Such a philosophy easily rubbed off on me. Mountain literature is full of accounts of the spiritual challenges encountered by climbers, how the expedition fulfills a personal need. Mountains can be mystical, mysterious and beckoning. Who can look at this panorama and not be touched by its beauty? Behind and below us, the Grinnell watershed ran northeast, sculpted by wave after wave of past glaciers that had hollowed out the valley as if a giant hoe had tilled the earth.
Flanking the hollow, the rock walls of Mt. Grinnell and Allen Mountain rose from 4, feet to 8, and 9, feet, respectively—a height on par with Half Dome and El Capitan. The ice that plowed this valley must have been over 1, feet meters thick. The unnamed creek, receiving water from Grinnell Glacier, linked together a series of chain lakes—Josephine, Swiftcurrent, Sherburne—that wandered down the valley toward the northbound St.
From our perch, the linked lakes below mimicked the giant footprints of some ancient beast. Those depressions in the landscape, like giant potholes in a prairie, reminded me of the mighty excavating power of the vast Pleistocene ice blocks, now long gone. Carving rock and carrying boulders, by the millions of tons, they pulverized rock and left moraines behind.
These huge pools of water stand in their wake. By comparison, the pair of glaciers in our view ahead were mere pockets—ice remnants—from a grander day. Still, I quickened my pace to witness what was left of the Pleistocene and the subsequent Little Ice Age. I was humbled by the sheer expanse of time and space passing by my eyes. I had balcony seats to an epoch. Along the valley floor, bordering the lakes, was a spruce forest, but up here we enjoyed alpine meadows, interspersed with aspen and scrub that shielded mountain goats and bighorn sheep, maybe even a wolf, from our view.
For now, we kept our eyes trained ahead and our voices cranked up loud—bear-proofing. Around the next bend, we spied Grinnell Falls, a four-hundred-foot cascade, close enough to hear. The glacier lay just ahead, all but its headwall hidden behind the cataract like some lost horizon. Within minutes we would stand on ice. Fagre and his team of four scrambled over the last few steps. The procession slipped into silence, a still reverence, as we entered the cirque. Instinctively, he points out features of the rock and ice like an actor reaching for the box seats.
At the far upper end of the cirque is a 1,foot meter headwall, a vertical buttress of limestone called the Garden Wall. Snow falls down the Garden Wall and accumulates on the upper slopes of the glacier, where it is first compacted. Here the ice factory begins. The sheet was thicker than a football field is long. From that headwall it takes close to fifty years for the ice to travel, like an industrial conveyor, four hundred yards to the lower lip, where icebergs calve into the lake.
And melt into obscurity. Then, the warming took hold. Now it dominates the landscape at the base of the glacier.
The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers
The lake basin covers sixty acres and is feet deep—all meltwater from the retreating glacier. Icebergs are quick to melt. Dozens of them float on the lake like outposts for penguins; the scene resembles a miniature McMurdo Sound. Leads have opened up between the bergs and the surface ice. The water there is colored a cloudy green, its light refracted differently by suspended pulverized rock in the lake—called glacier flour. At the head of a glacier, a few hundred yards above us and three hundred feet from the rock headwall, a jumble of rock blocks the size of pickup trucks are scattered on the surface of the glacier.
These huge boulders fell off the Garden Wall when no one was listening. Already, the glacier has carried them a hundred yards downhill, like a load of groceries. A thin pane, it coats the surface of the water like film. Fagre and his team of four hauled those two yellow rubber rafts the five-and-a-half miles up here, to paddle across the lake to the terminus of the glacier.
With the glass ice choking their access, however, the boats are useless today. The team will have to find another way to measure the foot of the glacier. Even under ideal weather conditions, Fagre has a slim window each year to survey his glaciers. And he must hurry after that first window opens to register the coordinates of each glacier, to record the loss of ice, before autumn comes. Typically, he is left with the two or three weeks on either side of the first of September to do his job. Summer melting can happen quickly, but the snows soon follow. We jump rocks, bouncing from foot to foot, to get to it.
