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“Beyond the Summit,” a documentary from The North Face that premiered last month, opens triumphantly, detailing the many triumphs of freeskier-turned-mountaineer Kit DesLauriers. DesLauriers’s résumé, evidenced by this opening segment in “Beyond the Summit,” is stacked, including ski descents of the world’s tallest peaks and freeskiing world titles. Yet, something was missing.
“We made it back safely from our ski descent of Everest,” said DesLauriers in “Beyond the Summit,” referencing the period after she notched a ski descent of Everest, the last summit in a multi-year push to ski off the world’s tallest peaks (known as the Seven Summits). “I felt intense confusion about what was next. I did wonder, would that be my sunset?”
DesLauriers realized she wanted something more than medals and altitude markers, which she eventually found in the alluringly desolate landscape of northern Alaska. In the years after completing the Seven Summits, she took several trips to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, skiing remote peaks and developing a profound appreciation for the wilderness.
The aptly titled “Beyond the Summit” chronicles the story of one such trip into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which involved bagging Mt. Hubley, gathering data for local researchers, and skinning a daunting 50 miles from their drop-off point to Kaktovik. DesLauriers assembled a badass crew of skiers and snow experts to join her on the journey, including Jim Morrison, Sarah Carpenter, and Sophia Schwartz.
“Beyond the Summit” isn’t your traditional ski film. Sure, there’s a ski descent of the 8,917-foot Mt. Hubley, but don’t expect pow slashes and backflips. Ski mountaineering often involves high-altitude snow, which can be firm and inconsistent, making mistakes potentially lethal. Therefore, while prominent, the skiing isn’t the star of “Beyond the Summit.” That honor goes instead to the vast expanse of the embattled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The emphasis on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in “Beyond the Summit” is entwined with a political decision that took place in 2017. That year, Republican lawmakers passed legislation mandating the sale of two oil drilling leases within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Beyond the Summit” explores the possible climatological and ecological ramifications of this decision, providing insight from Dr. Peter Windsor, the executive director of the Alaskan Wilderness League.
DesLauriers, who’d developed relationships with Alaskan researchers before filming “Beyond the Summit,” opted to fold citizen science into their trip to Mt. Hubley as a response to the drilling mandate. DesLaurier’s team could access difficult-to-reach portions of the tundra by using their mountaineering and survival skills, providing researchers with potentially valuable data.
Schwartz, who competed in moguls before transitioning to big mountain riding and ski mountaineering, notes that ski mountaineering skills, which include winter travel, mixed climbing, and survival know-how, translate well to gathering data in far-flung locales. “I think your ability [as a ski mountaineer] to access remote places definitely is a really cool and pretty unique skill set,” says Schwartz, “I think that lens of curiosity is really in both realms of citizen science and ski mountaineering.”
The data DesLauriers and the crew sought hinged on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) associated with the drilling mandate. The EIS suggests that drilling cannot occur unless the average snow depth in the region is nine inches. Drilling operations in permafrost environments can cause permanent damage to local ecosystems if snow depth isn’t sufficient.
To gather more information about the average snow depth in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and possibly suggest that drilling would violate the terms of the EIS, DesLauriers’s team learned how to use “magna probes” provided by Alaskan researchers. They established multiple probe points during the trip to assess snow depth and quality.
These research efforts joined the everyday challenges of winter expeditions, like gathering water or route-finding. “The constant moving is always a challenge on a trip like this, because you’re not operating from a base camp. And so there’s just always so much to do [sic] every day,” says Schwartz.
The conclusion of “Beyond the Summit” is something of a happy one, depending on where you stand on the expansion of national drilling operations in the United States. When Joe Biden became president, he signed an executive order that slowed but didn’t completely nullify the drilling mandate. And several investors have cut off funding for oil projects in Northern Alaska since President Biden’s executive order.
However, the Alaska state development agency still holds leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and continues to pursue oil drilling prospects, albeit with decreased funding from major financial institutions. These efforts are vocally opposed by climate activists, local indigenous groups like the Gwich’in, and DesLauriers herself, who is now a board member of the Alaska Wilderness League.
“I think that skiers have a responsibility to partake in, you know, being active citizens,” says Schwartz, “silence and inaction is equally as powerful as a statement.”
To watch “Beyond the Summit” and learn more about the threats the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge faces, head to YouTube, where the film is streaming for free.