Sunday, December 16, 2012

Glaciers Are Beautiful

Glaciers Are Beautiful

     If you had a chance to glance at "LOCAL ICE: Photographing Cascade Glaciers.....", I hope you will enjoy this follow up piece about the surface features of glaciers and those within.  It is a cold and wondrous world of textures, color and light.  Having the skills of an alpinist and photographer has enabled me to safely capture the images you will see in  this article.  
     From Alaska to the Alps, and the Cascades to Patagonia, glaciers mantle the peaks in a white and blue drapery of snow and ice.  The riven ice fields are however not without hazards, and I have enjoyed scampering across them on foot or skis to climb a mountain, or complete an alpine traverse.   From the 70 mile long (probably shorter now) Kahiltna Glacier below, to the ice rivers near Mount Blanc, and the tributary glaciers flowing off the South Patagonia Icefield; glaciers are truly amazing.  To paraphrase photographer James Balog: "they are like an endangered species that is vanishing, and any photographic documentation may be the only way future peoples will know of their existence."

Seracs on the Kahiltna Glacier, ALASKA

Climbers (lower right) traverse the Mer De Glace, Alps, FRANCE

Cerro Torre rises above seracs on the Torre Glacier, Patagonia, ARGENTINA 

     In this article I will illustrate three types of glaciers: the Icefield (covering less that 19,000 Square miles) which is a completely ice-covered area on land, with the ice flow radiating outward from the center (Patagonia), the Alpine Glacier that forms on the crests or slopes of mountains, and the Valley Glacier which is an Alpine Glacier that fills and flows down a valley, (Alaska, Alps and Cascades).  There are Icefields in Alaska, but they are not represented here.  
     From where glaciers are born high on mountains, their flow down and outward, to their terminus I have selected photos from four decades of mountaineering trips.  Let this primarily be a visual journey interspersed with some fascinating glacier trivia about the features we will see. 


     Whether a glacier begins as a small ice field that is perched on the side of a mountain, or in a basin at the peak's base, it provides an awesome spectacle to the weary climber clinging to a steep wall.  The photograph below was taken in 1978 while completing a New Route up the Northwest Ridge of the Citadel in the Cathedral Spires of ALASKA.

Northwest Face of Kichatna Spire and the Cool Sac Glacier, ALASKA

     That same year friends and I climbed a New Route on Mount Hunter, also in ALASKA.  On the climb we traversed beneath a tremendous wall of snow, its many layers representing storms of heavy snowfall.  Here the Alpine Glacier is getting its start, hoping someday to join the great Kahiltna Glacier in the distance. 

Climber traversing at 13,000 feet, Southwest Ridge Mount Hunter, AK
      Winter snowfall (video below) in the Cascades feeds our glaciers, and provides a source of fresh water.

     The North Face of Mount Buckner below, gives rise to the Boston Glacier.  At Buckner's base one can see a long horizontal crevasse at the head of the glacier and just below the rock face.  This is called the Bergschrund: a large semipermanent crevasse at the head of a glacier accumulation zone which separates actively flowing ice from stagnant ice above.

Climber descends East Ridge of Forbidden Peak, Mt. Buckner in distance, WA

Interior of Bergschrund at dawn, Cerro Stanhardt, Patagonia, ARGENTINA

     On Mount Rainier a curtain of icicles from the upper wall of a Bergschrund, frames a climber in the morning.

Climber, icicles and Bergschrund, Mount Rainier, WA

     From halfway up the mile high North Pillar of Fitz Roy in 1984, we could see the beginnings of many small Alpine Glaciers flowing off the peaks of Pier Giorgio, Cerro Pollone and Aguja Pollone.  These smears of snow and ice rasp away at hard quartz monzonite rock, and with the help of the ferocious winds create a sea of amazing spires and razor-like ridges.    

    In the distance a portion of the South Patagonian Icefield is visible.  This 6,500 square miles of ice is the largest of its kind outside of Greenland and Antarctica.  It receives 25 feet of precipitation annually, mostly in the form of snow, and creates the fearsome winds and storms famous in Patagonia.  The Icefield acts like a gigantic cooler to the moisture laden winds coming off the Pacific Ocean, that combined with the narrow land mass lying between two oceans in that region, spells difficulties for hikers and climbers.

Approaching storm, Patagonia, CHILE

     The Icefields of southern and northern Patagonia are in a state of recession (like most glaciers worldwide), with the exception of the 40 mile long Bruggen Glacier.  The Bruggen Glacier is part of the smaller Northern Patagonian Icefield, and probably due to localized climate is advancing.  In 1998 on a flight home, I was very lucky to have visibility and capture this photo of the Southern Patagonian Icefield showing the peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre in the top center of the image.


