The melting glaciers of Koma Kulshan

Posted on: February 20, 2020


Bradley Briggs ascends broken terrain on the Coleman Glacier of Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker), Washington. [Photo] Matthew TangemanBradley Briggs ascends broken terrain on the Coleman Glacier of Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker), Washington. [Photo] Matthew Tangeman

On June 13, 2019, at about 8,800 feet on the Coleman Glacier on Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker), a snow bridge collapsed and left a gaping crevasse that pretty much shut down one of the most popular routes—and usually one of the easiest climbs—up the 10,781-foot-tall volcano. Since the route is typically navigable until at least August, it was a surprise to have its climbing season end so quickly. Any beginning climber who hoped to tag the summit of Kulshan now had to shift their plans to the south side of the mountain, which created the potential for more ecological impact on that side.

The North Cascades have long been a training ground for mountaineers destined for higher and colder places. Alpine climbers based in the Pacific Northwest have enjoyed the easy access to glaciers and alpine granite. But over the past 30 years, increasing temperatures have resulted in more ice- and snowmelt during the summers. This change, coupled with a long-term trend of warmer summers and winters with more rain and less snow, has caused rapid glacier thinning. Massive, shifting pieces of ice melt down from all sides, similar to ice cubes melting on a kitchen table. In other words, a glacier doesn't just melt backwards from its terminus, it also melts from the top, sides and bottom.

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"It used to be that you would look down crevasses and you wouldn't see anything at the bottom. Now you look down and see dirt," said Jason Martin, Executive Director for American Alpine Institute, who has summited Kulshan close to 50 times. Bedrock is becoming exposed where previously there was just ice, and the mountain is shedding rock and ice in many areas that previously might not have been as active.

This is not the first time this specific crevasse at 8,800 feet has opened up on the Coleman Glacier. In 2018, the snow bridge collapsed in August, leading to a similar closure of the north side of the mountain, albeit later in the season.

This photo shows the icefall below Colfax Peak that blocked the standard route on the Coleman Glacier. [Photo] Matthew TangemanThis photo shows the icefall below Colfax Peak that blocked the standard route on the Coleman Glacier. [Photo] Matthew Tangeman

According to the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP), the Coleman Glacier has experienced 38 meters of thinning since 1988. This process is currently causing the crevasse at 8,800 feet to get wider every year because of a steep bedrock step beneath the ice at that spot. Eventually, the ice will get so thin that this section will start to expose bedrock, and the crevassing will stop, but until then, these gaping holes will continue to affect route conditions.

According to Leif Whittaker, who has been a climbing ranger for the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie Forest Service Office for eight years, the only way to get around the most dangerous part of the crevasse is to skirt all the way to its left. Going in this direction puts you in an area known as the Roman Mustache, which is prone to falling blocks of ice and rock. The Coleman-Deming is a popular route for beginning climbers, and Whittaker found that many people seemed to be oblivious that the refrigerator-sized blocks of ice they were traversing through could crush them at any moment.

After June, as far as Whittaker knows, there was pretty much no one ascending the Coleman Glacier. The only people who were utilizing the area were those descending the North Ridge, which involves rappelling from the top of the gaping crevasse on a snow bollard or a picket. Most beginning climbers and guiding services were shuffled over to the other side of the mountain, onto the Easton and Squak glaciers. The other means to access Kulshan's summit on Coleman glacier would be to put up ladders. This solution is something the Forest Service, and people such as Whittaker, are hesitant to try because it would compromise Kulshan's status as more of a wild peak compared to mountains such as Mt. Rainier, where the popular Disappointment Cleaver route is maintained with ladders throughout the summer climbing season.

Mallorie Estenson, a mountain guide for Mountain Madness, mentioned another significant crevasse opening earlier than usual this past season on the Roman Wall, the headwall that climbs the final 1,500 feet to the summit of Kulshan. This crevasse, she said, "coupled with increased traffic from the inaccessible Coleman-Deming, resulted in a few long, uncomfortable periods of immobility high on the route and greater exposure to the possibility of a consequential fall. Some guides actually carved an ice block to make a plug to cross the crevasse. Eventually, this melted out and things got pretty hairy for climbers wishing to pass the crevasse."

Whittaker has also been keeping an eye on other areas on the mountain that he worries about for coming seasons, such as a crevasse at 9,000 feet on the Easton glacier. A few years ago, crevasses caused the area to become so broken up and impassable that that route was also closed for the season.

Rappelling over the wide crevasse on the Coleman Glacier while descending from the North Ridge of Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker). [Photo] Matthew TangemanRappelling over the wide crevasse on the Coleman Glacier while descending from the North Ridge of Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker). [Photo] Matthew Tangeman

Nowhere in the country—outside of Alaska—is as icy as the North Cascades, with around 280 square kilometers of glaciers and perennial snow and ice features, including 100 named glaciers in the North Cascades and Mt. Baker, according to the Portland State University project Glaciers of the American West. As a result, this region is more likely to experience a dramatic shift as climate change takes hold. "You will not find a mountain guide who does not believe in climate change, because they are living it regularly," Martin said.

