Johnny Come Lately

Andrew Gardner
Posted July 1st, 2007

The uber-activist recently orchestrated the largest-ever global warming demonstration, Step It Up.
Bill McKibben: Nordic Skier, Global ActivistBill McKibben is to activism what Bill Koch is to Vermont ski history. The uber-activist recently orchestrated the largest-ever global warming demonstration, Step It Up. This nationwide surge of actions urged Congress to cut emissions that lead to snow depletion by 80 percent by the year 2050 ( In this era, when skiing is being hit hard by warming temperatures, and when dispatches from the head coach of the U.S. Ski Team include strategies to combat Global Warming, it is comforting to know that as a leading figure in the global warming fight and as an active Nordic skier, McKibben has a connection to the future of skiing along with the future of the planet. McKibben is known for his environmental books – The End of Nature and his recent Deep Economy. He also wrote Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, in which he took to training for Nordic skiing full time. McKibben trains up to 400 hours a year near his home in Ripton, VT, and participates in a number of ski marathons. He is faculty advisor to the Middlebury College Nordic Team. I caught up to McKibben in late May as he was ramping up his Nordic dryland training and his schedule of appearances to speak on global warming.
AG: Why cross-country skiing? How did you come to it? What keeps you in it?
BM: As I recount in my book, Long Distance, I never was much of an athlete – never felt graceful or at ease doing sports. But cross-country skiing was a little different – from the very first time as a boy that I went skiing, I truly loved it. Somehow the physiological demands suited my body; I never got fast, but I craved the feel of just going and going. It would have stayed a pretty minor part of my life, however, if I hadn’t moved to the Adirondacks in my mid-20s. Suddenly winter was the dominant season of the year, and I wanted to be out in it. For years that meant long daily skis on the lake near my house (where I taught myself to skate ski on Epokes with 3-pin bindings) and then on the groomed trails at Garnet Hill, one of the great ski areas in the country. I wrote Long Distance as a vacation from thinking about the end of the world, and that turned me into a (slow) racer, too – the highlight of the year was racing the Norwegian Birke. And then moving to Middlebury sealed the deal – how could you live here amidst the Middlebury skiing tradition and not partake? We live on the edge of the tracks in Ripton – sometimes when there’s lots of snow, the Breadloaf [a.k.a. Rikert] crew will groom right to the end of our driveway.
AG: As an athlete, what are your yearly goals?
BM: Well, I confess that, more than anything, I race as an excuse to train – to put in lots of hours as soon as there’s any snow at all, and to spend more hours than I really have in the summer and fall for biking and hiking.

I always ski the Lake Placid Loppet and the Breadloaf Citizens’ Race, and usually the Canadian Keskinada and a few others, and I like to be able to finish, you know, respectably. As I age, it’s fun to try to compensate with a little more technique – like learning to go downhill more aggressively. And I really like to hit my goal for total number of days skiing – 120 or so a year.

But my real goal is to spend myself all the way down a few times every year, to have the world drop away and nothing count but the moment I’m in. And if that’s a battle for eleventh place in the 25K at Lake Placid, it doesn’t matter. It’s as good as the Olympics for me.
AG: When you aren’t campaigning against global warming, what is your favorite place to ski?
BM: Ripton, where I live, is pretty special. Breadloaf has an amazing trail network, but just as amazing are the things it connects to: the Catamount Trail, the snowmobile corridor (hit it in the right conditions and you’ve got twenty miles of non-stop skating bliss), the ski over to the old-school groomed trails at Blueberry Hill, and lots and lots and lots of trails in the woods. You can ski for days and not go over the same ground twice.
AG: Who are your skiing heroes?
BM: Bill Koch – in part because he’s a great environmentalist and a truly lovely man. Former U.S. Olympian Ben Husaby, who couldn’t have been nicer in the year I was writing Long Distance. And how I’ve enjoyed watching my old friend and World Cup biathlon skier Tim Burke prosper on the biathlon circuit! There are many, many more – Middlebury keeps producing fast skiers who are also incredibly good human beings, which is why I like hanging around on the fringes of the program.
AG: By its nature, Nordic skiing can be rough in terms of generating green house gasses, etc. What are things skiers can do to keep a lid on their impact?
BM: Drive something small to the end of the trail – I’ve managed for years in the deep snows of the Adirondacks and the Greens with a Honda Civic (now a Civic hybrid). Remember – snow tires and a stick shift beat 4wd any day. And get politically active on this issue. We’re building a real movement, and we need the involvement of everyone who cares about winter, or, quite literally, there isn’t going to be one much longer.
AG: What projects/plans do you have for the summer?
BM: Holt/Times Books is publishing a small guide to organizing and activism that our Step It Up crew is assembling, as well as a Bill McKibben Reader sometime in the spring. And I’m editing an anthology of American environmental writing for the Library of America. Plus I’m working really hard on my triceps dips.

This summer, anyone who has some spare time might want to help out over in New Hampshire, where we’re trying to put some pressure on the presidential candidates. Among other things, there’s going to be a big Red, White and Green 4th of July bash, and then a five-day march across the state in early August. You can find all the links at

Andrew Gardner

Andrew Gardner is the Head Nordic Coach at Middlebury College. Find out more about the Middlebury Ski Team at