       As the glacier gets into the rhythm of flowing the ice cracks and splits, giving rise to a plethora of natural sculptures.  From the surface of the glacier to deep down, snow bridges, icefalls, seracs, cryoconites, glacier tables, dirt cones, moraines, ogives, and crevasses grace the moving ice.
     Snowbridges (although not glacier ice) are especially tricky formations for the alpine climber to cross.  They are the remains of winter snow that has blown across and covered a crevasse; eventually they melt and collapse as the summer progresses.  It is usually preferable to skirt around these unpredictable snowy spans, unless there is no other way.

Climber crosses snowbridge on Coleman Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

     Icefalls are a steep reach of the glacier with a chaotic crevassed surface and rapid rate of flow.  These jumbled masses of old snow changing into ice (firn) or dense glacier ice, are hazardous travel for climbers.  Viewed from a safe distance however, they are spectacular.  From the same return flight in 1998, I shot images of the Southern and Northern Patagonian Icefields.  The Northern Icefield provided a classic example of an icefall flowing down off the small continental ice sheet.

Icefall coming off Northernn Patagonian Icefield, CHILE

     Within an icefall are seracs: blocks, towers, or pinnacles of ice or firn formed by the intersection of crevasses.  Their sheer beauty is captivating, but playing in among them is somewhat like treading a mine field.  It matters not whether it is hot or cold out, seracs can topple over anytime.

Climber on serac, Squak Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

     On the surface of the glacier in late summer dust and morainal debris (including small rocks) are blown by the wind or transported by glacier flow and settle into depressions on the ice.  Heat from the sun causes the darker material to melt deeper into the ice creating small melt holes (cryoconites).  On the Coleman Glacier in June of 1996 there were many of these cryoconites visible.

     Later that year in October I was on the Coleman Glacier again.  It had been cold the night before, and each melt hole had a layer of ice over it.  Using Skala Black and White slide film, I captured some interesting photographs.

Ice-covered cryoconite, Coleman Glacier, Mount Baker, WA
Ice crystals in cryoconite, Coleman Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

     A rock that is left perched on an ice pillar by ablation of the pedestal and the surrounding unprotected ice is called a Glacier Table.  The first time I encountered one of these peculiar phenomena was skiing up the 22 mile long Lacuna Glacier in the Alaska Range.  It was April and the Glacier Table had a generous dollop of winter snow mantling it.

     Years later while hiking up the Mer De Glace in the French Alps, my friend and I walked past a huge one enroute to do a climb.  

Climber and Glacier Table, Mer De Glace, Alps, FRANCE

     Once the boulder slips off the ice pinnacle a Dirt Cone may form.  Rain then washes dirt down from the surrounding area and shapes the cone.  In 2008 the lower region of the Torre Glacier below Cerro Torre sprouted numerous Dirt Cones, and raging meltwater channels that were difficult to cross.

Climber and Dirt Cone, Torre Glacier, Patagonia, ARGENTINA

     As the glacier grinds away the bedrock and moves forward it creates Moraines; deposits of rock debris shaped by glacial flow and erosion.  There are Lateral Moraines, like the one below of the backpacker hiking on it, and the Blue Glacier behind.

Blue Glacier, Mount Olympus, WA

      Medial Moraines are long strips of debris on the glacier surface, usually parallel to the flow, which originate at the juncture of two glaciers.  A classic example are the ones below of the Northern Patagonian Icefield, and the Torre Glacier below Fitz Roy.

Medial Moraine on the Northern Patagonian Icefield, CHILE

Fitz Roy rises above the Torre Glacier, Patagonia, ARGENTINA

     And as if our eyes are not tantalized enough, nature creates Ogives on the glacier.  Especially visible in late summer or autumn, these arcuate bands or undulations of the surface of the glacier recur in a periodic pattern.  

Climber above the Mer De Glace, Alps, FRANCE

     What often forms a barrier to glacier travel, is rarely more than 100 feet deep, and is sometimes unnerving to gaze into?  A Crevasse: a large crack in the surface of a glacier produced by the stresses of glacier flow.  With the exception of the very large continental ice sheets, Crevasses do not reach a depth of more than 100 feet, since below that depth the ice is plastic and not brittle.  With a bit of mountaineering skill one can climb down into these cold fissures to get some cool views.

Crevasse pattern on the Roosevelt Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

Climber practices prusiking out of Crevasse on Coleman Glacier, WA

     Often in the summer after the seasonal snow has melted, it is fun to practice ice climbing in the shallower Crevasses.  Below a climber bridges a small crevasse, while I got into the best position for a photograph.

