here.


Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Kitty Calhoun

“No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part if the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.

Kitty Calhoun
I first read Donne’s poem as a young girl at the North Carolina Outward Bound School, which changed my life. I became obsessed with rock climbing. The required focus and the mental, physical and emotional challenges that rock climbing presented led me to the world’s big mountains, where I developed a minimalist lifestyle. While putting everything into achieving one goal at a time, I discovered that most things with which we fill our lives did not get me where I wanted to go – which was UP. I learned that my greatest dreams could only be accomplished through teamwork. In 1990, I became the first woman to summit Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world.

In addition to the physical and technical training required to climb at the top of the world, I studied route descriptions of mountaineers who preceded me. Comparing those journals to my own experience, I noticed a pattern of glaciers receding. The only explanation was climate change.

Now climate change has come home. According to the NC Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, NC will see increasing frequency and severity of hot summers, hurricanes, flooding, and landslides. This affects the economy; health of crops, livestock, and humans; tourism, public safety, and buildings and infrastructure. The worst affected people are the least privileged. Fortunately, Gov Roy Cooper has sought to address climate change by committing to reduce greenhouse gases by 40% from 2005 levels by 2025. But it takes all of us working together to make significant and sustainable advances toward economic stability and environmental justice.

While experiencing ferocious storms in the Himalayas, I learned to listen to others and plan together for worst-case scenarios. I know that Donald Trump is not the leader that we need. Over and over his actions favor big business at the expense of we the people. He tried to protect us from the truth that Covid 19 is highly contagious and deadly, so that we would not panic. In the same way, he has down-played the importance of the environment by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, by his EPA being poised to scrap the Clean Power Plan, and by his EPA loosening regulations on toxic air pollution.

In contrast, Joe Biden speaks of working together to reach common goals. Specifically, in terms of combating climate change, he has proposed linking the economic recovery from the corona virus to jobs related to reducing climate change. He plans to remove carbon pollution from the power sector by 2035 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

As a former climbing guide and ski patroller in NC, I can speak to the economic impacts of climate change on tourism. In NC according to an Outdoor Industry Association Report in 2018, “outdoor recreation in NC generates $28 billion in consumer spending, 260,000 direct jobs, $8.3 billion in wages and salaries, and $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue”. NC is among the top 10 most visited states in the US. Of course ya’ll could’ve guessed this.

“Hot days, warm nights. Heavy rains, no snow. A greater risk of wildfires and hurricanes, droughts and floods” are to be expected according the NC Policy Watch, which followed the NC Climate Science Report. For those who live in the Western Mountains, this report warned that even human-made snow will be unpredictable given that the temperatures will be increasing, most notably in winter. Additionally, NC is second in the US for number of climate-related disasters that cost $1 billion or more. Communities in the mountains may be threatened by drought or wildfire, depending on if they are in the “rain shadow” or not. In 2016, wildfires burned more than 59,000 acres and in 2018, Mt Mitchell received a record 135 inches of rain. This poses particular risk for those who live where towns meet undeveloped land and NC has more acres in this interface than any other state in the US according to the report.

Regardless of where you live, what you do for work, what political party you belong to, what race or socio-economic background you are, climate change affects us all. We each need to take personal responsibility in our own way. Every voice matters. Change happens when we build bridges with love and compassion. For NC to meet the challenges facing us, we need a leader who realizes that the means do not justify the ends. We need to end the anger, insults, and division that have come with our current president.

Climate solutions will require compromises and global support. Joe Biden has said that he will work for both Republicans and Democrats, all Americans. Additionally, he will step back into the leadership role the US once had, and work together with the rest of the world to address climate change through the Paris Agreement.

Now is the time to model care and respect for others not just at home, in school, or at church, but in politics as well. If instead, we act out of complete self-interest, if we continue to take, consume, and use all that we have, then we may find when it matters most, that we have nothing left to give and nothing left to leave behind. Therefore, ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Leave a Reply