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Water is Life

[This Wired story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 71 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Pictured here at sunset, Dook'o'oosliid, or Humphreys Peak (12,633'), is the highest point in Arizona. Dook'o'oosliid was once part of a much larger stratovolcano that erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago. [Photo] Chuck Lawsen

Pictured here at sunset, Dook’o’oosliid, or Humphreys Peak (12,633′), is the highest point in Arizona. Dook’o’oosliid was once part of a much larger stratovolcano that erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago. [Photo] Chuck Lawsen

SNOW AND RIME-COVERED ROCK cracked beneath our feet with each step. Wind funneled up from the ridge to our left, forcing Connor, Forrest and me onto the corniced snow on our right. Our skis and splitboards acted as sails, fluttering our packs with each gust. As we climbed farther up the slope, the temperature dropped precipitously. The gusts turned to gale-force winds, and my breathing became increasingly labored. The cold soon wrapped around my hands, and I clenched them into fists to try to ward off the numbness. In that moment, I had to remind myself that this was Arizona, and we were on Dook’o’oosliid, a sacred mountain. Minutes earlier, I was able to make out Connor’s silhouette cresting a distant ridge. Now, as my gaze shifted back, he was gone–enveloped in the clouded skyline.

I arrived at the summit a few minutes after my companions. Forrest reposed behind a rock, sheltering from the wind, while Connor placed tobacco and sang songs from his Lakota ceremonies to thank the mountain. In Navajo we reference our four major sacred mountains in ceremony–Sisnaajini (White Shell Mountain), Tsoodzil (Mt. Taylor), Dook’o’oosliid (the San Francisco Peaks, including Humphreys Peak) and Dibe Nitsaa (Hesperus Peak)–and many also reference four sacred rivers that emanate from their snowpacks through the phrase, To ei Iina (Water is life). Anderson Hoskie, a hataalii medicine man and close family friend whom we had visited the day before our summit, told me to listen to the Navajo mountain songs I had recorded and to try to sing along, but the words all sounded foreign. Gusts of wind muffled the speaker on my phone. I kept missing words, and the pitch of my voice seemed an octave too low. I thought about how many other people carried these words with them; I wondered how many carried them up this mountain, and if they also struggled.

Forrest Shearer, Connor Ryan and Len Necefer disappear into the blowing snow and clouds above the tree line on Dook'o'oosliid. [Photo] Greg Balkin

Forrest Shearer, Connor Ryan and Len Necefer disappear into the blowing snow and clouds above the tree line on Dook’o’oosliid. [Photo] Greg Balkin

THE IDENTITIES OF MANY Indigenous people are based upon the linkages of language, sacred histories, ceremonial cycles and landscape that fosters their vibrance. Dine Bahane’, the Navajo Creation Story, references the four major sacred mountains that span the four cardinal directions: Sisnaajini, Tsoodzil, Dook’o’oosliid and Dibe Nitsaa. Navajo creation stories tell of the Hero Twins, sent to liberate our people from the monsters that threatened our existence. The twins journeyed to the sun to obtain powerful weapons and then to the four sacred mountains, where they constantly battled for their lives.

The traditional names of these four mountains serve as a reminder of how much they have changed in the past century. Both the Navajo and Hopi names for the San Francisco Peaks, Dook’o’oosliid and Nuvatukya’ovi, roughly translate to “the peaks that do not melt.” While many beliefs about the mountains differ among these tribes, commonalities remain: that the water, soil, plants and animals on this mountain have spiritual and medicinal properties; that the peaks represent living beings and are home to deities; and that the tribes and their members have a duty to protect them.

But as a young person on the Navajo Nation, the stories of the four scared Navajo mountains did not hold much meaning to me. For many years I did not realize that the places referenced in ceremonies actually existed. Now I understand that my disconnect from the sacred mountains was in large part due to histories and policies that formed the context that I was born into as a Navajo.

