Visiting a Glacier — Before They’re All Gone

DSC_0137.jpgThe Melting Point
Whether or not you believe in global warming, the fact remains that a vast majority of the world’s glaciers are shrinking.

At 11,235 feet, Mount Hood measures as the tallest peak in Oregon. Inside the offices of the Timberline Mountain Guides, Joe Owens and Phil Bowker introduce themselves to our one-day climbing class. Coincidentally, both guides are originally from Ireland, and between the two, they’ve scaled summits all over the world.

Our group of 10 sits on benches, decked out in fleece and equipped with crampons and axes. Mountaineering is one of those activities that requires a lot of gear. We all look extremely professional.

Early tomorrow morning we will return to this room, and head up Mount Hood in the dark. There will be one major difference, though: While the rest of the class will attempt to reach the summit, my destination will be the White River Glacier.

White River is one of 11 glaciers on Mount Hood, and, according to data compiled by Portland State University, it’s already lost 61 percent of its volume. Whether you believe in global warming, or insist that climate change is a figment of Al Gore’s fevered imagination, compare aerial photos of just about any glacier — including White River — throughout history. The planet’s ice masses are definitely retreating to higher elevations, away from the sunlight. To put it in the most elemental terms, there’s less white than before.

According to PSU geology professor Anthony Fountain, alpine (as in mountain) glaciers in particular are making significant changes to the planet’s sea levels. “These guys are melting like crazy,” says Fountain, whose research team studies glaciers throughout the American West. “Right now, they’re making the most significant contribution to sea level change, other than thermal expansion of the seawater.”

Although the planet is definitely growing warmer, Fountain’s team has conducted studies in Antarctica, and found that glaciers at the bottom of the world are neither growing nor shrinking. “They are in wonderful equilibrium,” he says, adding, “[but they’re] kind of the exception to the rule.”

Antarctica aside, the vast majority of the world’s tens of thousands of glaciers are undeniably receding. Here in the United States, glacial melting is an accepted fact. A new study from the National Climatic Data Center indicates that 2006 was the nation’s warmest year in history. Glacier National Park in Montana has 27 glaciers remaining out of an approximate 150. By mid-century, it’s estimated that nearly all of the park’s glaciers will be gone. Some studies are predicting that by 2100, ski season in the US could run only from Christmas to President’s Day, under the best scenario.

Which is why I’m here at White River. It’s easy enough to view a glacier from a plane, but some part of me wants to see one up close, within the confines of the Lower 48. I want to feel the cold under my boots and descend down into the belly of an ice mass hundreds of years old — before it disappears into the photo archive.

By the time my glacier expedition meets up at 4:30 a.m., the other groups have already departed for the summit. My guide Jon Bates, another TMG employee, double-checks my gear and hands me a helmet lamp.

Guides get to climb to the summit of Mount Hood every week, he says, so glacier tours are more fun for them.

We climb inside a Sno-Cat and chug up the permafrost of the Palmer ski run, the treads easily navigating the crunchy snow. Halfway up the trail we encounter Phil and some of the folks from yesterday’s class, walking back down the slope with glum expressions. “They turned back,” observes Jon. I never find out why.

Weather is often the key factor. My trip here was postponed for two weeks because of snow and rain.

“You could come up,” Steve Baldwin, the guide company’s owner, had told me over the phone. “But it’d be like being inside a ping-pong ball.”

Fortunately, today is supposed to be clear skies. The Sno-Cat stops at 8,500 feet, the top of the Palmer Ski Lift, and lets us out. We hike up toward the summit another 200 feet, then put on our crampons, cut across the slope laterally, and step onto the White River Glacier.

I immediately notice the distinct odor of sulfur, which seeps from fumaroles in the main crater above us, the gases staining the rocks yellow. Although the mountain hasn’t erupted in a few hundred years, it’s still technically a volcano. Comforting thought.

I look back at the buildings far below. They look like Monopoly pieces. Over time, the glacier has carved out four moraines of churned-up dirt and rocks, which finger their way down to the tree line. You don’t have to be a geologist to realize the ice mass we’re standing on was once two-thirds larger.

“The old-timers around here will tell you it used to go all the way to the lodge,” says Jon.

It’s difficult to find anyone at Mount Hood who doesn’t believe in global warming and glacial retreat, because they’re all on mountains every day, and they see it for themselves.

Yesterday, Joe told our class that he had been climbing in Ecuador, and that the glaciers there are shrinking in part because of deforestation. If there are no trees to trap the tropical warm air, he said, it simply rises up the mountains and melts the ice.

The snow-crusted ice surface feels soft to the touch at first, but it’s surprisingly difficult to grab with a glove. I scrape up a handful. The crystals are huge, and it looks like I’m holding a pile of diamonds. Jon explains that the water molecules are larger than if the snow had formed in clouds, because they’ve been melted and refrozen.

“On a windy day, it’s really tough,” he smiles. “Goes right in your face.” Don’t bother eating it, he adds. The black specks are volcanic soot.

Jon points to the west, and we see a dark triangular shape looming on top of the cloud layer, the shadow of Mount Hood created by the rising sun. It’s amazing how perfect the triangle is, as if somebody had drawn the lines with a ruler.

He ropes us together, about six feet apart. If someone slips and falls, the others will dig in with their axes, feet, and hands.

