February 22, 2019 | Feature
glaciers before they’re gone
a hiker’s eulogy to 10,000 years of ice
Te Moeka o Tuawe/Fox Glacier, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand
Last Year, 28 percent melted
Fox Glacier, a paradoxical drainage of ice some eight miles long, alights from the airy western slopes of New Zealand’s highest mountains (where it belongs), cedes to gravity, and allows itself to spill downward through valley and ravine before arriving, strikingly uninvited, in a rainforest just above sea level.
Standing before its terminal face, confronted with substantially more ice than I had ever seen, it was hard not to marvel at its sheer mass—which is funny given that Fox, like most glaciers, is considerably smaller than it has ever been. The park rangers drive this point home with a littering of road signs starting miles away, delineating the glacier’s past extents. After driving three miles beyond the line of 19th century extent and walking the extra mile past the terminus of the glacier in 2000 to reach what remains, it became quite clear that what appears as monstrous today is, on the whole, rather pathetic.
Standing there, I was nagged by the thought that by attempting to see the glacier while I still could, I was the reason it was disappearing. Part of it, anyway. Tourism accounts for nearly one-tenth of global carbon emissions, with the bulk of that pollution coming from transoceanic flights—precisely my means of travel to New Zealand from the opposite side of the world. Did I deserve to see Fox Glacier if I was complicit in its retreat? I stood there in a landscape of indescribable hardness, fluidly sculpted by the glacier, and I was selfish and I was angry and I was awed. I watched it melt.
Conness Glacier, Inyo National Forest, California
2012, 90 percent melted
According to the United States Geological Survey, the vast majority of Americans have never seen a glacier. They are something to be read about in newspapers or ogled at on the green screen of nature documentaries, but not regarded—as they should be—as sources of drinking water or founts of irrigation and electricity. Abstract, unreachable, they are to be discussed with scientific reverence but not witnessed. For most of my life, I was part of this silent majority. The first time I hiked a glacier, I didn’t even know I was looking at one.
I was a teenager, hiking in the High Sierra, east of Yosemite. I was with my dad and my brother, with the breeding mosquitoes of early August and the black bear trailing the lakeside behind us. We were on the trail to Mt. Conness, past Saddlebag and Greenstone Lakes, to the alpine cirque hanging above at 11,000 feet.
California’s drought had yet to settle into its five-year residency and, despite the late summer sun, the snowpack was brimming. The bowl we were in, vacant aside from our echoes, was ramparted by a parabola of granite that rose for another 2,000 feet. Suncupped snowfields mottled these slopes, cementing at improbable angles to what I assumed was the talus below.
It was only later, while crunching on a post-hike carrot and consulting the topographic map in the parking lot, that I realized the basin I had been in less than a half-day earlier was host to Conness Glacier, the largest glacier in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Sourdough Glacier, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
2014, 42 percent melted
Probably America’s most famous collection of glaciers, Glacier National Park is a bit of a misnomer, and not just because only two dozen glaciers remain of the original 150. Even before they had melted, Glacier was not the Lower 48’s most glacially active region—not even the most glacially active region in the Rocky Mountains; Wyoming’s Wind River Range claims that prize with over 100 glaciers remaining, covering 10,000 acres in ice.
A few years after traveling to Conness, I went backpacking in the Wind River Range, commonly called the Winds, a thoroughly remote piece of wilderness the size of Rhode Island. Accessing the high peaks of the Winds is hard work. Here, in the great upthrust of the Continental Divide, the air is thin, the topography scales grandly, and the weather is unforgiving year-round. After juddering down a four-wheel drive track for two hours, I shouldered a 55-pound pack and trod off from the headwaters of the Green River for a week in the backcountry with my father and brother. On our second day we met a camo-clad man named Dean, a Wyoming Game and Fish employee who, accompanied by his dog, was tracking bighorn sheep. We saw no one else for the rest of the week.
We did see glaciers. After following Clear Creek Canyon to Slide Creek, crossing the saddle, and carrying over the avalanche debris, we came to stand at the edge of the proglacial Baker Lake, cradled in the flanks of 13,120-foot Klondike Peak. A break in the hail afforded a view due south toward J Glacier, a solitary, shimmering fish scale of an ice patch perched on the mountain’s distant face. But Baker’s source loomed much closer: Sourdough Glacier.
Glaciers are often called rivers of ice, and it was not until I saw Sourdough, uncloaked by snow, that I understood why. Some glaciers, like those of Alaska’s western fjords or the Karakoram, are so long and gentle and consistently fed by tributaries that they resemble great continental rivers—frozen Colorados or Columbias. But this glacier was not such an outflow drifting unhurriedly seaward. Sourdough bounded downstream, a cataract of jumbled ice blocks, thousands of broken igloos hurled below by an angry mountain. Testament to its unrelenting flow, the depths of untold crevasses fissured the surface, itself a strange milky blue. I stood there for a minute or an hour, huddled in my ski jacket and staring wordlessly until the summer sun was rudely shoved aside and another hailstorm swept in.