As Navajos we view the boundaries of our historic homeland as an area outlined by the four sacred mountains now covering vast stretches of what is now the four corners region of the southwestern US. By the mid-nineteenth century, the settler-colonial belief in Manifest Destiny fueled westward expansion into the Southwest. US troops soon arrived to address what they saw as the “Navajo problem” that encompassed conflicts with American and Spanish settlers. A scorched-earth campaign soon followed. I remember hearing the stories from my grandfather and uncle about how the Calvary came in the autumn and burned crops and houses. Thousands fled into canyons and the mountains to avoid capture. By the end of the campaign in 1864, over 10,000 Navajos were forced into a makeshift prison camp near Window Rock, Arizona. Weeks later, the US forced the captive Navajos to march three hundred miles in winter to a concentration camp in eastern New Mexico. Many died from exposure and starvation on the journey; many more were executed trailside when they could not keep up. My ancestors stayed at the camp known as Hweeldi, the “place of suffering” in Navajo, until June 1868, when the US Government and Navajo leaders negotiated a treaty to allow my ancestors to return to a small part of our homeland. But the treaty did not include the areas of the four major sacred mountains. Today, many of the lands where our sacred sites are located are part of the federal public land system.

Lake Fork Peak in the Tsedeeshzha Dzil area. [Photo] Isaiah Branch-Boyle

Lake Fork Peak in the Tsedeeshzha Dzil area. “The prayer flags here are a signal to the sacredness that people associate with mountain landscapes,” Necefer says. [Photo] Isaiah Branch-Boyle

This physical dispossession was also accompanied by a psychological one. In exchange for being allowed to return home, Navajo parents were required (under threat of imprisonment) to send their children to missionary-run boarding schools, where they weren’t allowed to speak their native language. This mandated curriculum of assimilation existed into the 1970s, and I heard many stories of the trauma and violence that had happened there from my mother, who was forced to attend those schools. In my own life, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to learn Navajo from a young age, which stunted my relationship with my grandparents just as it did my relationship to the mountains. It wasn’t until I learned enough Navajo in my late teens to be able to speak with my grandparents that I began to fully understand them as people with deep and intriguing personalities and insights.

For many Navajo people, the pain of dispossession continues to color how we see our ancestral homeland managed. The sacred western mountain Dook’o’oosliid, also known as Humphreys Peak, is the highest peak in Arizona. Rising to a summit of 12,633 feet, this volcanic peak is the only alpine zone within Arizona–and the location of the state’s first ski area, Arizona Snowbowl. In recent decades, Snowbowl has been the focal point of intense conflict between the resort’s owners and the thirteen tribes who consider this volcanic massif sacred. Since the early 2000s, the resort has relied on artificial snow produced in part from municipal sewage effluent (recycled wastewater) to extend seasons and profitability in response to climate change. Yet the reuse of water in this context highlights cultural differences in environmental management. Tribal governments and activists have expressed concern that the artificially derived snow contaminates plants and other sacred objects on the mountain with residual chemicals, which renders them useless for ceremonial purposes.

As a young man in 2011, I watched Native protesters chain themselves to bulldozers on the opening day of the season, and I remember the heavy-handed deployment of police to arrest organizers of this protest. I saw echoes of the violence that originally displaced us over a century earlier. For years, I thought of skiing only in relation to the desecration of this sacred space.

But for my junior year of high school, I transferred to an international school on the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range near Las Vegas, New Mexico. A week before classes began, my new classmates and I went on a multiday trip through the northern reaches of the Pecos Wilderness. It was my first backcountry experience in the mountains and my first time interacting with people of so many different cultures and nationalities.

Over the next few years, the high desert of northern New Mexico–filled with pinon, sagebrush and water-carved sandstone–became increasingly familiar. On the horizon, the dark outlines of the Truchas Peaks rose from the pine forest below. I vividly remember winter snowstorms that moved up the rift valley from the south in the afternoons. As night settled, snow piled up on the pinions’ needle clusters. My mom preferred pinon wood because it burned hotter and filled the house with its smell.

