|Climate change is making mountains more dangerous and threatening the prosperity of the guiding profession. This spring a historic mass of ice broke off from Colfax Peak, sweeping across the standard ascent route for Washington State’s Mount Baker climb.
Photo: Kel Rossiter
Recently, Guides for Glaciers (G4G) was established, with a mission to address the issues of the changing mountain environment and its impacts on the guiding profession. G4G intends to mount an educational campaign to bring together common stakeholders in order to influence public policy and preserve the longevity and economic sustenance of the mountain guiding profession globally. The longevity of the entire guiding profession hinges on guides’ ability to advocate for climate change policy and preserve our mountain environments well into the future.
For mountain guides, our office is often glaciated terrain and that office environment is changing for the worse. Arnaud Temme, a geomorphologist and an affiliate of the Institute of Artic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, unexpectedly experienced exposed rock fall on a historically snow covered route. Temme discovered a phenomenon occurring in mountain ranges all over the world; rising global temperatures is melting permafrost and resulting in an increased danger of rock fall.1
Permafrost, a subsurface layer of frozen soil or ice, is found in the cracks of walls and is not visible to the naked eye. It is difficult to pin point, unlike other high mountain terrain like glaciers, avalanches, and torrents. Climate change has contributed to the degradation of the permafrost, which has increased the frequency of rock falls. He observed, “seven of the 63 routes [he] studied are now completely removed from any existing guidebooks, as if they never existed, because they’re too dangerous due to rockfall.”2
|Warmer springtime conditions have left the glacial chairlifts at Whistler, BC high and dry.
Photo: Kel Rossiter
Temme’s observations are not alone; mountain guides all over the globe have reported similar challenges in classic alpine terrain due to changes in the mountain environment. Researcher Ludovic Ravanel, mountain guide and one of Chamonix’s lead scientist in geomorphology, studied the July 2006 rockfall when 20 million cubic feet of rock – equivalent to the size of half the empire state building – broke off the east face of Switzerland’s iconic Eiger due to melting permafrost.3
Ravanel concluded that increased rockfall in the French Alps has drastically changed the way guides interact with their home mountain terrains.4
Observations have poured in from other locations across the globe, which agree with this sentiment. A recent account from Erin Smart
, a Mammut athlete and professional mountain guide, describes the drastic changes to the mountain in the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest and Mont Blanc in Chamonix. Similarly, Porter Fox, author of DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow
, explains that the approach to Drus, one of Chamonix’s most famous climbs “is no longer there…the permafrost that held the massive vertical slabs together melted and the side of the mountain fell off.”5
Rockfall is not the only issue for mountain guides in the age of a changing climate.
A United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report warns that over the next 50 years climate change will significantly increase the likelihood of avalanches by changing the composition of the snowpack.6
Symptoms of a warming climate will include increased winter rain events, prolonged dry periods between extreme snowfall, and the elimination of snowpack altogether. A report from the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University, New Jersey, pointed out that spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has already shrunk a million square miles in the past 45 years.7
Springtime snowpack in the Mt. Hood National Park, Oregon, has dropped 50-75% and 12 of Mt. Hoods glaciers have receded up to 60% since the early 1900’s.8
Perhaps the most drastically noted internationally is the recession of France’s largest glacier, Mer de Glace, which looses between 100-300 feet annually due to temperatures roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than a century ago.9
|The large dirt streak on the right side of this photo of Mount Rainier shows where a massive chunk of melt-loosened cliff calved off of the Nisqually Glacier, crashing onto the floor below, across a common ascent path for the Kautz Glacier Route.
Photo: Taylor Luneau
In the face of such adversity for the guiding profession there exists a gap between the effect of climate change on the profession and the actions taken to address it. There are thousands of guides certified through the American Mountain Guiding Association, yet, there is no clear path for guides to interact with and communicate about how a changing climate is directly affecting their economic and physical livelihoods. Mountain guides have regular contact with glaciers and the winter world, serving as credible witnesses and recorders of the effects of climate change. Through their work with clients and guests, guides have the ability to drive economic and environmental policy. However, the guiding profession is in great need of a platform to share their stories in order to influence public perception. G4G is calling on mountain guides, as well as passionate recreationists, to join the movement and speak up against adverse climate policy.
|Matt Kinney’s article about being a climate-change witness at the popular ski-mountaineering/guiding area of Thompson Pass AK can be found on the G4G Facebook Page.
Photo: Dan Sandberg
Both mountain guides and people passionate about getting outdoors are encouraged to join in G4G’s vision of mitigating the impacts of climate change on the alpine and glacial environments. Between your climbs and descents,consider that the prosperity of all guides rely on our ability to combat climate change and take action to protect our mountain environments (as well as the mountain towns nearby).
Guides for Glaciers’ Facebook Page is driven by your voices. Share in the conversation by adding your observations, photos, and articles to highlight climate change and its effect on the mountain, alpine and glacial environments. You can also share G4G’s message by hash-tagging your photos #guides4glaciers or #climbitchange. And you can also follow Guide for Glaciers on Instagram. Through each of us sharing our passion for the mountain world via these channels and each of us taking important personal steps—everything from lifestyle choices to letters to your elected representatives—we can work together to preserve our cherished mountain places.
Guides for Glaciers
Using climber’s guidebooks to assess rock fall patterns over large spatial and decadal temporal scales: an example from the Swiss Alps. Geografiska Annaler: Series A, Physical Geography. 97, 793–807. (The Geografiska Annaler is a journal on physical geography published monthly published by the Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography.)
Fox, Porter. Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, Rink House Productions, 2013.
O’Neil, Devon, How Climate Change is Making Mountaineering More Dangerous, Outside Magazine, Feb. 5, 2016.
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