Nisqually Glacier, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
2016, 26 percent melted
Six hundred miles northwest of Wind River. A couple years later. Ideal mountain weather. These mountains—the Cascade Volcanoes, North Cascade Range, and Olympics—harbor six times more ice than Wyoming. The elevation of the peaks, their high latitudes, and the near-constant precipitation from the winter months steadfastly resolve themselves into hundreds of glaciers across Washington state, more than anywhere else in America aside from Alaska. Sun-drenched, shorts against snow, I was ascending alongside one.
Mount Rainier, by far the most prominent peak in the continental United States, is attempted from a base camp on the stratovolcano’s southeast shoulder. I was on my way to this camp via the Muir Snowfield, a 3,000-foot headwall rising out of the wildflowers of Paradise meadow. Directly east of Muir Snowfield is Cowlitz Glacier, frequently hidden from hikers by the spine of Anvil Rock. To the west, the snowfield drops off vertiginously into the canyon of Nisqually Glacier, a massive tongue that collects itself from the crater’s rim and tumbles into upper icefall before eventually coursing briskly through another four miles of igneous rock.
Part of the Nisqually’s draw is its visibility to tourists who make the drive to the Paradise Inn. But seeing the glacier is not the same as hearing the glacier. Climbing a 30-degree slope is a rhythmic process: the metronomic scuff of boots on snow, the steady pant of your climbing partners struggling against the lactic acid in their thighs. As I made my way alongside the Nisqually, this rhythm was periodically interrupted by a cavernous wail—deep, resounding, speaking on geologic time, unconcerned with onlookers.
Placing the exact source of this sound proved impossible. Each time the glacier creaked and groaned in protest against the sun, there was never a hint of rockfall, calving, or flash flood to explain the emanation. Organ-like, each crevasse its own pipe, the glacier played disjointed and inharmonious notes without fear of discovery. For most of the day I labored upward, humming to the tune of splintering ice somewhere near me, only occasionally stopping to make sure that an extra-large rumble didn’t signify an impending avalanche.
Haupapa/Tasman Glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand
Last Year, 17 percent melted
New Zealand, 32 times smaller than the contiguous United States, has 10 times the number of glaciers. The nation’s largest, Tasman Glacier, runs for 15 miles from the heights of the Southern Alps to the relative flatlands of the Mackenzie Basin. Three miles wide and 2,000 feet thick, the glacier single-handedly covers over 25,000 acres in permanent ice sheet, nearly three times the area of ice cover in the whole Wind River Range.
After a serpentine drive along the Tasman River, the road comes to an end behind a hillock of rubble, the glacier’s terminal moraine. Scrambling up this 300-foot tall debris pile provides your first view of the Tasman Glacier and its terminal lake, where meltwater runs off the glacier and pools behind the moraine. The lake is huge, over five miles long and thousands of feet deep, with boat tours consistently milling around the most recent crop of icebergs. The lake is also brand new; before 1990, there was only ice.
Few people make it onto the Tasman, and even fewer to the glacier’s eastern flank, which requires boating across the terminal lake. But in New Zealand, a case of beer is a valid form of currency. And on a misty fall morning, it bought me and a friend a ride from a cruise operator across to the Tasman’s lateral moraine, where I splashed off the bow, wet my Gore-Tex through knee-high runoff, and began picking my way across shoreline boulders.
That night, we pitched our tent by a pool of meltwater on the moraine overlooking the terminal face of the glacier. Tasman’s calving face rises 160 feet tall, an ice wall of skyscraping proportions. Though the surface of the lower glacier is covered in rock, the ice of the terminus is exposed. It is not a uniform white. Marbled geodesically, Tasman’s ice is a candied rock, carbonic striations banding in one spot, while the royal blues crystallize elsewhere.
In the morning we ventured onto the glacier—the first time in my life I had actually stepped atop one. Each crevasse was no longer a line of shadow in the distance but now a very present danger, a potential plunge dozens of feet into a canyon of eerie translucence. And when we emerged back on the moraine—exclamatory, exhilarated, and a bit relieved to be walking on solid rock—I noticed that the entire face of the glacier had peeled off during the intervening hours and was floating helplessly: hundreds of house-sized wontons floating in a glacial soup, destined to warm, to melt, and to be swept away.
Te Moeka o Tuawe/Fox Glacier, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand
I returned to Fox Glacier a month ago, during summer in the southern hemisphere. Not quite one year had elapsed since I last visited. The glacier was still there. It was still impressively large, a frozen tendril reaching from mountains to sea. And while I stood rooted before the terminal face, still dwarfed by ice and rock, it was nevertheless impossible to miss the reduction in the glacier’s mass, another row of ice cubes taken out of the tray.
On the opposite side of the world, on the roof of America, the same is happening. My dad spent a summer in the Winds 30 years before I went there with him. We stood on the same ridgelines. We largely saw the same views, glaciers included. Thirty years from now, if I take my son or daughter back, they will stand, a speck on a summit, and see mountains and canyons and rivers and cliffs; they will see the sun rise (still east) and the sun set (still west); they will see bighorn sheep and wildflowers and alpine lakes. And I will point toward Sourdough Glacier, but they will see no ice.