During the summer and winter breaks from college in Kansas I would venture into these mountains to seek solace from the engineering degree that wracked my brain. The Sangre de Cristo Range became a refuge and anchor for me. Human presence in these mountains dates back over 13,000 years, to the Folsom and Clovis cultures that hunted and gathered in these regions. In more recent millennia, the Puebloan peoples, Ute, Comanche and Navajo all trace connections back to this range. On trail runs I found arrowheads and fire rings, and I began to understand that the story I was writing for myself in this landscape was another chapter in this long history.

A decade later, on my first ski mountaineering trip to Quandary Peak in Colorado, I remember standing atop a snow-packed ridgeline and gazing upon layers of mountain ranges that rippled westward toward the horizon. I didn’t fully realize the sacredness of the mountains until I experienced the stillness brought by snow. Below my feet, the water on that peak would go on to the Colorado River–which provides our community life in the desert–in just a few months. My skin track became the path of balance and my movement the prayers that I carried into these landscapes. I began to understand the power of this form of water–the immense respect and diligence it requires and the fragility of the climate that fosters it.

The story of the Navajo people is written into these landscapes, and we are reminded in our songs of this connection. But we are also living on a warming planet. For the many tribes in the Southwest, the future of the ecosystems and the cultural traditions that depend upon snowpacks and snowmelt is also uncertain. The loss of snow will inevitably impact ceremonial cycles, languages and sacred histories. Certain medicinal plants are harder to find, now, having migrated farther upslope to cooler temperatures. On some slopes, the plants have run out of elevation to gain, forcing me and my relatives to travel farther north to other mountain ranges to find them. Some elders say that when we lose connection with the land, the land will die and so will we. Now, as a heating climate reshapes the landscape, their words carry even more weight.

In recent years I have felt an urgency to summit and ski the mountains that shape my identity as a Navajo person. By reconnecting with the mountains, I tried to create a buffer between myself and an impending dispossession. I began wanting to document photos and stories from these places in order to impart their teachings to future generations. But as I climbed and skied over rapidly receding snowfields, the journeys felt akin to doing final rounds of visits with my elders who are sick and soon to walk on into the next world.

I BEGAN CLIMBING each of the four peaks beginning in 2015, following the clockwise pattern as they are referenced in ceremony. When I began, I climbed these mountains during the snow-free months, as I did not know how to ski. Within two years, I had summited each of these four peaks multiple times from different routes. My own connection to these places grew deeper.

In December 2018, atop Berthoud Pass in Colorado, I met a young Lakota man, Connor Ryan. Connor had recently decided to become a professional skier after participating in a traditional visioning ceremony. The Lakota visioning ceremony, known as Hambleycha, requires an individual seeking guidance to embark upon a multiday affair. During this period, they are deprived of water, food and sunlight in a sweat lodge far removed from distractions. These days within the sweat lodge are understood to allow for space to lament and to sit with the frustration and anguish that comes with loss or uncertainty found in life and to find a path forward. Each day, the individual prays to the seven directions: east, south, west, north, the sky direction, the earth direction and inward to the heart direction.

Connor related that he had taken part in his solitary visioning ceremony in the foothills below his home ski mountain, Eldora. After three days in the darkness of the mountain sweat lodge, he said, his dreaming and waking states merged into one. Connor’s vision, he told me, was simply a question, “What if I’m the last skier?” The answer appeared simple: he did not want to be the last skier, and his path forward would be to do everything he could to ensure this sport could be passed on.

Over the next few months, Connor and I began sharing in longer walks on our skis in the Colorado Front Range. It seemed, however, that we had to travel farther and to more remote reaches of these peaks to find consistent snowpack.

I met Forrest Shearer, a professional snowboarder and climate activist, in shared activism around the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah in the autumn of 2016. Forrest has spent much of his life adventuring in high alpine environments and has seen the impacts of climate change firsthand. In our conversations about sacred mountains and climate change, we often spoke about an urgency to see and experience these places before they are irreparably changed.