In tandem, they release their packs, drop them to the limestone, and retrieve water and sandwiches. Lisa and Lindsey peel off layers, down to short sleeves, revealing suntans from a summer of high-altitude research. The men including me keep their windbreakers on. Except Fagre, of course, who is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Even with the bright sun, the proximity of the glacier is like the neighborhood of an open refrigerator—ice cubes cool the air at our feet. Chris Miller is the last to remove his pack, carefully laying the rubber raft on the rock.
He is a burly blond—Nordic in looks and strength. He is the first to speak. Fagre smiles, joining in the chorus. His lament is part frustration, part jest. She has bragged on it all summer long. Or a glass of something even stronger. Chris kicks a patch of ice from our rock platform into the lake, which breaks through the windowpane ice like an oversize snowball, sending fracture lines across the expanse.
Now, with the small snow patch gone, the limestone of the picnic area is completely exposed. He fidgets with his pockets like a man who has lost his keys. On cue, his team wolfs down half a sandwich each, chugs some water, and buttons up their packs. A cloud briefly passes over the sun, and I don some gloves and pull my wool cap down over my ears.
The women are still getting a suntan. The leader steps two paces ahead of the crew. Fagre scans the ice, which stretches like a frozen field to the headwall bleachers, though triple the size of a stadium. At the base of the back cliff, huge cornices peak above the bench of ice, their tops breaking like white-tipped waves cresting over a placid sea.
Fagre spins around and speaks softly to the team. We have its position pinned down on the computer. Climb up the slope and test the snow with a ski pole. He peers over his shoulder for a moment at the glacier above us. Then he levels a gaze at the crew. How many satellite readings do you want for the first edge? The last aerial measurements are from and , and, because of glass ice, this year will only produce interim data.
Breaking with the biannual tradition, the next year will be monitored as well. This data will likely show a ten-year trend—a withering of the glacier since By now the men have traversed a hundred yards up the glacier, past three boulders sitting on the ice. Fagre traces their progress. Fingering the instrument panel, she concentrates on her task, on the minutiae, which is not daunting for a woman who is also planning the intricate details of her wedding this week.
She follows Fagre, already two hundred feet ahead, bobbing and weaving through the crevasse field again. The crevasses are bunched together. While the rock slope beneath the upper half of the glacier must be relatively smooth and gradual, here—at the lower end—the underlying bedrock is likely a tumble of rock.
The foundation may bear a hidden precipice over which the ice cracks and tears. It cascades like a frozen waterfall. The violence causes splits and fissures in the ice that widen into deep crevasses, which penetrate far down into the glacier. Fagre and Lindsey stay clear of the calving zone, skipping and hopping as if playing hopscotch over smaller crevasses near the uphill fracture area. I join them, gingerly stepping over each crevice, from snow edge to ice, from danger to safety. I would prefer to wear crampons on my feet and have an ice axe in my hands.
The crew climbs without a net. The ice ramp is dirty, littered with rocks and rubble and debris carried from the headwall as the conveyor grinds away. We climb over, around, and through an especially dark series of crevasses that border a gaping abyss. The cavern may be feet deep. Be careful here, I think. This is not the Khumbu Icefall on Everest, but deadly nonetheless. In slow motion, Lindsey hurdles the crevasses—crossing them perpendicularly—with startling agility.
She is a brunette, with long straight hair that flops each time she jumps. And she is patient with the older men. She learned her etiquette while serving as a wilderness guide in Glacier. Lindsey negotiates two more crevasses and turns around to check in with the leader. A short, yellow pole with a yellow disk on top, like a saffron mushroom, protrudes from her pack—the antenna for signaling the satellites. Lindsey retreats another six feet from us, carefully over broken ice, and lifts her eyes.
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He holds up his right hand, with index finger and thumb barely spread to indicate a smidgen. She withdraws half a step more. Make your reading. In less than a second, the pulse bounces off three satellites orbiting the Earth. Within the same second the signals reappear on her instrument panel. Technology has caught up with the ice age; here time is compressed on every level. She has a precise reading for the foot of the glacier in the blink of an eye. The Global Positioning System, developed by the U. This tracking relies on each radio signal always traveling at the speed of light, and therefore the travel times to and from each satellite change as the antenna moves about.
