Global Warming and Wilderness Travel

This is an updated version of the first article I ever wrote which was circulated on the internet. In fact, this article may have been one of the first articles ever written about global warming and posted on the internet. The year was 1994 and the internet was still in its infancy. I taught a clinic on the dangers of global warming during the fall of 1994 at the Boeing Alpine Club. Some engineers in attendance took my article and posted it on their newly created "Boeing Alpine Club" website.

global warming

I actually began teaching a section on the hazards of climate change as part of my Wilderness Skills courses back in the late 1980’s. Unfortunately, even today, few folks realize the harm being inflicted on our environment by climate change and the severe harm that may be inflicted on local communities’ right here in Washington State. But if you spend a few years traveling on or near glaciers as I have done, the rapid rate of change is much easier to see. This article tells about changes in our local glaciers and how those changes will impact all of us.

Although few folks seem to realize it, Global Warming has already had dramatic effects on wilderness travelers here in the NW. The increase in strength and frequency of both El Ninos and La Ninas can be seen as a consequence of our global atmospheric experiment with the planet. In just the past ten years, we have endured record floods which wiped out millions of dollars of roads and trails. We have suffered record snowfalls and destructive avalanches which further damages roads and trails, not to mention people. There have also been record droughts which have caused fierce forest fires and major bug infestations. The spread of Lyme Disease to the NW may have been caused by these erratic weather patterns. Global warming has led to increased strength and frequency of wind storms, Arctic cold fronts, Pineapple Expresses and splits in the Jet Stream. Perhaps a more accurate term to describe this weather threat would be “global extreming”. It has made predicting the weather substantially much more difficult than it was just a few years ago. Right now, about the only thing we can be certain of is that the weather is going to become even more erratic, damaging and unpredictable in the coming years.

Rainier High Route (2005) Just a few years ago, I was leading a group on the Rainier High Route which traverses Mount Rainier at or above the Wonderland Trail. The alpine views are spectacular. But few people ever attempt this route due to the need for precise wilderness navigation skills. Our group was heading from Mowich Lake on the Northwest corner of the Park to Sunrise on the East side of the park. The trip takes about three to four days. And is nearly all off trial. We began by climbing over Knapsack Pass and traversing around Mount Pleasant to reach Spray Park. We spent the first night camping at the base of the Flett Glacier. The second day, we descended to what appeared on the map to be an easy crossing of the middle Carbon Glacier. The map showed a compression zone (area where the glacier slows down) which was likely to be relatively crevasse free. The map also showed that the Carbon Glacier was only 40 feet (one topo line) below the ridge we were heading for. But as we ascended the ridge and looked over, we were in for a real shock. The Carbon Glacier was more than 200 steep vertical feet below the crest of the ridge we were on. It took an entire day to find a route down and across the Carbon Glacier. But I realized that the problem with Global Warming was not merely Glacial Recession, but the loss of Glacial Mass. Our topo map had been written in the 1970’s. Thus, the Carbon Glacier, which is one of the largest glaciers in lower US and the source of the Carbon River, had lost 150 feet of thickness in just 30 years. This was 5 feet of thickness per year! At this rate, the Lower and Middle Carbon glacier will be completely gone in just 30 more years. These is an entire Old Growth Forest and an entire ecosystem that depends on the summer flows of the Carbon river for their drinking water. Whole communities of humans also depend on water from the Carbon River. How will these communities, right here in Washington State, survive when their river dries up and dies? The Carbon Glacier was talking to us that day. Hopefully we will someday learn to listen.

