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Sunday, August 21, 2011

North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, 2011

The 28th consecutive North Cascade Glacier Climate Project field season is underway, and I was fortunate enough to have the founder and director of the Project, Professor Mauri Pelto, include me for the glaciers in the northern sector, on the flanks of Mount Shuksan and the NE side of Kulshan (Mount Baker).
The team this season includes Pelto, his son Ben who is considering his options for graduate school, daughter Jill, soon to be a freshman at university in the NE, and Ian Delaney, headed to graduate school this Fall. As with recent years, the team will be joined by various researchers and interested people during the course of the three weeks that are required to survey the nine glaciers across the North Cascades. The glaciers are chosen on the basis of location (wet West to dry East, South to North), aspect (S facing slopes through to N facing slopes) and type (avalanche fed vs. “traditional” slope).

This marked the first time since I joined the project in 2004 that I wouldn’t meet the team to start the season at the Columbia Glacier in the Monte Cristo region. Work, timing, and a desire to see Shuksan and Kulshan up close pushed me to join at the second stop, the Lower Curtis Glacier on the SW flanks of Shuksan. From there, we’d traverse across “The Interface” to the Sholes Glacier and the mighty Rainbow Glacier on Kulshan. The Interface is where 90 million year old schist and gneiss of Shuksan contacts the one million year old andesite flows of Kulshan. So cool to have these contrasting mountains so proximate to each other, and the different terrains involved.
Did I say proximate? In mountain terms they are very close together, but in human terms, the distance makes for plenty of heavy, hard hiking. More so this season because the snow pack is at record levels for this time of year. Yep, this is the most snow seen in August in the 28 years of the Project, and probably since the 1974-75, or earlier. I was forced to park at the ski area, adding some two or three miles to the hike, but more importantly, making the logistics of hauling/resupplying from the Shuksan portion to the Kulshan portion difficult—we usually carry minimum food and such to Shuksan and then reload at the car, which is normally available between the two trailheads. This year the trailhead (Artist’s Point) is under about five meters of snow!
As anyone who lives in the Puget Sound region can attest, this has been the “no summer” summer. And herein lies the key to glacier existence and survival in our area—for it is not a huge Winter snowfall that makes for big snowpack and glaciers, it is the heat, or lack thereof, in summer that dictates snowpack survival from one year to the next (glacier positive mass balance). I think Seattle has hit 80F less than five times this year, and it shows in the North Cascades.

Aug 4-6, Lower Curtis Glacier

I enjoy hiking snow, and this year the snow is some of the best I’ve ever seen—firm, with little breakthrough/postholing. The trip in to base camp at Lake Ann was no exception, and the team arrived a few hours after me, around sunset. Measurements at the Columbia had been limited due to the snow, but this would not be the case on the Lower Curtis, and indeed, the snow allowed us to access the terminus. It was so spectacular to walk beside blue towers of ice, huge layered fins stretching a neck-straining 20 meters vertically above us—raining water constantly, and throwing stones off at random, unmoving, but never still.
The terminus has retreated laterally 117 meters since 1985, and has retreated visibly since I first saw it in 2004—some 30 meters gone in seven years—that’s 30 meters wide by 20 meters high, by a couple hundred meters long…gone.
We were joined on the glacier by a guy who follows the project via the internet, and lives in Edmonds (apparently quite a climber). He had two 12 year old boys with him (both his sons?)—very cool parent, this guy. Talk about providing life lessons and skills!
The day was spent evaluating the glacier—clearly this will be a positive mass balance year. The final numbers are still pending, but we’re looking at about plus one meter MB.
I should note the weather. Throughout the five days I was out, and indeed, what appears will continue for the entire length of the project, the weather was perfect. Marine layers would flex in and out of the area, driven by diurnal heating and weak flow off the Pacific. It made for spectacular atmosphere/land interaction, with clouds forming and dissipating all the time, every day. Evenings would usually clear off and stay clear until a few hours after sunrise. The rest of the time, clouds would shift and drift around the high peaks and glaciers, threatening nothing more than a chance at missed award-winning photos.
Fortunately, I had the camera at the ready most of the time and captured some amazing images. It is so fun to be standing in warm sun one minute, only to be engulfed by a thin veil of cloud, still able to see for miles, all objects sporting a halo of glowing vapor. Surreal. Ground mists would arise from the snow each evening, a layer about a meter deep of cloud, tinged orange with alpenglow. It’s all about the water, and this was a magical experience with the most important molecule we know.

August 6-8, Sholes and Rainbow Glaciers

The fact we had to hike all the way from Shuksan to Kulshan in a day was both a blessing and a curse. We were looking at more than 11 miles with full packs, most every step on snow. As it was, we did about eight miles, most of us dragging a bit. We recognized camping this far from the Sholes and Rainbow would likely result in less time on the glaciers; but also recognized the snow drives back the foot that’s slow, and would be so deep on the glaciers that we wouldn’t have to take as many measurements. Indeed, Mauri cut a day off our time at this site knowing we wouldn’t have as many readings to take.
It was neat to hike all the way from one mountain to the other—not many people can say they’ve done that, and it was special to start the day on Mount Shuksan and end it on Kulshan. Upon arrival in camp, we were joined by two ptarmigans. Or more accurately, we joined two ptarmigans on Ptarmigan Ridge, and they were kind enough to share their spot with us. At points through the afternoon they were literally within a meter or two of the tent, picking away at flowers and tender shoots just emerging, an oasis of food and solid ground in a sea of snow. Curiously, they were sporting summer plumage despite the fact there is only about 10% of the normal amount of dark ground melted out from the white snow. We surmised their body clocks only have so much time for mating and such, and thus aren’t driven by conditions on the ground year to year (it sounds and seems obvious, but not always so—the scientific process being what it is!).

Sunday found us making our way to the Sholes.

We discovered small areas of flowering lupine and assorted wildflowers, a welcome splash of color in an otherwise austere world of snow and rock. The Sholes was buried—one specific area that is normally blue ice at this time of year was under three meters of snow. Indeed, as Mauri noted, he’d never hiked so far to get so few probe measurements--about six to fix the position and boundaries of “the blue ice area”. We lunched at the Portals, overlooking the Sholes to the N, and the Rainbow Glacier to the S. It became obvious that we would not make it on to the Rainbow proper—it was already early afternoon, and a round-trip to get any probing or crevasse evaluation would take us hours—likley right up to dark. So we did some photographic assessment (tons of snow, terminus a bombed out snow shelf) and I agreed to come back at the end of September to do further photo comparison work.
Estimate there will be plus one meter MB for the Sholes, Rainbow unknown at this time.
We did not see the usual herds of mountain goats (normally number in the dozens), an indication the snowpack is keeping them out of their normal summer range. We did see a raptor (believe hawk) snatch up a pica or marmot, and also saw a coyote—it was running incredibly fast across a steep snow slope.
We only saw three people in the three days on Kulshan—the snow has thrown a lot of hikers off the trail. Understandable, considering there were times on the trail that I was gripping my ice-ax tightly, using the pick to get purchase on a particularly steep section of traverse.
At the parking lot Monday, the USFS asked about my car—they were about to form a search party for the owner since it had been there for so long. No need for a search party, just a shower and some clean clothes.
[There were many other interesting encounters with climbers, wanna-be climbers, and others, and of course the meaningful conversations with the team members, but I won’t go in to that here—trying to get these reports short. I will say I am so thankful and grateful to Mauri for being included on the project, and his honest and frank friendship. I am also thankful for the ability and desire to visit these places.]



1 comment:

Dan McShane said...

Thanks for helping on this project.