Climber in Crevasse, Easton Glacier, WA

     And once down inside I couldn't help but notice how the evening light illuminated the icy walls 

Crevasse wall, Easton Glacier, WA
     Of course on Mount Baker we do not have steel ladders going down to the glaciers; but it is a typical scene in the Alps where the alpine environment is altered and manicured to enable easier travel.

Climber descends to the Mer De Glace, Alps, FRANCE

End Zone

     On the glacier's lower reaches below the firn line, is where much of the meltwater runs off the ice.  The bare ice in late summer or early fall  disgorges any ground up bedrock material, or any objects that have become interred in the ice river.  Its like being at the county dump and watching bulldozers move around piles of garbage, but on a slower timescale.  In August of 2004 while hiking on the Mer De Glace, I observed bits of broken glass on the ice surface: the remains of beer and wine bottles thrown down onto the glacier from a hut high above and many decades before.

Beer and wine bottle fragments, Mer De Glace, Alps, FRANCE

     The snout of a glacier is usually benign, with a tapering gentle slope of ice.  But if the terminus ends above a drop off or cliff, chunks of ice may calve off and litter the ground below.  In July of 2000 the Roosevelt Glacier was such a place; dangerous to hike through with the threat of falling ice from above.

Icefall debris at snout of Roosevelt Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

     And in 2008 a lobe of the Marconi Glacier in Patagonia was spitting off chunks of ice, making travel difficult.  We also found interesting terrain along the edge of meltwater canyons, of the dry glacier.

Climber below Marconi Glacier, Patagonia, AR
Climber and meltwater canyons, Marconi Glacier, Patagonia, ARGENTINA

     Meltwater channels form on the lower surface of the glacier in summer, carrying water down in sinuous little streams and sometimes into moulins.  These meltwater holes can go all the way down to bedrock, but some don't.  On the Easton Glacier this last autumn, I climbed 12 feet down into a small one just for a photo op of the meltwater channel in the bottom.

Moulin on Easton Glacier, Mount Baker, WA
        With  crampons and an ice axe I descended into the hole.  Should have worn my rain jacket and didn't, and got very wet in the icy chasm.  It was September and there was not much water pouring in; surely that was not the case back in July and August when it was hotter.  Using a high ISO (sensitivity to light) setting on my Nikon, and a vibration reduction wide-angle lens, I was able to shoot these images hand-held without a tripod.  Reminded me of the time portal in a Star Trek episode "City On the Edge Of Forever", where the voice from the machine said to Captain Kirk: "Many such journeys are possible, let me be your guide."  As long as you know what you are doing that is!

Meltwater channel, Easton Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

     Finding pleasing colors (like the image above) at a glacier snout is difficult.  It is generally a dirty region where the ice machine is constantly releasing and dumping morainal material.  Like a pig in garbage, most receding glaciers have "their" snouts in piles of debris, or snuffling about nearby.
     Below the dark and dirty terminus of the Coleman Glacier is a typical scene in the Cascades.  Once a bit of organic material accumulates, plants can get a start.  Then a few vibrant wildflowers will colorize a drab palette.

Terminus of Coleman Glacier, Mount Baker, WA

Fireweed blooms below Coleman Glacier and Mount Baker, WA

     If the snout of a glacier is thick instead of thin, the primary meltwater stream underneath can form an ice tunnel and sometimes spectacular ice caves.  I haven't found any yet on Mount Baker's glaciers, but I'm still searching.  And if one climbs back into a large crevasse and climbers pass by, you can get an idea of how amazing glacier ice caves can be.
     Next summer I will continue my quest for unusual photographs of glaciers and their unique features.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mount Sefrit's West Peak In Winter

     So close to home and yet so hard to get to; that describes Mt. Sefrit, a craggy peak just over 7,000 feet high and just north of Mt. Shuksan.  Bordered by Ruth Creek to the north and the Nooksack River on the south, there is no trail up to Sefrit.  Like so many North Cascade gems it requires off-trail hiking through forest and some brush (less of the latter in winter when its covered by snow).  Several years ago I tried getting up to the main summit from Ruth Creek, but was thwarted by brush, rock slabs, and eventually a waterfall with a big dropoff below.  Winter I decided might be the better time to try the peak.
     That same year in early May I climbed towards Sefrit's East Ridge on skis as part of a three day ski traverse over all the peaks on Ruth Ridge and ending at Ruth Mountain.  It was hot that first day and the huge cornices on Sefrit's East Ridge didn't appear as though they would stay put; I chose to climb the peak another time.