For example, when the edge of a glacier retreats, it may move closer to a satellite, making the travel time of the radio signal shorter. A clock records these times. Thus, the distance of the antenna from each satellite can be calculated, pinpointing the edge of the glacier. The processor on the instrument panel of the GPS unit assigns a latitude and longitude to the position. Back at headquarters Fagre and his team plot these coordinates to map the glaciers.
Fagre stares into the crevasse between Lindsey and him, lost in thought for a moment, then lifts his eyes skyward in the direction of the satellites that will read the health of his patient. The glacier may be leaving all forecasts, all predictions, in the dust. We talk about the causes of climate disruption for a minute, the global picture, a conversation more suited to New Jersey than Montana.
We have too may cars, too many coal-fired power plants, he says, which are being built weekly in the developing world and still operated with little carbon recapture in the United States. The sky holds too much carbon now. Some say ten years. If that happens, even the Himalayas and the poles could melt. I traverse the ice to take a look. Here, they prod the snow with ski poles to locate the underlying ice. The probes strike the frozen layer, resounding on each tap like a pickaxe hitting rock and echoing off the cirque with a ping. The edge is closer than they thought.
Fagre ascends the glacier diagonally to join us, and together we inspect the lateral edge, where the ice has pulled back from the moraine. The architecture of the ice is in full view. From the side, the ice is hollow underneath, like the cross-section of an igloo. Fagre is floored. He shakes his head in disbelief. Lindsey finishes her readings and joins the men, next to a square boulder carried from the headwall by the ice conveyor. She marvels at the ice cave. A river is running underneath, carving out the glacier.
The largest wastage is near the lake. The glacier has lost an estimated 30 acres 0. Next summer, Fagre plans on employing radar again to gauge the current depth of the ice. He will likely see that the front profile near the lake is narrowing, too, but by how much? In the meantime, the glacier would likely diminish—it was structurally unsound, so more calving was likely. More icebergs would certainly break loose and drown in the lake. We glissade down the gulley to join Lisa at our luncheon rock.
The snow is slushy after a day in the sunlight, and the ice pops into view, surfacing in gleaming patches like a row of miniature mountain peaks. I think of the hollow dome underneath my feet, a canopy like the ice atop a winter lake. It reminds me of those ice-capped basins in the Adirondacks of my teenage years. Only now I am not interested in going ice fishing. Or diving. We hug the lateral moraine and I feel more secure. If I crash through, I can always jump toward the moraine.
Lisa has made some beautiful photographs, covering the glacier from head to toe. She has to act fast. Like a metronome, the clock of the leviathan ticks away. I scan a few through her Nikon viewing monitor. She has captured both the headwall and the height of the icebergs by lying prone on the shelf at the toe of the glacier. Mountains and glaciers are often foreshortened in photographs, but she has given them their majesty. To reconnect with the trail for our descent to the parking lot, we have to skirt the lake, its full breadth, crossing over the exit stream.
This course, with attendant boulder hopping, gives us a better vantage to see the front of the glacier, where it has cracked and crevassed and calved into the lake. A dozen bergs huddle at the convergence, each tip rising over twenty feet high, their greater dimension—nearly feet—underneath the water surface. They are bright white, like polished ivory, and reflect the afternoon sunlight sharply, making my eyes squint.
We stop on a small promontory, gathering around our leader. He wanted to see one of our glaciers firsthand. Up to that point, the lake had just been meltwater. Very little ice floated on its surface; it was clear. Then, two days before we arrived, there was a huge calving event: The leading edge of the glacier broke, splitting off a large chunk that shattered into dozens of small bergs.
He saw some of the first days of the disintegration of Grinnell. He also made the pilgrimage to feed his mountaineering hunger. Trekking the Himalayas was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I climbed it in , one of my first American peaks. It was a perfect bluebird day. My partner and I were alone on the mountain. Fagre says they are still there.