Climbing Mount Rainier(1999)… For 20 years, I have taught courses in Glacier Climbing at Bellevue Community College. As part of this three month long course, I bring groups up Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier. In recent years, the outings have been getting progressively more difficult due to Global Warming. Weather patterns have become more erratic. Wind speeds have increased. The Glacial Nevi has melted sooner in the year exposing sections of hard glacial ice which is much more hazardous to climb. Unlike the nevi, you can’t kick steps in the ice. Even chopping steps in the ice offers little security as it is all but impossible to arrest a fall on a steep, icy slope. So instead we now bring both pickets and ice screws to anchor our ropes. As we climb, I show students the place where a young ranger fell to his death a few years ago on a now icy section of the route. Placing protection at this spot slows down the climb, but the students don’t mind. They needed a water break anyway. Last July during or first Rainier climb, we arrived at Camp Sherman and saw a few wands blocking off the upper fringe of the camp. Camp Sherman is located on a glacial ridge and in theory there aren’t supposed to be any crevasses there. I’ve been going up to Camp Sherman for 25 years and indeed there have never been any crevasses on the north side of the ridge. The ranger at camp said the wands were put up because a climber had discovered a crevasse in that area while digging out a tent platform. Two weeks later, I came back with our final team of BCC Climbing students and discovered that the small crevasse had grown to amazing proportions. It now ran almost the full length of Camp Sherman (about 100 yards long and in places over 15 feet across). Moreover, for the first time in all of my trips up there (I’ve climbed this route almost 60 times in the previous 20 years), we were not able to climb the route via the Corridor… another glacial ridge that is supposed to be free of crevasses. Evidently, the crevasses were now so big on the Corridor that it was impassible. Instead we ascended north of the Corridor on a route that wasn’t much better. I enjoyed seeing some different terrain. But I wasn’t happy about the cause of our change in plans. The routes are more “broken up” every year. Getting over crevasses is now a major challenge. These cracks are getting wider as the glacier speeds up. Meanwhile, the snow bridges which we have always used to get over them are getting smaller…victims of the same warming which is widening the crevasses. Last year for the first time we started experimenting with “crevasse ladders”. I would have scoffed at this idea just a few years ago. Ladders are only used on major expeditions like climbing Mount Everest. We’d be the laughing stock of the mountain if we brought one to Mount Rainier. The Rainier Guide Service has been using ladders for two years now. This year so will we.

A High Alpine Traverse (1994)I led a group on a five day outing through the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness last summer. This off-trail route is referred to as the “High Alpine Traverse”. This was the fifth time in the past ten years that I had led a trip to this area. In previous years, the mosquitoes had been so thick that mosquito suits (jackets, pants and head nets) were essential if one wished to have any blood left by the final day. Amazingly, this time there wasn’t a mosquito anywhere. At Big Heart Lake, we encountered a ranger who told us that the record drought the previous two months had killed them all off. We were ecstatic. Imagine…five whole days in the middle of summer and no bugs! It wasn’t until we got to Chetwood Lake that I began to notice another difference…we had seen almost no wildlife. No deer, no elk, no bear and most importantly no birds. We were now two days into our trip and far from any roads, cars or other people. In the past, we would be seeing lots of wildlife by now. Instead there was a strange quiet in the air. Nothing was moving. Lacking any breeze, even the trees were still. Their branches drooped from the strain of their thirst. Slowly it dawned on me that maybe the absence of mosquitoes wasn’t such a good thing after all. They were the base of the food chain (of course they look at us as the base of the food chain). No bugs meant no birds. We were witnessing first hand the silence Rachel Carson had predicted in her book “Silent Spring”. No rain also meant no plant growth and no food for grazing animals. On past outings, we had feasted on endless huckleberries. This time there were none. Unlike the other animals, we at least had food bags to fall back on. I began to look at mosquitoes in a totally different light. Instead of being merely worthless parasites, I saw them as an “indicator species” of the health of an entire ecosystem. They were an early warning system that something might be wrong…much like canaries in a coal mine or spotted owls in an old growth forest. We got to Tank Lakes and found that many of the smaller ponds had dried up. The massive snowfields of previous years had all but disappeared. This reminded me of an outing a couple of years earlier in about the same area. I was leading a group up Mount Hinman. We climbed up to the Hinman Glacier and were shocked to discover that the lower glacier had completely melted away. It is still shown as a glacier on the topo map, but it is now a barren boulder field with a small lake in the middle of a steep canyon. It was nice to be out there for several days without the need to wear a bug suit. But our comfort had come at a terrible price for the rest of the wilderness. Tank Lakes are perched at 6000 feet, just above timberline on a high plateau. That night was pitch black. The stars shown brilliantly in the Eastern sky. But they faded in the west, obscured by the dull glow of Seattle plainly visible from a hundred miles away. I understood the connection between those city lights and the absence of mosquitoes. Over consumption of energy is a major cause of global warming. But I don’t understand why those lights have to be on at three in the morning. Those lights prevent folks in town from seeing the stars at night. I realized that night there are a lot of other things people can not see if they stay down there in town too much. I was glad I had climbed up to this high place. But because I could now see things more clearly, I wasn’t glad about the absence of mosquitoes.

