Boom! A large chunk of ice struck the valley floor shattering into thousands of pieces. The sound is always loud as it resonates through mountain valleys. I remember hearing this rumbling on numerous occasions. Many underestimate the sounds of a glacier receding.
My job as a guide was to take people to see these places to provide experiences. I took people ice climbing, on interpretative glacier walks, and guided many to mountain summits. Watching these landscapes change made me much more aware of the world.
However, there came the point in which bearing witness to a changing climate, and understanding its impacts forced me to reflect on my place in the world.
The first time I felt awe was in the mountains. The first time I felt small and insignificant was in the mountains. The first time I felt really alive was in the mountains. Climbing was my passion, and when I turned 18, it turned into my career.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and one of the pioneers of mountaineering, calls mountaineers “conquistadors of the useless.” When George Mallory, one of the first to attempt a climb on Everest, was asked about why he wanted to climb the highest mountain in the world, his response was simple, “because it is there.” That mountain would later take his life.
There is no benefit to humanity in climbing these mountains, although it is an incredibly challenging endeavor. These feats are purely for self-fulfillment. It does not benefit society that there are continually more extreme feats being accomplished by athletes. However, climbing can be very formative.
The reality of the sport is that we often travel to the places where these pursuits happen. We contribute – through our carbon emissions – to the problem of changing weather patterns that is plainly witnessed in the high alpine environments.
I lived for the feeling of being present, being totally aware. There is something that happens to the human body when the consequences of a mistake could be serious. It jolts the mind into being incredibly alert.
Moments like running away from a lightning storm, with my carabiners starting to ring and an aura of blue electrons becoming visible, are terrifying. The energy of St. Elmo’s fire, causing the air molecules to be ripped apart and the electric charge being so prevalent in the atmosphere, there is a visible glow.
These experiences jolt the mind into producing massive amounts of adrenaline. The feeling is addictive.
The more I pushed myself, the more I felt the edge of my limits. And as I pushed them, the unforgiving landscape always had consequences for my mistakes. I can still close my eyes and remember fighting to self-arrest as my friend fell into a crevasse, and my rope and gravity were violently trying to pull me into the hole in the glacier with him. I was able to stop myself as I gouged my ice ax into the snow, fighting gravity with everything I could muster.
This phenomenon is an apt comparison; as a global society, we seem to be in free fall, waiting to grab our ice ax and fight to self-arrest. Yet, as we fall, we have become paralyzed and too scared to act.
Sometimes the consequences were to endure. On another occasion, I can remember spending the night on the side of a massive cliff hundreds of feet above the ground, totally unprepared for the cold as we planned to be finished before the sunset. Yet as darkness set in, we embraced a night on the wall. Through shivering and desperately hugging my climbing partner, we made it through the night, waiting for the sun to rise. In a masochistic way, this suffering is a feeling that allows a person to feel truly alive.
We will have to endure the consequences if we do not make radical changes that will be widespread and unevenly felt. The individuals who have contributed the least to climate change will bear the brunt of its effects. We are already witnessing mass migrations caused by this phenomenon. My own thoughts, however, didn’t leave the mountain environment.
Although I never was a professional athlete, I made a life of traveling the world to climb rock and ice. Everything revolved around my next objective. I was a hedonist finding pleasure in a masochistic sport. This was made possible as I took people into the mountains for my profession.
But the mountains that defined my life were changing.
In 2013 I worked on the Fox Glacier of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Before I headed down under, I was working in Alaska in a similar role. A small group of us: Kiwis, Aussies, and a few other Americans, including myself, migrated to the small island nation.
I made a name for myself in the guiding company with bold ascents in the mountains. Scott Scheele, a friend and fellow guide, and I were the first people to navigate and cross the glacier’s lower icefall.
Icefalls are caused by a steep drop in the mountain terrain, causing the ice to flow faster and form a cracked and broken landscape. Crossing this obstacle was only made possible by a receding glacier.
The landscape was undergoing radical change, partially because of low elevation and dependence on a massive snowfall and partially because of a changing climate.
The glaciers called Fox and Franz “were always unique,” said Richard Bottomly, who worked as a glacier guide for many years until the company’s operations had to shift. “It was only the large area of the nevés, or areas of glacial accumulation, coupled with the high rainfall and winter snowfall that helped maintain them there.”
