The Glaciers are Melting
I remember one Wind River trip in particular that really brought this home to me. In about 1980 I went on a 12 day backpacking trip into the northern Wind Rivers with my wife's nephew Lon. In those days everyone doing any serious hiking in the Winds always carried an ice axe; it was just something you needed on a regular basis.
10035, Grinnell Lake and Peak, Montana
Something like this had happened to me in the Tetons several years earlier. I did slip on a very steep snowfield, while carrying a very heavy pack. If I had not had my ice axe, I would clearly have been dead.
Anyway, back to that Wind River trip. A couple days later Lon and I crossed a high, trail-less pass to get into Tibcomb Basin and I used my axe to glissade seven or eight hundred feet off the pass and down into the basin. No slips, but the axe was necessary for a safe descent.
8222, Wildflower splendor, Montana
Then, later in the trip, while hiking on a main trail we topped a rise to see that the trail on the lee side of the rise had disappeared under a huge, very steep, very icey snowfield. In order to get down at all, ice axes were an absolute essential. And all this wasn't in the early spring, it was in the middle of September when most of the snow had melted.
Foggy creek in Glacier National Park, MT. Click image to see a much bigger picture.
Even though we were climbing on large extensive snowfields on the first trip, not on any real glaciers, the glaciers are also disappearing in the Wind Rivers and all over the Rocky Mountains. This was very apparent on the long summer photo-shoot I did in 2010. It was particularly apparent in my visit to Glacier National Park that year.
In 1850 there were 150 named Glaciers in the Park. Now there are 26. Back in the 1990's the USGS was predicting that Glacier National Park would have no glaciers left at all by 2030, now they are predicting that this will happen by 2020 or even sooner. In 1850 there were 21.6 square kilometers of glaciers in the Park, by 1974 this had shrunk to 7.4 square kilometers and today there are only tiny scraps of glaciers left.
I can remember hiking the wonderful trail to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park when I was a little kid of 10 or 12. I remember thinking that the glacier was huge, that it covered the whole side of the mountain. Undoubtable this was partially the result of my memory magnifying everything I had seen as a kid. But still, when I repeated the hike in 2010, the glacier seemed to be a shred of the gigantic expanse of snow and ice that was there on my childhood hike. And in fact, Grinnell Glacier has, by official measurement, shrunk by ninety percent over the past century.
Here is a very interesting article by the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center about the disappearance of Glaciers in Glacier National Park with tons of statistics if you are interested.
The Wind River Mountains, Teton National Park, Glacier National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park are all going to be glacier-less in the next five or ten or twenty years. It's hard to predict exactly when this will happen; but even if the glaciers last twenty years, that is less than a blink of the eye in geologic time. Without glaciers these great National Parks will be very different places ecologically and scenically. The old world of glacial clad peaks is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. It all makes me pretty sad.
10045, Goose Island, soft hazy light, St Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana. Click image to see a much bigger picture.
The End of Nature is only one of McKibben's many, many books and articles that are very much worth reading. I highly recommend him.