I climbed the peak, too, via Kennedy Glacier in I recall the summit rocks, a labyrinth at the crest of the glacier. I show him the scar. We trade knowing looks. Thus began our tradition of exchanging mountain stories, like two shipmates talking about old storms at sea. Dan Fagre, it turns out, is a romantic—at least as far as mountains go. And memories of mountains usually run deep.
By now, the glass ice has opened up in places, giving way to open water. We have to head down before it gets dark. Not only is the window narrow for research each season, but, with a long approach hike, the day is short as well. Lisa and I wait for Fagre, who adjusts the straps of his medieval torture device, not that it will do any good. Dan Junior wanders our way, kicking the dirt. He has something on his mind.
Fagre stares at his young charge for a second, then lifts his eyes to the icebergs beyond. He speaks hesitantly, like a man choosing his words carefully. Is that what you want to do? His glaciers are in critical care. He slips into an uncomfortable silence. Perhaps to distract himself, he picks up another gum wrapper—refuse of the trail—and stuffs it into his shorts. From where his team stands, it is years away. Or honey in your tea.
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Fagre smiles, then shuts his lips. He is not yet free of his shackles. Before departing, the four of us scan the Grinnell amphitheater one more time, drinking in the beauty. And the tragedy. I realize Grinnell once stretched up to embrace that high sparkling ice—yet she has only one-third that reach today. I kick a stone into the lake and the wandering ripples, staring at my feet, race to mid-channel like a gyre and disappear under the glass ice. The wind now dapples the water—just at the edge of freezing.
To some a wasteland, to me the alpine zone above tree line seems alive, resolutely alive—each animal, each shrub, each ice crystal holding a niche where others would fail. That is the power of the place: living on the edge, at the limits of existence. Nature is stripped down to its essence here, and yet it prevails—apart from us. The flow of services is one way. Yes, glaciers offer direct benefits to humanity—drinking water, irrigation sources, recreation—but it is all the indirect and subtle traits that touch me today. Like the unexpected bright blue of a crevasse. I am humbled by this glacier.
I am in awe of her. Above all, a mountain offers us humility. A little less hubris may save the climate. At my feet I discover an alpine glacier poppy, a single, black-centered, orange flower barely rising out of the sharp, red argillite scree. Its existence seems improbable in such a harsh environment.
This pygmy poppy is endemic, meaning it grows in only one place on Earth—here, specially adapted to the alpine tundra of Glacier National Park. The lone poppy stands up to the wind like a mast in a storm. With its local climate shifting, its singular habitat shrinking, I wonder how long this rare species can survive. Its essential cool temperatures are wanting. The flower is rare and alone, yet it touches me. We are all in this together, I consider, and bow my head to authenticity. I rejoin the group. Lisa takes one last picture: three men with red parkas on the edge of an ice floe, as if we were polar bound.
Before I was forty, I climbed a bunch of peaks on this continent—Mt. They show the health of the planet.
Just the same, we speak loudly on the descent, forcing the conversation after a long day. Fagre has recovered from the rant about public policy, his attention returning to his twenty-seven glaciers, the jewels in his crown. Grinnell is his touchstone, one of the few he visits almost every season. In his mind, he is suspicious the melt rate will prove worse than two years ago. The hollow edges suggest it. But he is always meticulous with the data. Science should remain separate from policy, he says, his heart with his profession, his mind with the future. He stoops to pick up a discarded penny.
Fagre pauses to look back up the trail at the triptych of glaciers, then stands and spins around to face us. He tosses the penny high—it hangs in the air for a moment then lands in his palm, but he conceals the outcome. See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview Global warming usually seems to happen far away, but one catastrophic effect of climate change is underway right now in the Rocky Mountains.
Show More. Average Review. Write a Review. Still, Fagre and his team are undaunted, with a strong sense of urgency. The following pages tell of their journey, their struggle to take the measure of the glaciers before they disappear, to gauge their history and forecast their future. They shape the past and future of the world. Straddling a bright blue crevasse, Dan Fagre stands alone, dwarfed by the ice before him. It stretches for a quarter mile—nearly half a kilometer—in every direction.