A glacier needs to be 60 to 70 percent covered in snow at the end of the summer to maintain equilibrium, according to the NCGCP. The National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) explains, "If the accumulated snow survives one melt season, it forms a denser, more compressed layer called firn. The snow and firn are further compressed by overlying snowfall, and the buried layers slowly grow together to form a thickened mass of ice." A glacier's firn line is the elevation where this residual snow is found, and it is one indicator of the glacier's health. In the North Cascades, this line is more of a collection of patchy areas rather than a single elevation. Mauri Pelto, the founder of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, explains that the average firn line in the North Cascades has risen 100 meters in the last three decades. For glaciers that have little elevation rise, this is a death sentence.

The Coleman glacier will probably continue to get more and more complicated in the near future. It is possible that the Easton and Squak glaciers will become the more popular easy routes up the mountain in the next few years, which could pose other issues for the mountain. This year, Whittaker noticed that at Sandy Camp, the most popular camp on the Easton route, there were several new tent pads built by scraping away rocks and leveling the ground. The Forest Service also has to deal with increased human waste left by an excess of climbers on one route.

Martin, as a businessman and a guide as well as a climber, believes that the effects of climate change can also intensify human impact on the mountain by concentrating use in a few relatively safe areas.

"I do believe that there is more impact on the mountain when everyone's on the same side [of a peak]," he said. "There are a lot of independent climbers who do not dispose of their human waste properly. We've had several years, primarily because of the road being out, where the south side was just an absolute mess."

Martin has mixed feelings about putting up ladders on the route, as it would help provide access for beginning climbers and guided trips, but would also take away from the wild element of being on Kulshan.

Climbers who choose to skirt the large crevasse at 8,800 feet on the Coleman-Deming route by going far left must pass directly along the base of this red cliff band with the serac overhead, where they are exposed to both rock- and icefall. [Photo] Matthew TangemanClimbers who choose to skirt the large crevasse at 8,800 feet on the Coleman-Deming route by going far left must pass directly along the base of this red cliff band with the serac overhead, where they are exposed to both rock- and icefall. [Photo] Matthew Tangeman

On the other hand, Whittaker also pointed out that a benefit of the Coleman-Deming route being out of climbing condition allowed areas that had previously been impacted by humans, such as social trails and campsites, to recover without much interference. "Vegetation grew over social trails, animals such as mountain goats frequented the area, and very little human waste was left behind, keeping water sources clean. It's important to remember that, from the standpoint of a healthy ecosystem, climbing routes being out of shape isn't always a negative," said Whittaker.

Whittaker, as a climbing ranger, is often the one to deal with the mess left on the mountain. "We take pride in keeping the mountain clean," he said, which often means carrying out large amounts of human waste left on the glaciers. It's not a pretty job, but the reality is that Kulshan is no longer a wild mountain. It is easily accessible, and sees a large amount of traffic, especially on summer weekends. The question with how to deal with this traffic, and the widening crevasse, especially if it becomes a yearly occurrence, is still up for debate, as the Forest Service does not currently agree with idea of ladders on the mountain.

Lowell Skoog, who has been climbing and skiing in the North Cascades since the 1960s, has noticed many changes over the decades he has been exploring these mountains and glaciers. Although he has not seen firsthand the changes on the Coleman glacier, he said that ladders over crevasses would not be much different from other kinds of bridges in wilderness areas, although they do require much more upkeep.

"If we put a ladder on the Coleman Glacier, we should put a little sign at the bottom saying, 'This ladder brought to you by our collective failure to address climate change,'" Skoog said. "Think of it as a band-aid on an amputated limb."

It is hard for anyone to predict what will happen in the next few years. There are many variables as well as many people invested in these mountains. It is unclear what the future will hold for Koma Kulshan as well as other peaks in the North Cascades, but as glaciers melt, the landscape is being transformed for not only climbers but for everyone. The answer may be to change our perspective on what it means to be in the mountains.

Briggs on the upper North Ridge. [Photo] Matthew TangemanBriggs on the upper North Ridge. [Photo] Matthew Tangeman

There is the possibility that some guided groups will stop making as many summit trips, choosing instead to focus more on practicing skills in areas that are lower on the mountain. As conditions determine the summit routes entirely, climbers may start choosing to simply utilize Kulshan as a different type of mountain, ice climbing on seracs or learning basic mountaineering skills. As Whittaker said, "you don't have to go to the summit to have a good time."

In my own experiences in the mountains, I have often found that sometimes people are too focused on conditions for the sake of the summit. The desire to get to the top blinds us to the forces of nature at work all around us. Instead of seeing the intricate mechanisms that keep the balance of the glaciers we walk upon, we only see the route in question. Instead of seeing the tilting of the climate scale, we just see the weather. Instead of seeing a living, breathing ecosystem, we only see the well-worn trail. I often have to remind myself to take a step back, and remember that these glaciers have been here long before us. The physical power of the earth is so much greater than my own two feet or the desire to get to any summit.

—Ilana Newman, Bellingham Washington

This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.

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