In March 2019, I invited Connor and Forrest to join me on an ascent of Dook’o’oosliid. It had been a record snow year. Snowfall had covered the peaks in week after week of storms, bringing the snowfall totals close to twice the annual average. The familiar wind-scoured gullies and ridges of the mountain were layered in feet of snow. Before we left for the trailhead, I made a call to Anderson Hoskie to ask if we could stop by prior to our visit to the mountain to ask for protection and guidance for this journey. This visit to Anderson had become a routine just as familiar as preparing my gear for entering the alpine. I have stopped at his home before each big expedition to perform a ceremony.

“Aoo’, yes, come over,” his voice crackled through the phone.

We drove along the rutted dirt road that wove through sagebrush and arrived just before sunset, carefully navigating the van through the mud that had formed after a recent snowmelt. Anderson welcomed us into the Hooghan, a traditional Navajo home shaped like an octagon. We sat down and enjoyed the warmth emanating from a fire-burning stove at the Hooghan’s center. “We’re headed up the mountain to tell a story about climate change and how it’s going to impact Dook’o’oosliid,” I said. “Mountains are more dangerous when there’s snow, so we’re here to do a ceremony to get our heads in the right place.”

Anderson looked down. “It’ll be good to learn the mountain songs since you’re going to all these mountains far away,” he said. “You need to know how to introduce yourself to them and tell them which mountains you come from.” Anderson swung his left arm out away from his chest and pointed at the sacred medicine bundles sitting on a rug. “Place your phone here and record me singing them; that way you can learn them,” he directed. Then he cleared his throat, closed his eyes and began.

As Anderson chanted, I realized I understood the words of this Navajo song: “Sisnaajini, the white shell mountain, the sacred mountain, following the path of balance and harmony.” I lit a clay pipe filled with mountain tobacco and exhaled puffs of smoke onto the dirt floor, giving thanks to Nahadzaan Shima, Mother Earth, and Yadilhil Shitaa’, Father Sky. I exhaled more smoke onto our ski gear and avalanche equipment, and then I passed the pipe to Forrest on my left. I closed my eyes and listened to the song, focusing on its structure and rhythm, studying it in a way I never had before. But my focus soon drifted away to what we would see the next morning–a storm was expected to drop new snow across the mountain overnight.

Like many other mountain ranges in the Southwest, this area is experiencing warming temperatures, shortened snow seasons and diminished snowpack. By mid-century, climate scientists project that Dook’o’oosliid will no longer hold a snowpack through the winter. This predicted “snow drought” will threaten the municipal water supply of the nearby city of Flagstaff.

In the early pre-dawn hours, Connor, Forrest and I departed Flagstaff toward the trailhead. A thick fog had settled among the pines as the snow continued to fall. We donned our skis and splitboards and began quietly sliding through the fresh powder, through the pines and on to tree line.

A pursuit of the sacred led the three of us to stand on that summit ridge. For a few brief seconds, the clouds opened above us as the gale-force winds buffeted our bodies. The sun cast our shadows onto the snow, marled by the black volcanic rocks. The discomfort I had felt minutes earlier following along with the song that Anderson had given me subsided as I saw our features cast before us. Our shadows, nihichaha’oh, are a reminder that we are always connected to Mother Earth and Father Sky and that they are always present to hear, assist and protect us.

We traversed back down the ridge with skis and boards on our back toward a gulley that the wind had not yet stripped of snow. With each step, the snow crept higher up our legs, and eventually we could not feel the rocks below. Just below the ridge we paused and began the transition from walking to skis and snowboards. Down the gulley, the snow and clouds seemed to merge into one at the far range of my view, and I took off down the mountain.

A YEAR AFTER THE OUTING with Forrest and Connor on Dook’o’oosliid, I gathered another group of friends for a trip to Tsedeeshzha Dzil, the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, to witness the peaks firsthand and explore what they meant to us in light of climate change. We were a diverse group with representation from the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Lakota, Deg Hit’an Athabaskan and Navajo, as well as from Colorado, California and New Mexico. We gathered at a trailhead in Taos Ski Valley to venture into the New Mexico backcountry.