But the freeze is turning to a rapid thaw. The imposing alpine glacier, launched years ago by a cooling climate, is heating up. Cubes and blocks are crumbling: Small streamlets drain the ice. Fagre, a government scientist, has climbed 3, feet meters to take the pulse of the melting colossus. Still huge by human dimensions, Grinnell Glacier is one of the last Rocky Mountain giants.
However, before man lit a modern match on this continent, it was more than triple that size. Otherwise, the ice field looks about the same as it has since the dawn of industry. Blinding white snow and dull ivory ice cover most of the cirque, from headwall to foot, except for the distant moraines—the exposed rock rubble at the edges. The retreating white glacier has left a brown and barren apron about its periphery. High and low, Grinnell is a study in contrast.
Below its foot is silver: Its toe produces a steady stream of glistening ice water that flows over black rocks. From there, the stream joins the St. At both ends of the watershed—alpine and arctic—the ice is slipping away. I have traveled from my home along the foothills of the New Mexican Rockies to Montana to write a profile on Dan Fagre, the leading glacier expert in the country. For years, I have written about water—topics from sailing to canoeing to diving—but now I return to my first passion: mountaineering.
Peaks and glaciers have always meant solitude and freedom to me. More recently, the melting of the ice fields has been troubling: What will the loss of all that alpine water mean? The search for local and immediate manifestations of warming has brought me to Glacier National Park, to learn what I can about our future. I feel like one of those lookouts on the Titanic , tracking the path of fractured and melting ice.
The distress calls will come soon enough. Fagre picks up a ball of snow from the crest of the crevasse and lifts it to his mouth. It crumbles in his hand like sand. He blows the last snowflakes into the August wind, and a fraction of them boomerang, stinging his face. The snow in the cirque, he says, given enough time, will turn to ice, and the ice to meltwater, the fresh water joining the sea.
Formerly this was a slow geologic process. But the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate. Already, the burning of fossil fuels has elevated the average temperature of the planet by more than 1. Montana snow from the s, converted into ice, is tumbling into the lake. And melting. Grinnell Glacier is just one of many to suffer. Worldwide, mountain glaciers are on a fast track to oblivion. They are expected to vanish faster than polar ice, both north and south. Grinnell and the other ice-age remnants of Glacier National Park, Montana, may be the first to extinguish at altitude—they are among the most exposed glaciers in North America and, relatively, the smallest and thus most susceptible.
In , nearly of these glaciers populated the Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana, what would become the Park in By , there were thirty-seven glaciers or fewer. In , as I tromp around Grinnell, there are twenty-seven. Fagre knows them all. Dan Fagre pronounced FAY-gree is a research ecologist turned glacier scientist. He measures their dimensions and densities. He gauges their mass. Fagre is a diagnostician. He is the official monitor of the health and lifespan of glaciers in Montana. In , he predicted that, in the face of climate disruption, the largest ice field in the Park Blackfoot Glacier would vanish by —nearly thirty years hence.
The day he explores Grinnell with me, five years into his forecast, he is reading the glaciers again to see if his timeline is correct. He may have to recalculate.
Within our immediate view are three glaciers—Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem—all of which were connected before a big meltdown split them into a triptych at the dawn of the American industrial age—the advent of factories coughing carbon smoke. Salamander and Gem are poised above the headwall at the back of the cirque like crusted snow on a rooftop. The two overhanging glaciers seem teetering for a crash—each an ice avalanche frozen in time. Stepping back from the gaping crevasse at his feet, Fagre points to these two small glaciers overhead and talks of reading the ice.
We use sophisticated technology to measure the ice, he says to me, but we can pretty much tell the health of a glacier by eyeballing it. He points upward, to the left. Fagre traces the outline of Gem and then lowers his eyes to Grinnell, sketching its features with his finger. Gem is shrinking, he continues, but the real loser is Grinnell, the mother glacier for this valley. Look at the lateral moraine, that pile of rock and rubble plowed aside by the glacier.
