Article & photos by Elizabeth Kimberly
Early MayIt is early May and the birds are chirping dawn choruses and the winter rain has diminished. The disparity between the snowy alpine and the verdant lowlands is increasingly stark. Stubborn patches of snow still make the trailhead’s rugged forest road impassable and when we arrive, the snowmobile crew has finagled a winch system to pull their burly trucks and sled trailers across. We giggle at their innovation as we attach skins to our skis, complete a most unusual gear check (duct tape? steam drill? PVC pipes? avalanche gear? snacks?), and finish our coffee.
A team of 8, all members of the Northwest Cruisers Snowmobile Club, has united to help us transport our heavy, bulky research gear up the Easton Glacier and nearly to the summit of Mount Baker. In less than 20 minutes our crew has zoomed from 3,000 feet to 8,500, across cobble-filled creeks and dormant underbrush and unconsolidated glacial till and deep crevasses, all obscured by meters of snow. The undulations of the topography are softened by the snow-laden landscape and the terminus of the glacier is indistinguishable so early in the season.
Mid JuneBy mid-June, the snow bridge across the Easton Glacier’s outlet creek has melted and the low albedo of the cobbles has revealed interwoven stream channels and vegetation. The glacier is no longer accessible via snowmobile and so we approach the ice with an awkward tango of skiing, skinning, hiking, and bush-whacking. We’re wearing shorts and we are disoriented because the glacier’s foreground has morphed into a mosaic of snow, dirt patches, and moving water. “Didn’t we ski right over that waterfall just a month ago?”
We arrive at the first stake and measure 127 centimeters worth of snow-melt since its installation a month ago. There’s a spider perched on the stake, totally unaware of the climatic changes unraveling around it. We continue up the center of the glacier, moving more delicately and swiftly in certain, seemingly thin places. Sometimes we straddle deep crevasses and peer down into the frozen abysses. Like stratigraphic columns that reveal a chronology of shorelines, the cracks expose layers of snow, firn, and ice from seasons passed.
Late JulyIt’s late July and now we’re wearing hiking boots. There’s a heat-wave in the valley, the trailhead is packed with day-hikers, and we’ve replaced ski poles with crampons and avalanche gear with glacier ropes. The goals of our visit are varied, but first on our list is to install a second stream gauge and measure the creek’s velocity. What’s the diurnal variation (i.e. How much does the streamflow change as the day warms? Can we attribute its velocity changes to snow-melt and/or glacial-melt?)?
After an afternoon of drilling holes into rocks (to install our “level-logger,” a device that continuously measures the stream’s height, which we use to make a curve that relates stream stage to velocity throughout the summer) and standing in glacial streams, we find ourselves sprawled in a wildflower-filled alpine meadow, eating macaroni and cheese and talking about unscientific things. Does the full moon pull on the glacier the way it pulls on the tides?
On our second day, we return to the highest stake for the first time since May. We’re attached to the same rope, five meters apart and moving simultaneously across the ice, navigating mazes of crevasse fields and ice-fall. Sometimes we rearrange our rope’s trajectory to ensure we remain perpendicular to the visible crevasse patterns. We scan the glacier for stake 5 and Katie spots it at the mouth of a widening crack. Oops.
As we leave the glacier and return to our campsite, I baffle at the delicate heather buds waltzing in the wind. This sea of wildflowers is a product of millennia of eruptions and glaciations and burrowing marmots. I can reasonably predict what this landscape will look like when we return at the end of September, and again in February. But I can only speculate how long it will take for the summit of this glaciated volcano (currently a bright white beacon in the sky and only accessible with crampons and ice axes), to become a cirque with an alpine lake, shaded by subalpine firs and fit for hiking boots and sunset picnics.