A few years ago, locals conducted a test up near the summit. They dressed a sack of potatoes in Gore-Tex clothing and tossed it down the slope. Within mere seconds, a lasergun clocked the sack’s speed at 90 miles an hour. In other words, if you’re not on a rope and happen to slip, you have about one to 1.5 seconds to somehow pin yourself to the mountain, or you’re toast.

Our crampons crunch across the surface, we drop down into a bowl, and suddenly there is nothing except white on all sides and the jagged peaks above. It’s a perfect Thoreau-John Muir moment — nature’s exquisite solace at 8,000 feet. The only sounds are rocks tumbling down a nearby moraine, loosened by the morning warmth and kicking up puffs of dust as they bounce down the mountain.

Each day, a glacier appears slightly different, altered by wind, snow, sun, and the natural slow process of sliding down the mountainside. According to Professor Fountain, Hood’s glaciers will move, at the most, 30 feet a year. This is what some climbers jokingly refer to as a “Congressional pace.”

We continue across to a crevasse, a razor-blade gash created by the glacier’s persistent downward motion. Snow fields don’t have them, because they don’t move. A crevasse can potentially extend all the way to the bedrock below. They are a climber’s nightmare, especially when hidden underneath a layer of fresh snow. Mountaineering training involves a lot of crevasse rescue.

Jon unhooks himself from the line and creeps up to the lip. He pounds in an anchor and descends down about 20 feet to the bottom. The snow-covered floor feels solid, and I’m allowed to check it out.

The first thing you notice when you’re inside a crevasse is how blue the ice is — it’s a hue you’ve never before seen. This particular crevasse is small, perhaps six feet across, with walls of striated layers that have built up over hundreds of years, each one depicting a season of weather.

On the summit side, the wall is amazingly smooth, beveled and polished by nature’s freakish force. The opposite side, though, is rough and crumbling with snow, the result of less sunlight each day. The floor descends down into who knows what. In two hours, once it has been softened by the sun, this crevasse will be much too dangerous to explore.

Jon shows me how to climb back up the wall using my crampons and axe, and we continue down the slope.

The next crevasse we come to is much larger — it’s actually two gashes with a snow bridge in the center. Jon goes ahead with a rope, turns a screw into the ice wall, and anchors a safety line across the bridge and down to the bottom.

I grab onto the line and follow it down, punching my toes into the snow for support. This crevasse plunges much deeper than the other, perhaps 40 or 50 feet down to the floor. A jagged hole allows a peek even further into the glacier’s bowels. It looks supremely uninviting, dirty and lined with sharp-edged rock formations.

We clamber back out and come upon a snow cliff that’s essentially a 45-degree drop of a few hundred feet, ending on a snowy ledge maybe three stories below. Jon suggests we do some rappelling. He digs a T-shaped hole in the ice and constructs a support anchor.

Now, in the movies, rappelling down a vertical surface always looks cool. Whether it’s waves of ninja assassins, or Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction, it just seems like a fun adrenalin rush, right? You’re on a mission to bust out some political hostages, carrying a knife in your teeth.

What the movies never show, is that unless you want to leave a $200 rope behind, you have to climb back up. And unless you have the upper body strength of an ape, this is extremely difficult.

Thus, I find myself struggling back up the slope, using only my crampons and an ice axe in each hand. The snow keeps disintegrating under my boots, leaving me dangling by the axes. While I know this is standard climbing procedure for professional mountaineers, my muscles are finely tuned for typing, not hoisting dead weight up a cliff.

After much flailing, I finally crawl up and over the ledge, panting like a dehydrated marathoner right before they stuff him into the ambulance.

We take a break for water, and I ask Jon if there’s any wildlife this high up on the mountain. Not much at all, he answers, except for ravens. “They’re excellent food robbers. They’ll spy an open backpack and fly away with your sandwich.”

Fortunately, the probability of sandwich theft is low today — we’ll be down the mountain before noon.

We begin our descent and traverse diagonally across the face of the glacier, a white cliff about 500 feet high. Our boots stomp a foot deep in the snow, leaving a virgin trail across the surface. It’s exhausting.

The sun’s warmth has made the glacier more dangerous, but it also makes the mountain come alive. Water trickles underneath the snow. Insects swirl about our faces. Steam hisses from rocks dehydrating in the sun.

We pack up our gear and descend along a trail. On the adjacent Palmer run, snowboarders are “shrelping the gnar” and doing stunts off a ramp. It’s turning into a beautiful, clear sunny day on Mount Hood. Perfect for some activities, but over time, the worst possible weather in the life of a glacier.

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Fun depressing glacier facts:

According to Science Express, the world’s melting glaciers could add between four and ten inches to global sea level this century.

Because of the receding glaciers in Europe, more and more European ski teams come to Oregon to ski Mt. Hood.

Currently about five miles in length, the Pasterze is Austria’s longest glacier, and has shrunk 1.2 miles since measurements began in 1889.

Peru’s Cordillera Blanca is the tropics’ most ice-covered mountain range; its Glacier Ururashraju has retreated 0.3 miles since 1986.

Switzerland’s glaciers lost 18% of their surface between 1985 and 2000. In the Alps, the average loss has been 22%. A study by Zurich University found that if temperatures were to rise by five degrees, the Alps would become almost completely ice-free by 2100.

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(A version of this appeared in American Way magazine)