At Fox Glacier Guiding, we helped a team of glaciologists monitor the receding ice. From our measurements, the glacier receded approximately a half-mile in the year that I spent there. The glacier has continued to recede, and much of the ice that I would show to visitors has now disappeared.
Although there are many factors, it is undeniable that global climatic change is the leading cause of the recession of glaciers worldwide. As we continue to burn what some have referred to as liquid sunshine – oil, gas, and coal – we emit gasses into the atmosphere that trap heat within our planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that we will heat the earth’s surface more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with a possibility of a much more significant rise, depending on the actions we take. We are already very much experiencing the impact of the altered atmosphere, especially in the high alpine terrain.
I understood this intellectually, having studied environmental studies in my undergraduate education. However, there is a difference between reading about something and living it.
Glaciers form by snow falling in mountain valleys or any place large quantities of snow accumulate. When enough snow builds up, the pressure forms ice. If continual accumulation occurs, the body of ice becomes large enough that friction generated from the ice mass pushing down on the earth causes a small river to form under the mass. The whole body of ice starts to move. Once the ice is moving, it is called a glacier. These moving rivers of ice are some of the most stunning landscapes on our planet.
Glaciers are always melting near their terminus. They maintain flow by the amount of precipitation that falls in the nevés, the area where the glacier originates and continually forms ice. An alteration to any of the factors: the amount of precipitation that falls, the temperature, or the amount of debris on the ice; the behavior of the glacier changes. As melt exceeds the amount of ice that is formed, glaciers start to recede. The New Zealand glacier I worked on was being impacted, with a reduced amount of precipitation caused by changing ocean currents and a slight temperature rise, causing further melting at the terminal edge.
There is an old guiding adage: clients are always trying to kill themselves along with the guide.
Glaciation change is one of the first and most dramatic signs of our altered atmosphere. Mountain glaciers around the world have been receding for a long time. In the century before the new millennium, New Zealand glaciers lost 25% of their mass. However, the trend has become much more exaggerated within the last several decades. Averaged across the globe, glaciers were losing 9 inches per year in the 1980s, 17 inches per year in the 1990s, 2.2 feet per year in the 2000s, and 3 feet per year for 2010-2018. In low elevations glaciers like Fox, the change was much more dramatic.
When I worked for Fox Glacier Guiding, we would approach the glacier from a public trail.
Walking through the valley floor, it was possible to notice the glacier’s many signs in the valley. On all scales, the glacier has left its mark. The valley’s very shape shows signs of glaciation, forming the famous U-shape, which is evidence of uniform erosion. On the smallest scale, tiny pebbles can have lines carved into them from the glacier dragging them down the valley floor.
There is also evidence of climate change. The glacier left its mark from the last time it was advancing. A pile of rocks was left when the glacier was pushing all that impeded it down the valley, yet the glacier is no longer advancing. This pile of rocks is called a moraine.
In contrast to the ice, the sheer amount of rainfall allows for temperate rainforest plants to grow on the mountains’ edges, adding dark greens to the landscape. The river which originates underneath the glacier adds a dark blue hue to this valley.
Before heading out on a trip, I would outfit my clients and show them pictures of how the glacier appeared in the 1940s,1960s, and 1990s. These images showed a glacier vastly different from what they would witness.
We then would walk up the valley until we reached the edge of the glacier. This particular guiding company cut steps into the ice. Every morning a group of guides would head onto the glacier to re-carve these steps, which look like an ice staircase. As we approached, the glacier entrance was clearly marked by the guide’s work, which was designed to keep our clients safe.
When we reached our access point, I would instruct my clients on putting on and using crampons. Crampons are a piece of equipment designed to attach to the bottom of mountain boots that allow a person to walk on and climb ice.
As we would walk onto the glacier, the temperature would drop. The landscape would appear much more austere, and the way we moved would change. Depending on the trip, I would spend between four hours and five days with my clients, at times weaving off and on these rivers of ice.
Being unfamiliar, many people put themselves unknowingly at risk in the mountains. The Fox Glacier is known for its falling ice and rock. The mountains which have been held together by ice are now exposed. It was not uncommon for them to send tons of rock crashing into the valley. It was critical to know where my clients were at all times. If they wandered, they could be at risk of falling into something or have something fall on them.
As a guide, it was imperative to understand the management of terrain as it got steeper. The sheer risk of falling would require me to use ropes to prevent a slip from turning into a person tomahawking down the glacier.
