Summer Glacier Insights and Escapades
|Sandy Glacier Cave. Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Andrew Stohner.|
by Kevin Machtelinckx
Mountaineering evokes images of vast glacial flows nestled in high mountain valleys. Spring and winter are prime times to explore glaciers. Spring is a transition period where snowpacks begin to stabilize and snowbridges are still intact. Winter is a perfect opportunity to test your cold-weather gear, when crevasses are filled and the white beast is less likely to swallow you up.
Although many of us mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest choose to hit the alpine rock in the summer, as soon as the mountainsides are liberated from snow, it’s worth remembering that some glaciers are still around. While some of us see our main activity as hiking, we don’t necessarily see the fun in plunging crampons into the flanks of these frozen rivers in 5 degrees Fahrenheit on a winter night. Summer and early fall offer excellent opportunities to visit these glaciers in more agreeable conditions. We lay out a few of these slow-moving wonders that are well worth a summer escape.
Jefferson Park Glacier
As with the other glaciers on Mt. Jefferson, the Jefferson Park Glacier was named by Ira Williams of the Oregon Bureau of Mines in 1915 (Hatch, 1917). Of the approximately 35 permanent snow and ice fields on the mountain, Jefferson Park Glacier is set in one of the most spectacular alpine areas in the Oregon Cascades. The glacier rests between two parallel moraines, which are evidence of a massive glacial retreat that was documented as early as 1917 (Hatch, 1917). In the last two decades, climbing the glacier itself has evolved. The famed Jeff Park Glacier route to the summit has gone from a straight-forward glacier trudge toward the obvious saddle to what is now a navigational quandary through a labyrinth of crevasses and bergschrunds. And the glacier continues to break up.
Jefferson Park. Photo by Outdoor
Project Contributor Lance Beck.
Sandy Glacier Ice Caves
Snow Dragon, Pure Imagination, and Frozen Minotaur. With names like these, the expectations should be high. These ice caves are found on Mt. Hood’s Sandy Glacier, about a mile uphill from the very well-known McNeil Point. In 2011, Eddy Cartaya and Brent McGregor, among others, documented and mapped the ice cave known as Snow Dragon. In the process, two additional caves were discovered, dubbed Pure Imagination and Frozen Minotaur. These are thought to be the most extensive cave systems in the contiguous United States (Chakalian, 2015). The ever-evolving tunnels of ice are being created and destroyed by the Sandy Glacier’s extremely hasty retreat from the sides of the mountain. These cave systems are temporary, and will undoubtedly succumb to the same fate as the ones in Mt. Rainier’s Paradise Glacier, which once held some of the nation’s largest ice caves before their roofs collapsed.
|Sandy Glacier. Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Tyson Gillard.|
It should be noted that, because of how precarious and fragile these caves can be, entering them should be done only after very careful consideration. In fact, in 2015, the roof of Snow Dragon collapsed, marking a sign of the continuously-changing structure of the cave system. As the average temperature of our summers continues to rise, warm air makes its way deeper into the caves, creating new openings and destroying old ones.
To attain the caves, or at least get a glimpse of them from a safe distance, it’s ideal to start from the Top Spur trailhead and follow the signs for McNeil Point. Once past McNeil Point, the trail continues upward onto an obvious rocky ridge with the trail eventually fading into the climber’s left side of the Sandy Glacier. Keep an eye out for openings in the glacier to spot the cave entrances. Getting to the caves will require knowledge in glacier travel and a sense of adventure. For most of us, seeing the Pacific Northwest’s (current) premier cave system from a respectable distance is a treat in itself.
One would be forgiven if the Wallowa Mountains in remote eastern Oregon did not come to mind when talking about glaciers. By definition, a glacier is a body of permanent snow and ice which experiences relatively slow movement, evidenced by crevasses, icefalls, and a constantly changing geometry and is formed by decades of snowfall exceeding the rate of snowmelt. A perennial snowfield, on the other hand, does not have the characteristic of movement. Oftentimes, a glacier will form if a snowfield grows large enough that part of it spans onto sloped terrain, initiating a very gradual movement of the snowpack and ice.
|The Benson Glacier circa 1992. Photo: David Jensen.|
By this definition, it is hard to imagine the Wallowas actually featuring any glaciers. However, among the Wallowa’s 131 snow and ice features, one of them is actually named by the US Geological Survey; the Benson Glacier. Situated on Eagle Cap, photos from 1920 show this glacier extending down the steep north east face of Eagle Cap and toward the aptly-named Glacier Lake. Crevasses are readily apparent in the convexities of the ice feature. A repeat photo from 1992, shows a dramatic reduction in size, with the areas that once showed gaping crevasses now only exposed rock (Skovlin, 2000). Today, the Benson Glacier is perhaps better defined as a permanent snowfield and is confined to an area of the Eagle Cap face with an abundance of shade.
Scars of a miniature ice age full of glaciers are obvious throughout the wilderness area. Moraines, tarns, and rock fields sculpted by eons of glacial grinding has resulted in a pristine landscape filled with dramatic arêtes, granite cirques and, appropriately, a number of permanent snow features feeding the Wallowa River.
The true definition of the snow and ice feature adorning Eagle Cap’s sides is best left to those willing to make the trip to see it in person. The trip to Glacier Lake, from which the Benson Glacier can easily be seen, is a 13-mile one-way trip from Wallowa Lake. Of course, for the more adventurous, Eagle Cap can also be climbed by several largely non-technical routes, which requires a good degree of fitness if done in one day.
Still alive and clinging on through torching summers, the glaciers of our beloved Pacific Northwest are as majestic as they are impermanent. Some are extinct, others are only remembered by the artistic remnants they have carved into the mountainsides we climb. If the summer heat has you thinking about calling off your hike, consider one of these cooler destinations. They offer routes to get your miles in and to appreciate the continuous battle for permanency these slow-moving ice giants wage on an annual basis.
Chakalian, Paul. April 7, 2015. Ice Cave Collapses on Mt. Hood. tinyurl.com/maz-62017
Hatch, L., 1917, The Glaciers of Mount Jefferson [Oregon]: Mazama, v. 5, no. 2, p. 136-139.
Skovlin, J. M., 2000, Interpreting landscape change in high mountains of northeastern Oregon from long-term repeat photography: Portland, Or., U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.