Tackling Climate Change from Tetons to Temple Sinai

Tackling Climate Change from Tetons to Temple Sinai

A mountain climbing trip turned into a climate change campaign for Josh Marks and his son Charlie.

Josh and Charlie in front of the Teton Range at one of the Jackson Hole overlooks.
Josh and Charlie in front of the Teton Range at one of the Jackson Hole overlooks.

My son, Charlie, and I were roped up at 12,400 feet on the Grand Teton when the first bolt of lightning struck. It was 4:00 a.m., and we’d been making steady progress through the rainy darkness on our way to the summit. When the thunder came, I thought, “this can’t be happening,” and tried to will the approaching storm away. Two more bolts lit up the night in quick succession. When I heard, “it’s time to pull the plug” over our guide’s radio, the disappointment was crushing. We had worked so hard to get to this point — 9 months of training in Georgia and Wyoming, and a 7-mile hike with 6,000 feet of elevation gain in one day — and to think we would fall just short was excruciating. I knew it was the right decision; two people had been killed by lightning here several years before. But as we started descending, I felt like there had to be another reason why nature blocked our way.

Standing at nearly 14,000 feet, the jagged, glacier-clad “Grand” is one of the world’s most iconic peaks. I had first laid eyes on it back in 1986, when I had done a summer outdoor adventure course in the Tetons. It was incredible: a burst of rock piercing the sky from the Jackson Hole valley along with several similar peaks on both sides, surreal to the point of looking like a painting. But it was very real, and from that point forward, I always wanted to climb it.

Fast-forward to 2018. My son, Charlie, did a similar outdoor adventure program in the Tetons. When I picked him up in Jackson Hole, we drove together to one of the famous overlooks, admired the peak together, and talked about maybe one day climbing it together. Then, last fall, Charlie said to me, “Dad, we need to climb it.” I said, “Climb what?” “The Grand,” he said. “What do you think?” It took me a split second to say, “I’m in. Let’s do it!”

We started training immediately, which required building physical and mental endurance. There aren’t any “14ers” in Georgia, but every Saturday we set out to hike Kennesaw Mountain, the closest thing we have to a “peak” in Atlanta. We hiked six miles up and down through Georgia’s humid air. Being 17 and a full-time rock climber, tackling Kennesaw was like walking around the block for Charlie; for me, it was exhausting when I started. To his great credit, Charlie was patient, and with every trip my lungs and legs got a little stronger.

But Charlie didn’t want us to just have a cool father-son adventure. He was determined to have the climb serve a higher purpose. For his entire life and for much of my own, I’ve been railing about the damage that humans are doing to the air, water, land and wildlife on which we depend and that give our lives great meaning, and have made tackling it the focus of my profession as an environmental and sustainability lawyer. Within the last 15 years, the predominant force behind that damage has been climate change. Over the last two summers, with fires ravaging the western U.S., droughts drying up water supplies, and hurricanes growing in frequency and intensity, climate change has affected everyone, everywhere. But like his father, Charlie was unable to just sit back and hope someone else did something; he decided he needed to act, and climbing the Grand was the perfect opportunity.

He teamed up with Protect Our Winters (POW), a nonprofit organization that educates and activates the outdoor community to fight climate change. By soliciting family, friends and the rabbis at Temple Sinai where our family belongs, he was able to raise over $10,000 for POW. This made reaching the summit that much more important.

As we continued on down the mountain back to the valley floor, it suddenly dawned on me why we were turned back. Mother nature, Hashem or both were trying to tell us that we needed to work harder, that the urgency of climate change was so great that we needed to redouble our efforts for the cause. After we got back to Atlanta, I updated Rabbi Ron Segal, the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, about the adventure. He said he was thinking about doing his Rosh Hashanah sermon on climate change and the special duty that Jews have to tackle it and to be better stewards of the planet, and asked me to help. I was glad to point him in the direction of various topics and resources, and he ended up giving one of the most brilliant sermons I’ve ever heard, complemented by stirring photos, maps and other illustrations. He then asked me and Charlie to do a presentation the following week, during Yom Kippur, about our climb, Charlie’s fundraiser, the threats caused by climate change and steps our congregation could and should take to do our part to try and tackle the problem. We ended up doing an hour-long slide show for a group of over 200 people that gathered both in person and online.

Charlie and Josh during the Yom Kippur presentation at Temple Sinai.

From both the sermon and the presentation sprouted the creation of a new Environmental Awareness and Action Committee at Sinai, co-chaired by Charlie and me, where we are taking on three projects: Greening the synagogue; educating our early learning kids; and taking action through a mix of tree planting, stream cleanups and advocacy for climate change legislation. We just had our first committee meeting, where we reviewed the findings of an energy audit of our synagogue and identified a series of steps to make the building more energy-efficient and reduce our carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, this past week in Glasgow, Scotland, world leaders have gathered at the COP26 climate change conference to announce a new series of steps to tackle the issue and keep warming over the balance of this century to a more manageable level. The urgency and attention to the issue has never been greater, and that gives us hope that maybe we have a chance to limit the damage for our kids and grandkids.

As for Charlie and me, we just signed up to make another run at the Grand next July. And with Hashem’s help and Mother Nature’s cooperation, we will make it this time.

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