Slopes above Ruth Creek leading to the Nachaktsen/Sefrit Saddle
     This winter we had a good spell of weather before Christmas, but somehow I didn't manage to get out much.  Then in early February another dry spell came along and I made plans to get up Sefrit one way or another.  From a summer scouting trip I discovered that a wooded spur rose above the confluence of Ruth Creek and the Nooksack River, and might be a good way to get up into the high country quickly and directly.  And although Beckey does not describe this approach in his alpine guides; even he doesn't know everything.  There were a few bits of orange flagging from hunters maybe or possibly other climbers?  And as it was June, I ran into snow quickly and didn't have any skis or snowshoes with me.
     Gil Laas had off Saturday Feb. 4th, that is without family commitments, and we made plans for an early start and one day climb of the West Peak.  I'd have liked to tried the main summit (about 300 feet higher and to the east), but the temps were looking very warm.  I figured the recent foot or so of new snow would not remain on the slopes very long in the hot sun.  Getting to the true summit would have involved traversing about a half mile of steep south-facing terrain.  So we planned on the West Peak.

Gil takes a break at 5600 feet on approach to the West Peak
    Once we had hiked about two and half miles of the Hannegan Road to the Nooksack Cirque trailhead, it was all uphill and in the woods.  We chose snowshoes for this little winter adventure, cause I didn't think we could skin much of the spur and would be mostly carrying our boards.  Gil charged on ahead breaking trail as I lauded his fine workmanship.  Our path went straight up and finally popped out on the ridgecrest below the West Peak.  The scenery was of course spectacular; Goat Mountain and Larrabee to the north, Shuksan to the south, and the perfect glistening white symmetry of Mount Baker to the southwest.  A mass of tiny metallic specs blanketed the ski area parking lot, like so many alien devices planted there.  How incongruous they seemed in comparison to the sparkling surroundings and craggy peaks of the backcountry.  And yet it was best for all that they stayed there, and we were up here.
     I dumped my puffy coat and stove into a garbage bag and left it at 5600, where if we needed it, it would be there on the descent.  No matter how fine the weather, I've found it prudent to carry these two items in the mountains in the winter.  Things happen and weather changes. Gill stripped off even more clothes as we were now marching in the sun; we figured it got up to 60 degrees that day.  On up the ridge we marched until the first rocks of the West Peaks Southwest Ridge.

Gil nearing Sefrit's West Peak
          At the first rocks we ditched snowshoes and ski poles, harnessed up, ate a snack and drank.  It was hotter than ever and the trick was to try and skirt the top edges of the steep snowfields, staying close to the rock, and not trigger any slides.  With me first (the senior avalanche poodle), one at a time we crossed the first 50 degree chute sinking into our thighs in places (no crampons today even though we brought them).  A tiny clump of Mountain Hemlocks on an arete between snowfields felt like an island of safety.  Then Gil took over and waded on up another slope to a second clump of trees; higher he could make out the ridgecrest running west to east between the summits.  The way was clear, we just hoped the slopes wouldn't slide.
Gil plows upward toward the ridgecrest
     We ditched our packs on the ridge, slung a boulder for a belay and uncoiled our 35meter 7mm Tendon rope.  It looked as though one lead might just reach the summit.  The pitch had some good bare rock where I place the occasional Stopper or sling, and patches of warm slippery snow over heather.  And although there was a very slight breeze, Gil was belaying in his T-shirt.  Some winter ascent!  At least it looked like winter, as eastward the many jagged spires of Sefrit were cloaked in snow and rime from the last storm.  In the distance Mt. Redoubt, Mt. Challenger and the Pickets were etched against a perfect blue sky.
Gil close to the summit, Sefrit's main summit in the background
     As Gil reached the top to join me, the eastward slopes started sliding in the hot sun.  It was a  place not to be.  We shouted with joy, took some photos, and slung a block for our first rappel.  We had spent seven and a half hours getting up, and still had a long ways to descend before it got dark.
The summit of Sefrit's West Peak with Shuksan and Baker
     Gil paid homage to the great ones; Nooksack and Koma Kulshan.  He thanked them for allowing us to trod on one of their lesser neighbor, and probably would have left behind some sort of human sacrifice if one were available ( a politician, tax collector or developer would have done nicely).  Instead we left a piece of nylon and began our descent.  Back down the even mushier snow, past the Hemlocks, deharnessed at the packs, snowshoes back on, and down the snowy ridge as the evening light washed over Shuksan's grand North Face and Nooksack Tower.

Shuksan in the evening
     It was the end to a fine winter day in the mountains, and I was reminded of the Scottish climber Tom Patey and one of his verses:

                                               Let the pitons rattle as we go to battle.

                                               Sound the ever ringing peal of steel on steel.

                                               Let the happy chink of the old snaplink.

                                               Echo oer the mountains and the snow.