There is an old guiding adage: clients are always trying to kill themselves along with the guide.
I’m not convinced that clients really understand the changes, even when a good guide educated them.
As guides, we would often take clients into features such as ice caves. It was critical to assess the ice’s stability as we entered into these zones, as collapsing ice could lead to serious injury or even possibly death if the situation were not managed. These features, while visually stunning, always eventually collapsed. Knowing when the ice was thick enough to allow people to explore is a unique skill set. When the ice was thin or cracked, it was essential not to be exposed to falling ice.
Consistent change is a feature of any glacier; however, a glacier receding changes in a more pronounced manner. Witnessing these changes as the glacier shrank, however, from a psychological perspective, was difficult. Watching the glacier recede in many ways felt like watching a relative slip into oblivion. The only apt comparison I have was watching Alzheimer’s take hold on a loved one. The fire slipped from their eyes just as the ice retreated backward into the valley. It’s a slow and painful process. I would not recognize the glacier today as it has receded, just as loved ones fail to remember at the end of life.
The recession of the glacier, according to my sources, has sped up.
“Things have changed heaps since you left,” Bia Boucinhas, a Brazilian mountain guide, friend, and former colleague, said in an interview. She described how the glacier does not even resemble the landscape that we had to memorize when we worked together as guides.
As glacier guides, there was always very open dialogue with the visitors about the changes that were occurring. We felt part of our mission as a company was to witness changes occurring in this landscape where we spent more time than anyone.
As guides, we always wondered how our clients processed the information we provided about climate change.
“I’m not convinced that clients really understand the changes, even when a good guide educated them,” according to Jonathan Hattrell, my former boss who worked on glaciers for almost 20 years. “I used to convince myself that there was educational value, but I’m not sure that this justifies the carbon expenditure of overseas travel!” He described how even when he started guiding in the early 2000s, the glacier paled compared to its former self.
My own personal belief is our experiences shape who we are as people. That witnessing beauty can affect who we are. Yet, the value of spending time in the mountains is something I still grapple with.
As visitors flocked to see these landscapes destined to disappear, I always wondered if the visitors who went on the trips would be affected by witnessing the impact of humanity’s collective actions?
There are many cases in which people have changed their behavior after spending time in wild places. I am not aware, however, of any of my former clients changing their behavior because of their time witnessing climatic change impacts.
Tourism is bigger than just people’s experiences. The industry is essential to the global economy. Internationally is a $7.6 trillion industry. One in ten jobs depends on this industry globally. In the United States, outdoor recreation is more important to our GDP than oil and gas extraction and hard rock mining combined.
On one level, this industry’s economic impact is a rationale to invest in renewable energy and the conservation of landscapes. On another, it is important to acknowledge that these activities have a massive environmental impact.
I do not know if we are ready as a society to make the radical changes that will be required to come out of this moment in history without wiping these landscapes into a distant memory. Yet, I desperately want to remain hopeful.
As I continued to watch these landscapes change, I couldn’t help but feel that there was more to life than taking predominately wealthy white men to the tops of mountains. Many traveled into these landscapes in pursuit of ego fulfillment. I felt there was more to life than fulfilling the egos of others.
I had fallen in love with these places. At the time, I wanted to spend my career climbing. Yet there was a nagging sensation that I ought to be doing something different, do something more.
Today I find myself in the halls of academia. Far away from the mountains, I am living in a city of innovation. Enrolled in classes like Renewable Energy, Environmental Policy, and Environment and Development, I find myself engaging in thinking through solutions to the challenges we confront. I find hope in gaining understanding, even if that understanding only illuminates the complexity of this issue.
Climbing mountains is the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Confronting climate change requires the same simplicity. As a global society, we need to put one foot in front of the other to move our world to be more in tune with the so obviously broken limits. Although incredibly complex at the most basic level, there is an apt comparison. As we ascend towards sustainability, it becomes increasingly difficult. Yet the reward of reaching a society in tune with the world is undoubtedly the most beautiful summit possible.
If we reach this summit before these landscapes are altered beyond recognition is yet to be seen. I have decided to dedicate my life to this pursuit. Even if I am not entirely sure what sacrifices that will entail. My heart understands that the mountains are a refuge for the human soul, and beauty has its own merit. These places which may have already met their demise are worth saving. If no other reason than their beauty.