Two years ago, Colt Whitley qualified for his first cross-country skiing junior national championships in Cable, Wis. But there were some unexpected challenges.
"They were worried the athletes would get ticks, because as soon as you stepped off the course, you were stepping into high grass,” Whitley said.
Whitley, a junior at Aspen High School, and his teammates frequently see low snowpack and warm temperatures impact their sport. So now, he and five other Aspen Valley Ski Club (AVSC) racers are raising funds for Protect Our Winters (POW), a climate advocacy group.
"If we don't solve this problem, no one will be able to ski in the future,” Whitley said.
It all started with a suggestion from Whitley’s college counselors that he work on building his resume through some kind of passion project. There was an obvious match.
"I've had such a great time skiing, and I wanted others to be able to experience that," he said.
His first project fell close to home. Whitley tracked the number of kilometers he skied for training and found donors to pledge support of his ski-a-thon-inspired fundraiser. He called it Project Ski More, and 1002 kilometers later, he had raised $5,000 to support the AVSC scholarship fund.
"That was an incredible moment, hitting $5,000 right at the end of the season and knowing that I've helped all these kids be able to ski," Whitley remembered.
This year, he wanted to go even bigger, and to get his friends involved.
“The focus has shifted from our generation to protecting the winter so future generations, like way down the line, can enjoy what we enjoy,” said junior Reed Beidleman, one of two alpine racers involved in Project Ski More.
He and Trey Thorpe are tracking their hours training in gates. Joining Whitley logging their kilometers cross country skiing are Chelsea Moore, Jacob Barsness and Kate Oldham. At the end of the season, the six high schoolers will tally their totals, collect their funds and send that to POW.
Whitley said he chose the organization in part because it's well-known in the mountain community. POW works to raise awareness in local schools and has a partnership with Aspen Skiing Company and a visible presence at events like World Cup Finals.
"And I really like their approach to change, of trying to change legislation and educate," Whitley said.
That’s exactly where their funds will go, according to Torrey Udall, who manages development for POW.
"We're really energized by Colt and the team," Udall said. "We use this ski analogy to describe where we are with climate, and we’re really in a no-fall zone.”
Especially, he said, looking forward to elections this fall and in 2020. Udall acknowledged it's tough to measure success in raising awareness and promoting action on climate, but POW does keep track of who is engaged.
“All we can do right now is everyone step up and use the platform that they have,” he said.
For these kids, it's skiing.
“It’s just another project or another way I can get involved, so it’s two of my biggest passions combined,” said AHS senior Chelsea Moore.
Moore is deeply engaged with environmental issues. She’s the head of the Earth Group, and last fall, she worked to eliminate more than 3,000 disposable plastic water bottles from Aspen’s college fair. As a member of Project Ski More, she has logged more than 2,000 kilometers, and that’s paying off for both the climate and her career.
AHS cleaned up at the state championships this year: Moore won an individual cross-country race, and the ski team won the overall championship.
“Our team was super motivated, and we’ve been working hard all season, so I think it all came together,” Moore said.
On a recent sunny afternoon, the kids from Project Ski More were in T-shirts, joking around before training. These are the kinds of moments that Whitley wants to preserve for future generations.
"I love being with the team and being with my friends. I love the feeling of gliding across the snow and almost flying," Whitley said. "I also really love the challenge of Nordic skiing. I like that it’s not easy, that you have to push yourself and that it’s difficult.”
And embracing big, difficult challenges is what Project Ski More is all about.