Fagre turns his back to me to scan the side moraine. I notice some fir saplings growing in new soil, where ice once roamed, another sign that the glacier began receding a while ago. Trees are migrating to higher altitudes, he says, turning and stooping to pick up a cellophane wrapper from the trail. Would you ever have imagined a lowland fir invading the domain of a glacier? In mountain ranges all over the world, plants and wildlife are forced higher and higher by global warming. Alpine summits are a cul-de-sac; species are running out of room.
I sympathize with his concern. The alpine landscape looks different from my memories of it, hiking here in , when nearly forty glaciers reigned. I remember ice shrouding the mountains like a white powdered wig; now the hairline is receding. I ask him about the widening distance to the moraine, whether that is his best forensic clue.
The ecologist scans the rubble and ravine; it borders the glacier like a skirt. This rough line or contour traverses the glacier, showing when there is enough snow to compensate for what has melted. It works like this: In late summer, the visible snow line looks like a meandering hemline with white snow above, which is accumulating, and exposed gray ice below, which is melting. If the snow line is at least two-thirds down the glacier, the ice mass is considered healthy—it is growing or holding its own.
Today, the demarcation is clearly up toward the headwall, only one-third down the slope. The rest is wasting away. The official field results: The glacier may be flatlining. In the months ahead I would learn Fagre had a barrage of tests and tools at the ready to profile a glacier.
He keeps a diagnostic chart on each, their vital signs carefully listed. Dan Fagre is a maverick at the U. He abhors deskwork. Two young men and two women are with him today, presently climbing the last track to join their leader on the ice. Through recent years of a conservative government, he has maintained credibility and kept above the fray by undertaking good, unimpeachable science. In return, the Bush Administration has given him a free rein, except in one regard: he is restricted from advocating any specific climate-change policy.
By law, he limits his public pronouncements to the causes and effects of global warming—the science. For him, specific remedies and policy initiatives are off-limits. Only political appointees in Washington, D. Now, in August , he is perhaps looking forward to the election. But he will not say. As coordinator of glacier-monitoring efforts in Glacier National Park, his activities range from computer modeling to GPS Global Positioning System measurements, usually atop crampons or cross-country skis.
He is a legend to his crew, most of whom are half his age—he is fifty-six—and they hike and climb at a fast pace, often with Fagre in the lead. He is stocky and fit—built like a mountaineer and rugged looking. His boyish haircut makes him seem younger than his years.
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The loss of a glacier hits me hard, he says. I like snow and ice. The Park is a crucible, a proving ground for the rest of the alpine world. Global environmental problems often appear here first—the world is watching. Besides recording glacial melting, local monitoring includes reading avalanches, forest fires, stream temperatures and volumes , and tree line changes, as conditions become more temperate at higher elevations. Not only trees and wildlife are moving uphill. Even coldwater fish are forced upstream as once-cool habitats begin to warm up. They end up in fragmented pockets of cool water.
Fagre locks eyes with me and clicks a ski pole against his boot, like a spoon rapping a wineglass.
What to Read Before You Visit Glacier National Park
He and I stand at the base of the glacier, each with a foot on the ice, the other anchored on rock. He has something to say. Fagre gently taps the yellow inflatable on his uncomfortable-looking pack. The surfeit of straps on the frame looks like something from the Spanish Inquisition. Just then, one of his crew wanders next to us. Chris Miller carries the second raft and other gear. Fagre continues, Even a major glacier like this is so small, relative to the resolution of satellite imagery, that satellite remote sensing is not accurate, so we employ aerial photography—and ground-truth anything we get from the air.
Hauling the gear. Checking every corner of the glacier. His boots are caked with snow. A healthy snowpack, after years of winter drought, means it is uncertain if the glacier will recede or grow this year, so Fagre and Miller are even more curious than usual. The current hypothesis: extinction for the glacier within twenty-two years or less. But exactly how much time is really left is uncertain.
Grinnell, one of the five largest cirque or bowl glaciers in the Park, faces north and, compared to south-facing ice, is slower to melt. Not all glaciers are equal—massive ones are termed ice sheets, remnants are named glacierets —but all have certain aspects in common.