Standing before the ice cave entrance, I felt the menacing breath of the ice age upon me. Outside, the day was sunny and mild; inside the cave entrance, the atmosphere was dark, with a thin fog carried by the breeze coming down the long and icy corridor. The wind smelled of elemental rocks and ice, and carried a message of unrelenting cold.
Ice caves, as they are known here in the Pacific Northwest, occur where a creek tumbling down a mountain cuts under a snowfield. An ice cave gradually enlarges as the summer wears on, and it eventually collapses and disappears with the melting of the snowfield. The summer of 2011 was colder than normal, and there was a heavy snowpack from late mountain snows last spring, so some of the snowfields will remain and will grow in thickness with new snow in the cold seasons ahead.
The walls of ice caves become scalloped, much like the sun cups that form atop snowfields. The flowing stream, warmer than the frozen snow and ice, causes melting. And the patterns and colors are extraordinarily beautiful. In fact, I could become addicted to photographing every ice cave I found, except for one thing:
ICE CAVES ARE NOT SAFE!
The constant melting and collapsing along the route of the stream is exceedingly dangerous for humans. This point was brought home to me several years ago when my wife called and said she had been on a backpacking trip and was one of the first on the scene of a tragedy. A woman from Seattle had ventured into the entrance of an ice cave, and the roof suddenly collapsed, sending tons of ice down on her head and completely burying her. Despite the heroic efforts of hikers to dig her out using an ice axe, she was dead. This kind of tragedy has happened with regularity during the years I’ve lived in Washington State, and it serves as a warning to me.
Despite the look of my pictures here, I did not venture more than five feet into an ice cave, and I was crawling on cold earth with my feet in a frigid stream. Overhead, the ice layer was up to maybe six inches thick, and I made a calculated risk that even if the ceiling collapsed it didn’t have far to fall and wouldn’t have the momentum to kill me. To further hedge my bets, I had the camera on autofocus and autoexposure and shot blindly, by instinct, rather than trying to contort myself impossibly (and thus disturb the walls and roof of the cave) to look through the viewfinder. I used the LCD to check my results, and adjust my angles and exposures accordingly.
By the way, the beauty of these ice caves is an ephemeral beauty, since they normally disappear each year. Almost none of them have names, since they are essentially invisible to most hikers. In fact, the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington State’s Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest is the only named ice cave I can think of. These caves are off-limits to hikers because of deaths that occurred in 1998 and 2010, though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the vicinity of the ice caves so that people can see the entrances.
There is another type of ice cave I would love to photograph: an ice cave through a glacier. Mt. Rainier had a spectacular ice cave near Paradise that lasted for decades, but it disappeared in the late 1980s with climate change and the retreat of Rainier’s glaciers. This cave was immense and was flooded with an eerie blue light that I associate with nuclear reactors. Alas, I’ll have to go somewhere else to see such a sight. Perhaps Iceland.
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