This article appeared in Climbing, No. 208, on December 15, 2001. The magazine did a great job producing it; there were some excellent photos. I recommend getting a hold of a copy if you can … or maybe they’ll post it on their site … ?
I am posting it now because it is playing a role in an odd little tempest in a teapot that was initiated by the Telegraph in England on Sunday. I hope to post another entry about that episode shortly.
I’m still quite happy with the article, even though I wrote it a long time ago. Obviously, the political situation has changed. The science still holds up pretty well, although I do point out a few minor errors below.
Canaries in a Coal Mine
As the Earth warms, its mountain glaciers are disappearing. How will climbers-and life-be affected?
By Mark Bowen
Topher Donahue, 29, has been climbing and hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park since his childhood. He remembers that Mills Glacier, at the base of the east face of Longs Peak, used to be covered in soft white snow year-round. Now, it reverts to hard gray ice every August.
Last September, he and some friends walked in to climb the short ice flows that form near the base of the east face. The climbs were in, but the glacier had changed significantly.
“We walked to the base of the wall without stepping on ice once,” he says. “It used to be that you walked for the last quarter-mile on ice.”
Other formerly permanent snowfields, near Jim’s Grove on the trail to Longs, and on the hills above Trail Ridge Road, now disappear completely for a few weeks every summer.
Gerry Roach of Boulder, Colorado, has climbed El Pico de Orizaba, the highest of Mexico’s three big volcanoes, once in each of the last five decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, he recalls, Orizaba’s south side was covered with soft, sun-cupped snow. Now, you can climb to the summit without stepping on snow once. He says the loss of ice is “dramatic” on all three volcanoes, and says he almost cried 10 years ago when he saw how fast it was going on Iztaccíhuatl, the third highest. “I probably won’t go back to that mountain again, it was such a mess. Everything was dripping. I don’t know whether we’ll live to see [the snow’s] complete disappearance, but it will be mostly gone in our lifetime. That’s sad, because volcanoes look prettier with a snowcap on them.”
In 1970, when Roach first climbed Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, he followed the route Edward Whymper had used in 1880 on the first ascent. By the time he returned in 1981, however, the snowfields below the prominent “red wall” had retreated to reveal what he calls “a very nasty rock slope” of slabs covered with loose rock. Thus, on about the 100th anniversary of Whymper’s ascent, his route fell out of favor, not only because of the rock slope but also the seracs and crevasses that had opened up on the shriveling glacier above. The hut was moved west to give better access to the Direct Route. Since then, even that route has changed: You used to walk straight up the tongue of the Thielmann Glacier, but it, too, has retreated, and its margin has steepened. Climbers are forced along its edge, with the Scylla of rock cliffs on one side and the Charybdis of hanging seracs on the other. The approach has been changed twice in the last year-and-a-half. Both new lines are more dangerous than the original. Continue reading →