A Holiday Ski Tour..(1999)My wife and I went skiing with her sister and husband over the holidays. This past year we went to Lake Wenatchee State Park. While we were out skiing, the wind picked up and a big storm came in. After we were done skiing, we drove out to Highway 2 and found a big traffic jam going Eastbound. A driver going westbound said that cars were lined up all the way to Stevens Pass, almost twenty miles away. The Pass itself was closed due to avalanches. No one knew when it might open again. Being the experienced person I thought I was, I decided to simply go the other way through Leavenworth and take I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass instead. We went over Blewett/ Sauk Pass in a snow storm. By the time we reached Cle Elum, the winds were blowing cars right off of the road. We heard on the radio that I-90 was closed so we decided to stop and get a bite to eat at a local restaurant. The waitress informed us that I-90 had been closed for hours. Traffic was being diverted at Ellensburg and thousands of holiday motorists had been stranded. The couple sitting next to us had a two-year old boy who was critically ill. They were from Spokane and had been attempting to drive to Children’s Hospital in Seattle when the storm hit. The father was now on his cell phone trying to line up a helicopter or airplane out of Yakima. Because of the bad weather, he wasn’t having much luck. The four of us wound up spending the night on the floor of a Red Cross Shelter at a local Elementary School (together with several hundred other people). I never found out if the little boy made it to Children Hospital. I wonder if his parents understood what had really happened with that storm and why. That trip reminded me that it’s not just wilderness outings that have become more erratic. Global Warming is making everything more challenging. Extreme, unpredictable weather affects everyone and everything.

Global Warming is caused by several factors. The main ones are:
1.       Increases in carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.From driving cars, heating houses and industry.
2.       Increases in methane gas.Caused primarily by beef production and the family dog (there are now almost as many dogs and cows on the planet as people… each cow puts off 20 times the amount of methane as each person). There is also a complex feedback loop associated with melting of the Canadian permafrost. This will release even more methane into the atmosphere and doubling the methane problem in the next twenty years.
3.       A reduction in conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen.This reduction is caused by the destruction of our planet’s forests. Each tree converts enough carbon dioxide for 100 people. Unfortunately, we have now destroyed over 90 percent of the world’s forests with most of that destruction having occurred in the last 50 years. Despite the slick ads by Corporate America, the truth is that our forest practices are not sustainable over time. This is because a forest is much more complex than a crop of corn. Tree farms cannot resist fires and bug infestations like the original forest. They are therefore almost certain to fall victim to catastrophe in the next century. Moreover the forest has a growing season over 200 times longer than a crop of corn. Our current use of pesticides is therefore doomed to failure with the only winners being the same corporate criminals who created this mess in the first place. In the long run even they will lose. There is no way to get around the first law of ecology… “everything is connected to everything else”
4.       Carbon Dioxide conversion is also being reduced by holes in the Ozone layer, which has killed of much of the plankton which are the base of the food chain in the ocean. This is dangerous because the loss of oxygen due to fewer trees and fewer ocean plants may lead to less ozone, more ozone holes and even greater loss of trees and ocean plants ( a kind of downward spiral which will result in a planet fit only for cock roaches).

It should be noted that none of these problems have to do with over population. Instead they have to do with over-consumption by a very small percent of the planet’s population… namely Americans…As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us!”. Americans consume goods and create global warming gases at a rate which is 10 times greater than any one else. This is why the rest of the world looks at us as a bunch of hypocrites… We want them to stop logging in Brazil, yet we have logged dramatically more of our trees than they have of theirs. Even worse it is our desire for Hamburgers that is bankrolling rainforest destruction to begin with. Potential solutions include Mass Transit (anything else should be looked at as mass suicide); Become a Vegetarian…this is good for both your health and the health of the planet.(Read “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins or attend a local Earth Save potluck for more information on this important topic); Getting informed & Getting involved. Corporate criminals can only get away with destruction through public ignorance and apathy. Read a lot of books. Join the Sierra Club. Support environmental candidates. Write your Representatives. Make it clear to them that we’ve got to end the corporate welfare policy of giving away the public’s trees for pennies on the dollar. The reason so many people now support a “zero cut” policy is because folks are finally starting to realize that our trees are worth much more to us standing than if we cut them down (a fact any squirrel already knows).