As we skinned through the pines, the temperatures rose far above freezing, quickly melting the snow that had fallen days before into a thick sludge beneath our skis. Bright winter sunlight warmed our bodies. It shouldn’t be this warm in early February, I thought. There was no way I could wear the ski bibs and equipment I had worn on Dook’o’oosliid. I pulled out a pair of knee-length shorts, a long-sleeve shirt and a black fleece. I was now wearing, in winter, the same outfit that I had worn to ski the last strips of snow in the summer.

Skiers experienced spring-like temperatures this February in the Sangre de Cristo Range. [Photo] Taylor Boyd

Skiers experienced spring-like temperatures this February in the Sangre de Cristo Range. One threat to these ecosystems is “dust on snow.” Dust from the southern Colorado Plateau blows to the Rocky Mountains, where it reduces snow surface albedo and causes decreased snowmelt yields. [Photo] Taylor Boyd

We trekked between the aspens and pines through snow that more closely resembled freshly poured cement. Chunks of warm snow glommed onto the bottom of our skins, forming masses that we had to remove every twenty minutes. As we rounded each switchback through the timber, more and more members of the team removed their outerwear: like the mountain over time, we were shedding layers. I thought about additional impacts that climate change would have on these kinds of landscapes: how the historical artifacts that reside in alpine environments–implements left behind by hunter and gatherer societies from thousands of years ago–would become exposed as slopes erode and alpine glaciers and icefields retreat and shrink. The warming temperatures also bolster insect infestations and create more hospitable environments for other pathogens that will have substantial impacts on vegetation. Delicate, high-alpine lake ecosystems will see flora and fauna extinctions due to increased algae growth. This will likely mean that sacred sites, where medicine is gathered or where offerings are made, will die alongside these changing ecosystems.

The warm snow gave way to sastrugi-crusted ridges as we slid past the tree line. The sun glowered a dark, red-orange on the ridges around us. With each step, thin layers of snow scraped away to reveal strips of rock and yellowing grass. We reached a knoll overlooking the valley. This weather did not seem right. I looked out over the landscape and envisioned again that I was visiting the bedside of a sick relative. A feeling of fear overcame me as I thought about what would be left to share about this place in my lifetime. But just then, Connor began his welcoming song in Lakota to thank the mountains. I stood in silence, watching the grass flutter with each gust of wind.

Once Connor finished, I began singing. In the year since our visit to Dook’o’oosliid I learned the two songs that Anderson shared with me in the Hooghan. The songs gave me the tools to introduce myself to mountains. Our voices were loud and broke through the fluttering wind to the ridges above. We each had grown more confident in our cultural connections to these landscapes, and our songs exuded that confidence. Just as the skis beneath my feet had come to feel like extensions of my body, the words and tones of the song felt as though they were a part of me. “Sa’ah Naaghai at’e, Bik’eh Hozhoon go at’e, shil ni ya hey at’e.” Living the path of harmony and balance with these mountains–I finally understood how those Navajo words connected to my experience.

As the words of our sacred mountains left my lips, images from that first backpacking trip filled my mind, not only with how much had changed within this landscape, but also, within me. In ceremonies I saw the power of these mountains to heal; in my own mountain adventures I saw their power to end life. I thought of my attempt at karaoke of our traditional songs the year before as a way to find balance between these realities. But until this moment, singing this song, I never responded to the mountain because I didn’t know how. The mountain songs also afforded me a chance to say thank you and goodbye to my grandparents in a way that was meaningful in my own life. The teachings that they passed to me formed another link in our long-standing connection to this place, reminding me of my role in this continuing cycle of seasons that I now stood within.

