Climbing and Climate

... while any is left.

Athabasca Glacier


As politicians get together to yet again talk about maybe agreeing to do something to start addressing global warming, it’s worth remembering that we’re in for a world of hurt no matter what we do now. It’s also worth reflecting on how we mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts are already intimately familiar with its effects.

U-notch and Palisade Glacier

U-notch and Palisade Glacier

Spending more time around glaciers these past two summers has given me a front-row seat from which to observe climate change in the form of glacial retreat. Sometimes the effects are obvious, like in the picture above of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Sometimes historical photos allow dramatic comparisons. Even when there are no photos or signposts, bare slabs and stranded moraines show where ice used to be.

Wildfire smoke obscures retreating Palisade Glacier

Wildfire smoke obscures retreating Palisade Glacier

Freshly-exposed slabs in the Tantalus Range

Freshly-exposed slabs in the Tantalus Range

Routes described in 20- and 30-year-old guidebooks have changed dramatically, with many becoming more difficult or dangerous. For example, the U-notch in the Sierra Nevada, once a popular fall ice climb, now ends in bare, dangerous dirt where a tongue of ice once extended from the Palisade Glacier to the saddle east of North Palisade. Third-class routes on Ritter and Middle Palisade have become more difficult to start as the glaciers at their bases have retreated to expose bare, gritty rock. Many classic routes on the eastern side of Washington’s North Pickets are either dramatically changed or unclimbable due to the breakup of the cirque’s hanging glaciers. Routes in the Canadian Rockies, first climbed a century ago, are completely unrecognizable today.

Remnants of Middle Palisade Glacier

Remnants of Middle Palisade Glacier

These are “first-world problems,” I know: I don’t live on a low-lying island, in a coastal city, or in parts of the Persian Gulf that may soon be literally uninhabitable, and I am not a subsistence farmer in equatorial Africa. Anyways, I will be dead before things become truly grim. Good luck to your kids.

3 responses to “Climbing and Climate

  1. This bears repetition, elaboration, focus, remembering. Sean does a fine job at a succinct and pointed presentation, and exactingly reminds us of the consequences in our own choices of routes and trips.

    Contact your legislators.

  2. Rebecca Shankland

    Well said. The pikas are also probably out of luck.

    • Sad. Those little guys are some of my favorite alpine creatures. Apparently it is also trouble for anything with summer and winter plumage or fur, whose change is driven by the length of days.

      P.S. — However much I may be neglecting the rest of my education, at least I still have plenty of use for English…

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