Posted tagged ‘hazard’

ICE CAVES: Mt. Rainier and the Goat Rocks Wilderness

October 3, 2011

Interior of ice cave carved by the Cispus River in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

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.

Lower entrance of an ice cave in the  Summerland subalpine meadows of Mt. Rainier National Park

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.

Translucent walls of the Summerland ice cave

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.

Cispus River Ice Cave

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.

 A Summerland ice cave at Mt. Rainier

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.

Upper entrance of a Summerland ice cave, with a torrent of meltwaters cascading into the snowfield

Scalloped walls of a Summerland ice cave

Atop a snowfield at Summerland, showing the melting formations known as suncups

Entrance to a Summerland ice cave

Upper entrance of the Cispus River ice cave, with the Goat Rocks (remnants of an old volcano that blew its top) in the distance

The Cispus River ice cave is colored by the deep blue of compressed snow and ice, and the red tint of watermelon snow–a coloration caused by a dense concentration of algae

Sculpted interior of a Cispus River ice cave

A final view of the Cispus River ice cave, which was small enough that it may no longer exist this year

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

NORTH CASCADES SNOWSHOEING: Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker in Winter

February 28, 2011

Alpenglow on the tip of Mt. Shuksan, high in the North Cascades

Deep twilight came early high on the slopes. Karen and I had just finished photographing alpenglow on the high peaks and sky surrounding the Mt. Baker Ski Area, and had strapped on our headlamps in anticipation of the darkness we would encounter as we descended the slopes from Artist Point.

“Have you seen my Dad?”, asked a teenage girl who snowshoed up behind me. I replied that I hadn’t, and she said she had planned to meet up with him after they had taken different routes in the mountains. She, with youthful energy, had ascended a steep slope to see what was on the other side; he, with less energy, agreed that she could go alone if she agreed to meet back at the base of the slope. Well, time went by and it was soon getting dark, and she was still high above their proposed meeting place.

I asked her if she would come with us, since we were heading back to the same parking area, and she agreed. She didn’t have a headlamp, or car keys, or the necessary emergency supplies should she be stuck in the mountains after dark. We stopped and asked several groups if they had seen a man looking for his teenage daughter, but nobody had; we asked them that if they did encounter him to let him know that she was heading back to the parking area. She also called out, in case her father could hear her, but he didn’t. She didn’t have a cell phone, so I lent her my iPhone and she twice tried to call her dad, but his phone was switched off (AT&T actually has a great signal at the Mt. Baker Ski Area).

We switched on our headlamps and eventually made it to the parking area. I asked the girl to ask people in the parking lot if they had seen her dad, while I went to get our car (we told the girl that we would stay with her, in a warm car, as long as necessary).

Just before I got back with the car, the girl’s father appeared at the parking lot, clearly upset with and worried about his daughter.

It had a good resolution, but what would have been the next steps if the father had not shown up?  It turned out that the truck camper where the girl first asked if someone had seen her father was the overnight camp for a ski patrol member. He said that if the father hadn’t shown up soon, they would have quickly mounted a ski patrol search for him, including people on skis and snowmobiles. They probably would have found him quickly, but you never know.

Moral of the story?  Stuff happens in the mountains, despite best intentions. It is always good to “Be Prepared!”, as the Boy Scout motto of my youth always commanded.  When in the mountains, have a headlamp, firemaking ability, extra warmth, food, and a plan. Always. Which reminds me, I’d better add some matches to my pack …

There is a warning sign at the parking lot that is intended to scare the daylights out of winter travelers. It warns people of avalanches and cliffs, and ends by saying “You or your heirs will be charged for any rescue a minimum of : $500.  RESCUE MAY NOT BE POSSIBLE.” Good point.

Hey, this means you!

Okay, enough of the gloom. There was also a human story of joy. While snowshoeing at Artist Point, we came upon a young couple who asked me to take their picture with Mt. Shuksan in the background. I did, and the photo looked great on the LCD screen.  Then the young woman said that they had just become engaged to be married. I asked when they had become engaged, and she said “Just now!”  So we were the first to hear the happy news.  Artist Point, one of the most beautiful viewpoints in North America, was a lovely place to pop the question. On the other hand, had she said no, it would have been a long trudge back to the car.  We told them that we have now been married for 38 years and wished them well.

Okay, now that I’ve spent all my time talking about our human encounters, perhaps I should spend a moment talking about the wild nature we encountered. Actually, maybe I’ll just let the photographs speak to that. Suffice it to say that it was really cold and really windy, and we were glad to be wearing our red Antarctica parkas.

Graceful snowboard tracks descend Mt. Herman

It was simply amazing how winter sports have changed in the last two decades.  There were hundreds of snowshoers and almost no cross-country skiers, and a good share of the snowshoers were wearing little plastic MSR snowshoes that seemed to work really well. Snowboarders have taken to the incredibly steep backcountry slopes in huge numbers. Everywhere there was a 70% slope, boarders had carved graceful sloloms down the expanses of snow. I admire these fearless young boarders, especially now that I am at an age when I can break an ankle while stepping off a curb. There were also lots of winter campers; I counted 18 tents in several areas, and other people were digging snow caves like winter Hobbits.

Winter camping in the basin below Mt. Herman

It was great to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, getting away from their Facebook, Tweeting, (and blogs!) for a day.

Snow blowing on a wind train straight from the Arctic

This is me snowshoeing at Artist Point (photo by Karen Rentz)

Blowing snow on the lower flanks of Mt. Shuksan

In these snow conditions, a snowshoer would compress the snow, making it denser. Then the wind would come in and scour the loose snow around the compressed snowshoe track, leaving a raised imprint of the snowshoes.

Rime ice covered all the trees at the highest elevations

Look carefully at this precipitous slope to see the snowboard track leading down the mountain; these snowboarders have a healthy dose of crazy courage!

Sun star and beautiful blue shadows

Karen Rentz snowshoeing with Table Mountain distant

A group of snowshoers descending from Artist Point

Conifers and rime ice on the lower slopes of Table Mountain

Blowing snow on the lower flanks of Mt. Shuksan

Steam from a volcanic vent on Mt. Baker catching the last rays of sun

The summit pyramid of Mt. Shuksan at  day’s end. This mountain’s sculpturing was done by glaciers, not volcanic action.

Alpenglow turns the sky into otherworldly shades of purple and blue after the sun has set

For further information about the Mt. Baker area in winter, go to:

Mt. Baker Ski Area

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. I also have some inexpensive, smaller pieces for sale at an Etsy Website.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.