Some of the best films of 1969 spoke directly to the powerful, discomfiting currents of change then buffeting society: Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Costa-Gavras’ Z, Visconti’s The Damned, Fellini’s Satyricon. That year’s James Bond instalment, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was not among them, though it has an unlikely resonance now.

Bond, played by George Lazenby, infiltrates the evil Blofeld’s lair perched on a peak high in the Swiss Alps, where the arch-villain is training lovely ingénues to disrupt the world’s food supplies. Unmasked, Agent 007 makes his escape at night on skis, pursued by a squad of skiing goons shooting at him with sub-machine guns. He out-skis the lot, jumping off cliffs and swooping effortlessly through spectacular fields of powder snow, before spending a steamy night in a barn with a wayward young Italian Contessa, played by doe-eyed redhead Diana Rigg. Pursued again in the morning, the couple schuss away, only to be caught in an avalanche, which they barely, but expectedly, survive.

The movie had all the usual Bond touches: ubiquitous luxury – caviar, Dom Pérignon, furs, exotic cars and gadgets, plus his casual mastery over assailants, chance and women (always casually objectified by the male gaze of the camerawork, her endowments typically appearing in frame before her face). And for the first but not the last time, it had skiing. Sean Connery’s Bond frequented the Alps, though never donned skis. But, from Lazenby’s excellent adventure onward, the ski chase was integral to Bond, especially in the 1970s and ’80s Roger Moore era, the pursuits spiced with motorcycles, bobsleds, and helicopters, before inevitably bedding the girl. The common thread was that in the Alps James Bond always scores – both the seduction and the powder snow.

Why is the skiing relevant? Like other Bond pastimes, it’s glamorous, daring, expensive, and, for him, effortless. But unlike, for example, stunt-driving, skiing involves mastering nature, on a grand and sublime scale – making first tracks through vast, white, virgin fields of snow, overseen by towering, dark, rocky peaks. It was an essential lifestyle ingredient for the modern, cosmopolitan man: not just cool, but cold. The Swiss setting of precision-engineered gondolas running like clockwork to ridge-top après-ski decks adorned with tractable babes in fur-collared ski suits only helped solidify the impression of living on a planet firmly under control.

“There’s a good girl,” Bond says to the Contessa. “Just keep my martini cold.”

Unfortunately, our movie isn’t going to end that way: the martinis may be staying cold, but the mountains are not. Glaciers are receding – from Europe, North America, South America, New Zealand – everywhere. In the Alps, 90% of glaciers will be gone before the end of the century at current melting rates.

At Chamonix, you could once walk straight out of the Vallée Blanche onto a glacier, but it’s shrunk so much they’ve had to build a gondola. At Zermatt, one of only two places in the Alps normally open for skiing 365 days a year, the glacier closed this year. Riddled with crevasses and caves and covered in black dust, it had turned from snow-capped and skiable to deadly.

Seasonal foehn winds from the south have dropped Saharan sand over Europe three times already this winter. The ski slopes of Switzerland turned orange, like a horrible cheddar fondue. And after a promising early start, mountain snowpacks melted quickly, especially on the southern edges.

At Zermatt, recent visitors told me they’d resorted to skiing across to the Italian side to take advantage of the man-made snow there – an ironic benefit of Italy having seen its snow conditions deteriorating for many years, as it’s on the sunny side of the mountains. What used to be an experience of floating almost ten miles through broad pistes of soft snow had become a marathon “clattering, carving contest”, ruinous on the legs and the lungs. At least there, “easy street” is gone.

David Court, a professional mountain guide who has worked in Switzerland for 32 years, tells me he’s never seen it so bad, and worries for his livelihood. If the snow can fail in Switzerland, the stronghold of perfect security – in watches, bank accounts, surgery and ski pistes – then it can fail anywhere.

It isn’t necessarily that there is less snow, but that the snow is irregular, and different. “Not only are we getting erratic snowstorms, but when it does snow it’s dangerous,” he adds, because temperature discontinuities between snow layers breed avalanches. And now there is more wind: storms will drop snow but are followed by strong wind events that blow the snow away.

The common theme among other guides he’s surveyed isn’t the irregularity of snow, “it’s the wind”.All this change is driven, we know, by the same phenomenon of intensifying extreme weather that is fanning extraordinary wildfires and freak events, like flooding in Britain and blizzards in Texas. And it is radically challenging the viability of our preferred modes of big-investment snow sports.

In the southern half of the American West, we’ve been living the change for years. Snow sports became hugely popular here in the post-war era, with resorts sprouting all over improbably arid places like New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California. They all have very high mountain ranges – reaching above 10,000 feet in Los Angeles County – that are blanketed by deep winter snows. But the storms have gradually grown more erratic and the temperature swings more severe.

Smaller ski areas at lower elevations or with limited resources began to be abandoned, while larger, higher ones with access to water and electricity began making snow in industrial quantities and expanding capacity with high-speed quad lifts. Now several resorts thrive here, staying open long past storm season by making their own snow – creating incongruous white webs of ski runs surrounded by brown mountains. Thanks to this engineering, Southern California remains a hotbed of skiing and snowboarding talent: note Shaun White and Chloe Kim’s recent dominance of snowboarding in the Olympics.

It’s abundantly clear, though, that there are limits to the game. Viewers of this year’s Olympic snow events at Yanqing, north of Beijing, saw the same grim conceit of artificial snow pistes, hard as concrete, tenuously pasted over sere, wind-raked desert mountains. Even competitors wondered aloud if their sports will be tenable going forwards.

For years, I’ve bypassed the pricey resorts near me in Los Angeles to go “backcountry” in the mountains – driving as far as the road is open, snowshoeing up a thousand feet or two with my snowboard strapped to my back, then riding down. I choose to “earn my turns” and I’m rarely satisfied with just one run a day.

It’s a different sport from that of my youth, or of my parents, or James Bond. Sometimes I ride down under the rusting skeletons of lifts at abandoned ski resorts – because these runs are still relatively clear of trees. Even if the snow is less than perfect, the rewards are sublime.

The roomy quiet of snowy mountains is broken only by the croaking of ravens, the clots of snow falling through pine branches and my own panting breath. Encountering another adventurer besides myself and whoever I came with constitutes a crowd, and is always welcome. Eschewing lifts and going to the backcountry is a growing trend, especially among the young, and for many it’s a new ethic – one that acknowledges how the world is changing and adapts to that, rather than doubling down against nature with more snowmaking and faster ski lifts.

One thing is for sure: like James Bond’s expectations of bedding the girl, our expectations of snow can never be the same. Let’s hope we choose to adapt with grace. And there is hope, because even the Bond franchise is evolving: Agent 007 is now a Black woman, played by Lashana Lynch.

Wade Graham is the author of “American Eden, a cultural history of gardens in America”, “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World” and “Braided Waters: Environment and Society in Molokai, Hawaii”. He is a trustee of Glen Canyon Institute in Salt Lake City and lives in Los Angeles.


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