Photo: The North Face

Protecting the Wildest Peaks

Skier and activist Kit DesLauriers discusses how to protect the Arctic wilds and fight for “the most unique, pristine, unchanged, largest landscape in the U.S.”

Kit DesLauriers has traveled to the edges of the earth. In 2006, she skied off the top of Mount Everest and became the first person to ski the highest peak on every continent. But there’s one place she keeps going back to and that she’s devoted her life to protecting. And that place is right here in the United States: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During her first trip to ANWR in 2010, DesLauriers went to the Brooks Range to ski its highest peaks and traverse 70 miles through the refuge all the way to the Arctic Ocean. She’d never seen a place so wild, vitally important, and at risk of being destroyed by both oil and gas extraction and climate change. She was moved to act. Now, she sits on the board of the Alaska Wilderness League—a nonprofit that’s solely focused on safeguarding Alaskan wilderness.

DesLauriers is based in Jackson, Wyoming with her husband and two daughters. There, she recently discussed her career as an athlete and her journey as an advocate, leading to her work protecting ANWR alongside the Alaska Wilderness League (with the interview lightly edited and condensed for clarity).  

PUBLIC LANDS: Can you tell us about the evolution of your career and how you got started with advocacy work?

KIT DESLAURIERS: I actually graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in political science and a focus on environmental political science. At the time, the weight of the world felt like too much. I moved to a town outside of Telluride [Colorado] for the rest of my 20s and tried to live a fairly minimal impact life. I focused on getting better at climbing and skiing and I started getting invited on expeditions. Years later, I got sponsored by The North Face and I’ve been an athlete for them for 16 years. I turned 36 on Mount Everest during my Seven Summits project, and the following winter I was finally ready to become a parent and had my kids in 2007 and 2009. I was really starting to miss that piece of who I am and what I get from being in super remote places in the world, so I proposed a trip to go to ANWR, to the Brooks Range.

I experienced what I now call the wildest silence I’ve ever been in while on top of the highest peak in the range. It felt wrong to me that oil or gas drilling could happen on the coastal plain, just 60 miles north of this incredibly enormous, remote, important, fragile landscape. I made myself a promise that when I came back, I would do whatever I could to lend my voice to the protection of the area. I’ve since been up there six different times. So, the piece of me that cares about the environment and understanding the political arena hasn’t changed, but I’ve just kind of come out from underneath the proverbial rock. 

What do you feel your role is in protecting ANWR?

It seems that the best thing I’m able to contribute is to share about my experiences and tell stories of what I’ve seen. That environment up there isn’t experienced by many people. I do what I can to speak up for this land that is wild, intense, large, resilient, and also super fragile. I’ve gotten really in touch with the fact that it’s not just these different animal and fish and bird species that rely on its integrity, but also the Indigenous peoples, especially the Gwich’in people who live a subsistence lifestyle largely based on the caribou. They rely on the caribou herd for food, and for cultural and spiritual purposes. I feel compelled to help there because I feel like it may be our last great opportunity to leave a different history.

Photo: The North Face

How did you end up working with the Alaska Wilderness League?

I didn’t start working with them right away, but I stayed in touch with their staff. And when I was in D.C. for Protect Our Winters, I would always go to their office and share stories and learn more about current events because their work is largely based on passing legislation to protect these areas. In 2014, I was asked to be on their board, but I didn’t have the bandwidth (I was finishing my term on the board at the American Alpine Club). But after my time at the AAC, I called the AWL and said if the offer still stands, I’m ready to join. I now serve on a number of different committees, and the work also sometimes involves lobbying in D.C. There is not a speaking engagement where I miss the opportunity to tell stories around the Arctic Refuge because it is so important to me. 

Did your advocacy work start after that first trip to the Arctic?

Well, I was an early member of the Rider’s Alliance for Protect Our Winters, so I was involved in their advocacy and I would do school visits and talk to students about climate change. Outside of POW, though, I would say that the bulk of my work definitely started after my first trip to the Arctic. I’m most driven by the Arctic Refuge, and I feel like I can also tell the climate story through that issue—they go hand in hand actually.  

You’ve been all around the world. Can you distill what it is about the Arctic that’s gotten under your skin and compelled you to work to protect it? 

It’s the most unique, pristine, unchanged, largest landscape in the U.S.—and perhaps the world—at that level of consolidated importance. At the same time, it’s incredibly fragile. The Arctic Refuge itself is almost 20 million acres, much of it is wilderness, but the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain is what was opened for gas drilling. I saw both the fragility and enormity of that landscape on my first trip up there. There are so many stories inside it. There’s the climate change story, the watershed story—losing water flowing from the mountains and to the Arctic Ocean. It’s the place where 200,000 caribou come every spring to give birth because it’s the place they feel safe.

Then there’s this feeling of knowing that we have other ways to get the energy we need. We need to have more sustainable and less impactful ways to get the energy we need than drilling up there. There’s less than one year’s worth of U.S. consumption of oil underneath that land. It feels like a really immense fight for justice on a lot of levels.  

In 2017, President Trump opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. What keeps you going in the work when there are setbacks or negative outcomes? 

Just the conviction of what’s right. It’s definitely not always easy. I call Yvon Chouinard a friend and he was teaching me to fish a few years ago and I was talking about the sadness that comes over me when we hit these negative places. Sometimes you just feel overwhelmed and depressed and incredulous at the same time. He just said something to the effect of, ‘That’s fine. That’s normal. But just don’t forget to pick yourself up as soon as you’re ready and keep going, because this kind of work is more important than any of us individually. Don’t lose sight of the big picture, and keep going.’ When you think about advocacy there are so many places you could put your efforts, but he reminded me that you have to put them where you’re drawn. That’s where you’re most effective.  

Who are you heroes?

It’s the people who are doing what they love. In the work of advocacy, there are a lot of people out there doing good work and they’re all heroes—all of the people that work on the Gwich’in Steering Committee (which formed in ’88 to address the proposals to drill in their homelands). It’s inspiring to me to see people for whom it would be the last thing they would want to do: to be vocal and political and have to travel from their home, their sacred lands, to lobby in D.C. for what they believe in. No one wants to have to do that, but they do it because it’s what they have to do. They have to because they made a pact many generations ago with the land and the caribou: that the caribou would provide for them and that they would take care of the land and the caribou. 

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