His wisdom takes the internet by storm: Fall on your butt, not on your face
By Alissa Johnson
In 1972, billy barr arrived in the West Elk Mountains to help conduct research on the East River. As summer jobs go, it was a nice alternative to working on the Maine dairy farm where he reportedly went broke the year before, working for 75 cents an hour and all the milk he could drink. The opportunity came around by happenstance—billy was in the right place at the right time, and because it sounded interesting, he said yes.
He had no way of knowing that at the end of the summer, he would stay. Or that he would make Gothic his home and live there for more than 40 years. And when he began to collect observations about snow and winter temperatures, he had no idea that he would compile decades of data useful to scientists and, now, interesting to filmmakers. Yet after four decades of living alone in a small mountain cabin, billy has become something of an internet sensation as the focus of a short film about climate change.
Something to do
When billy started collecting data in the mid-1970s, he lived in an old shack in Gothic that, by his own account, was little better than a tent.
It was 8 by 10 feet, had no insulation, and snow blew in through the cracks and coated his sleeping bag while he slept. It didn’t feel particularly dramatic at the time, but it still haunts his dreams. In the face of that long winter, billy started collecting information about the snow and temperatures so he had something to do. “I didn’t start doing it with any goals,” he says. “It was curiosity, and the curiosity never changes.”
Now, billy lives in a house he helped build on the edge of Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. He works in the lab’s business office, and he’s a striking character with a long grey beard, an unfailing love for movies and Bollywood (he watches a film every night), and a passion for cricket. And of course, billy is known for his data, which he publishes online at the Gothic Weather page. He admits to getting carried away.
“I never want to leave because I’m afraid I’m going to miss stuff,” he says. The result is an impressive record: 44 years of data on snow and 43 years of data on temperatures. He can tell you the number of record highs in any given year, the snow water content for any given month and which years saw the highest snowfall. RMBL scientists have used his data in their research, and Crested Butte residents are known to check the Gothic Weather page for the latest snowfalls in Gothic. And last winter, billy and his data caught the interest of filmmakers, intrigued by the story they tell.
A film star in the making
Morgan Heim is a filmmaker who lives in Gunnison and works for Day’s Edge Productions. When Morgan and scientist Jane Zelikova set out to make a film about climate change called End of Snow, they wanted to take a deeper look at its effects on snowpack.
“You hear all these sectioned-out pieces of the story about snowpack disappearing, but a lot of people don’t really know what that means… We wanted to make a film looking at the evidence behind the snowpack changing out here and how it is affecting people,” Morgan explained.
billy was an obvious choice. Not only has been watching the snow for 40 years, but he’s seeing the impacts of a changing climate first hand. As he states in the film, “The trend I see is that we’re getting a permanent snowpack later and we get to bare ground sooner.”
So last winter, Morgan and the film crew skied to Gothic, capturing shots of billy in his element—collecting data, watching movies in his meticulously organized home, reviewing old data, and surrounded by what Morgan called perfect snow. There were big, fluffy globs of it everywhere, not trampled by anyone, and right in the middle of it was billy.
“It is pretty astounding that he has figured out how to live out there like it’s no big deal. He has his routines and is so familiar with it. He lives in his cabin, watches his movies, takes his measurements. To me, it seems like a Zen way to live, and I don’t think that many people could do what billy does,” Morgan said.
The filmmakers found billy so compelling that they made a re-edit from his part of the film, naming the short film The Snow Guardian and submitting it to the Film4Clmate global video competition—billy, it turns out, was a hit. The film came in second place out of nearly 900 films, and Heim says it has gone viral. According to RMBL director Ian Billick, the video has been viewed just over 50,000 times on the lab’s website alone.
billy credits the filmmakers with making him seem so interesting, and takes none of the credit himself. “I just babbled,” he insisted.
Dealing with climate change realities
The Snow Guardian offers more than a glimpse into billy’s life; it also shares some of the stark realities his data reveal. During the winter of 2014-2015, for example, there were 36 record-high temperatures compared to the four to five billy would normally expect. Last winter, billy says, there were 17. Given trends like these, he isn’t particularly optimistic about reversing that trend, whether climate change is past a tipping point or not. “It may or may not be, I don’t really know. I do know that something like this takes a while to [change]. You can cut down emissions now and it will still take a while to stabilize,” he says.
Morgan appreciated that honesty. “billy has been watching on a hyper-local scale for the last 40 years, and I think it’s really significant when he says he doesn’t have a lot of hope for that changing. A lot of people would take that as… super-depressing and defeatist, but I think that’s a really important lesson to take from climate change and what we are facing. It’s a level of acceptance and learning how to be okay with that and figuring out what to do despite it,” she said. “It’s an important message. You have to be willing to accept that climate change is going to come and there are still things we can do to adapt.”
While that can feel like a heavy reality to accept, the film itself does not feel depressing or defeatist, instead drawing on some of billy’s best skiing wisdom for an insight into dealing with climate change: “Learning to fall is probably the most important thing. If you’re going to fall, sit. It’s a lot easier falling on your butt than on your face.”
You can view The Snow Guardian and the trailer for End of Snow at endofsnow.com and on Vimeo.
Oh, and billy? He has no plans to stop collecting data, and now, his first movie under his belt, he’s “waiting for Bollywood to call me.”