IN THE TRADITIONAL NAVAJO worldview, time and the course of human history is not linear–instead, it is an undulating cycle marked by the passing of the seasons and the waxing and waning of the moon. We as people and a society are changing at a faster rate than the natural world that we inhabit, and the markers of seasons remind us of the differences in these time scales. Navajo creation stories speak to the integrity of the seasons and emphasize the importance of winter to our survival as a people. The creation stories are only told in the winter so as to respect all the animals who hibernate during that time. The connection that I built to these seasons through skiing has provided me the opportunity to connect more deeply to these stories.

In the story of the Hero Twins, Monster Slayer (Naayee’ Neizgani) and Child of the Water (To Bajishchini) were brought into existence to save humanity from extinction by the monsters that roamed the earth. Once all the most dangerous monsters were vanquished from the world, the Hero Twins were left to deal with the less dangerous ones. The Cold Woman, Hak’az Asdzaa, was still alive. The twins saw how she forced animals to flee into hiding, covered rivers and streams with ice and made it impossible to grow corn or melons. The twins knew that the woman lived on the northern slopes of the northern sacred mountain, Dibe Nitsaa, far above tree line in the crevasses of the mountain where the snow used to stick year-round.

Monster Slayer, the more dangerous of the twins, set out to kill Hak’az Asdzaa. As he ascended, the twisted trees and shrubs gave way to the stacked shale and snow high on the mountain. At the top he stumbled upon a gaunt old woman sitting alone on the north-facing ridge, her complexion as pallid as the snow. Her entire body trembled with cold. Snow buntings circled above in the mist–messengers that she sent each autumn to broadcast the coming of winter storms. As Monster Slayer approached, he announced that he was there to kill her to relieve humans from suffering her winters each year, and then he drew his bow.

Hak’az Asdzaa looked up at Monster Slayer. She told him that he may kill her or let her live–she did not particularly care as she, too, suffered in misery. Her eyes locked with Monster Slayer. But, she grumbled, if he truly cared about people who will live in this world, he would mind the consequences of killing her. If she were to die, the earth would never stop being hot. The land would dry up from exhaustion, as there would be no season for it to rest. The springs and rivers would stop flowing, as the snowpack would no longer supply them. People would starve as the plants they eat could not get water.

Monster Slayer lowered the bow and pointed at the woman. Snowflakes landed on his arm. If what she had said was true, the Cold Woman served an important purpose. Monster Slayer began scrambling down the slopes of the mountain back to the valley below. Upon his return he informed Child of the Water what he had learned.

Dibe Nitsaa (Hesperus Mountain) is where the Hero Twins met Cold Woman, per the Dine Creation Story. In Alpinist 64, Necefer wrote, The Hero Twins embodied two personalities.... Naayee' Neizghani (the Monster Slayer) was an impulsive and aggressive risk-taker. To Bajischini (the Child of Water) was deliberate and cautious, and he often pulled back [his twin from] dangerous endeavors. The dueling personalities... were required to accomplish what they were born to do--save humanity. [Photo] Charly Neuwiller

Dibe Nitsaa (Hesperus Mountain) is where the Hero Twins met Cold Woman, per the Dine Creation Story. In Alpinist 64, Necefer wrote, “The Hero Twins embodied two personalities…. Naayee’ Neizghani (the Monster Slayer) was an impulsive and aggressive risk-taker. To Bajischini (the Child of Water) was deliberate and cautious, and he often pulled back [his twin from] dangerous endeavors. The dueling personalities… were required to accomplish what they were born to do–save humanity.” [Photo] Charly Neuwiller

Each time I enter the world of the Cold Woman, that realm far above tree line among the hard, wind-crusted snow, I reflect on this encounter of the Hero Twins. What went through Monster Slayer’s mind when he learned about the full extent of Cold Woman’s presence in the world? Today I see Cold Woman dying a slow death from climate change. How will we all, distinct cultures and people on this planet, be able to address the complicated and precarious changes needed at a policy and behavioral level? What are the bonds of understanding and love that we need to build in order to keep the Cold Woman alive?

[This Wired story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 71 for all the goodness!–Ed.]