For anyone who makes their living in the mountains, it is no shock that our glaciers are melting. We hear it from our guides, our athletes, our photographers, our filmmakers and our brand partners, but putting the story in a local context is a tough task even for the most accomplished storytellers. Yet Ethan Steinman, and the folks behind Glacial Balance, have done just that in a film that travels from Colombia to Ecuador to Argentina along the spine of the Andes, getting to know the locals who are the first impacted by the melting glacial reserve.
From coffee, potato, and quinoa farmers to fruit and wine exporters, and even miners of sacred glacial ice blocks near the equator, Glacial Balance offers the viewer a chance to visit some of Earth’s most distant, inaccessible, and spectacularly beautiful landscapes. And then the film plants the stories and ideas of these individuals’ lives in the viewer’s mind—not just numbers and graphs—causing a human-to-human connection to the changing world around us. As early backers of the Glacial Balance film project, we caught up with Steinman for the backstory on why he decided to shed light on this subject and what first drew him to the glaciers of the Andes. —LYA Editor
Words by Ethan Steinman, Images by Ethan Steinman, Ricardo Quintero Londono and Jacques Thierry
In 2009, I was living in Mendoza, Argentina, right next to the Andes, but I had never gone climbing in the mountains. Then I was sent a chain email from several friends about a mining project planning to drill for gold between Argentina and Chile, potentially destroying a few glaciers. It’s no surprise that a great number of high mountain glaciers are melting faster than ever before. At the time, Argentina was about to pass a glacier protection law and people around the country were protesting the Canadian mining company. I was intrigued by the situation, but something about the David and Goliath story seemed too basic, or at least not new. At the same time, the more I explored the story, the more I realized my own ignorance about the mechanics of glaciers and the immediate relationship people in the Andes have with them.
When I started researching glaciers and stories of the connections people have to them, the name Lonnie Thompson came up time and again. After sending him an email out of the blue, I happened to get a response a few days later. He was mid-expedition, having just come down Hualcan Mountain for his asthma shot. He was heading back up but told me if I was able to get to northern Peru in a week, I could meet him and his crew atop the glacier as they drilled ice cores. So I convinced myself to go. After all, he was a 60-something-year-old scientist with chronic asthma. He didn’t do this for sport, so I assumed it couldn’t possibly be that difficult. I was wrong.
A week later I found myself near 18,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, combatting exhaustion at doing even the simplest tasks. Shifting positions within my tent was a chore in and of itself. Documenting a team of six scientists as they carried out their work at this altitude was a constant struggle that didn’t get easier with time. But as I spent a week up there, I noticed that my desire and inner need to expand the documentary project grew.
After coming down from Hualcan, I spent a few weeks in Huaraz, exploring communities and talking with the locals about the weather patterns, loss of glacial ice, and what I started to learn was both shocking and upsetting. Many of the local farmers have a very narrow world view, spending their entire lives within only a 10- or 20-mile radius. As a result of this, they feel a sense of personal responsibility for the loss of their nearby glaciers and unstable water supplies. They blame themselves and blame their neighbors, and have made changes in their way of life, but these changes don’t bring back their snowcaps or the water they hold.
Witnessing this emotional connection to people suffering the consequences of a global change and blaming themselves is what really pushed me to make a film of such grand scale. I felt that focusing too much on one specific community wouldn’t paint an accurate portrait of what is happening today in the Andes. Naturally, the mountainous landscape from country to country differs so much that each story was unique in its own way and required dedicated focus unto itself.
Witnessing Dr. Thompson and his crew working in the field firsthand, I was amazed and fascinated to learn the lengths that scientists have to go in order to collect data and measure the climatic shift. Until this point, these were all concepts I didn’t understand, but had seen time and again in graphs. Those points on the graph were coming to life before my eyes, and I knew there were others out there who have the same fascination I do with this process. Somehow I felt that the merging of these two stories–the Andean locals and scientists—would paint a unique portrait of the present-day natural world. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it would help people on the other side of the planet understand on an emotional level what is happening to others in the world, and how these changes will affect them.
Before traveling down this path and starting my exploration, many of the connections I encountered—things like off-season fruit, the power grid, overpopulation of cities, and even the loss of cultures—hadn’t occurred to me. But after meeting people and capturing the stories of those who are being confronted with this reality today, I am all too aware now, and am using this knowledge to bring this reality to others who want to educate themselves and be part of a change.