Melt Outs

Posted on: June 8, 2022


[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 78, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 78 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Katie Ives on Pinnacle Gully, Huntington Ravine, Agiocochook, Mt. Washington, 2012. [Photo] Alan CattabrigaKatie Ives on Pinnacle Gully, Huntington Ravine, Agiocochook, Mt. Washington, 2012. [Photo] Alan Cattabriga

Icebergs in the Air

On a bright April day, a decade ago, the giant slab of ice before us had melted and refrozen into a surreal form—as if an iceberg had floated through the sky, thousands of miles from the Arctic or Antarctic Circles, only to be trapped between the walls of Pinnacle Gully, on Agiocochook, Mt. Washington, awaiting a final spring thaw. Ever since, its image has lodged in my dreams: the deep, radiant blue of the climb rippling like a mirage, a fleeting remnant of the enchantment of winter.

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There's a peculiar bleakness to Northeast hills when the seasonal melt out begins. The winter snowdrifts and rime-crusted rocks had glittered blue, green and gold, refracting the light in infinite prisms. But as the earth becomes bare again, shades of greyish-yellow and ashen-brown predominate: hues of heavy rain and leafless oaks and last summer's bleached, dead grass. Trails turn to sludge-like mud. Ice routes become sunbaked and rotten, opaque and tattered as old shrouds. Ice pillars fall and explode into shards. The sense of promise in the warming air is also a specter of loss. Far away, in East Antarctica, a giant ice shelf collapses. "A sign of what might be coming," American scientist Catherine Colello Walker tells Donna Lu of the Guardian Australia in late March 2022.

Now and then, briefly, winter returns: night blizzards re-cover the peaks with snow that seems as light as smoke and vanishes quickly in the next day's sun. One year, a sudden flood swept giant ice blocks from the river near my house and strewed them across cornfields where they gleamed, silver and indigo, like floes washed from a distant polar sea. From time to time, I walk among them in my memory, imagining myself elsewhere.

The Shattering Lands

At the bottoms of old European maps, Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land, once resembled a supercontinent sprawling across nearly a fourth of the world, its borders tinted as green as budding leaves, its interior the pale gold of early morning light. Some once believed the Earthly Paradise lay there, lush and verdant, hidden among unseen ranges. Gradually, with centuries of voyages, edges of the speculative landmass shattered off, first into subtropical islands and then frigid archipelagos where gusts blew waves against sharp rocks and icebergs drifted like floating mountains.

The real continent of Antarctica, as vast as it is, proved to be smaller (and icier) than the imagined one. For a long time, fragments of early fantasies remained on maps of far southern seas: scattered dots of nonexistent landforms mixed among actual islands, like debris from a broken ice shelf. Before the use of chronometers, navigators mismeasured longitudes of mapped shores and assumed they'd found new ones. A few fake places arose from typos or hoaxes or plots to catch plagiarists. Illusory islets became rampant amid fog, icebergs and mirages. Among these many phantom coasts were cliffs, pinnacles and mountains that will only ever be scaled in climbers' dreams.

In 1794 Captain Jose de Bustamante y Guerra of the Atrevida gazed at what he thought was a large peak—half dark with rock, half bright with snow—partway between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. He and his crew were trying to pinpoint the site of the Aurora Islands, named for another Spanish ship, the Aurora, whose sailors had spotted it in 1762 and 1774. Subsequent navigators marked the islands in somewhat different locations, and they'd come to be considered "uncertain," as reported by the Royal Hydrographical Society of Madrid. At first, Bustamante thought they'd merely seen a floating "mountain of ice," like other pyramidal icebergs they'd passed in the mist. Drawing closer, he became convinced they'd reached their goal. Some miles away, he observed another island with a snowy peak and a third one that bristled with "sharp pinnacles" of stone.

As more trade vessels traveled around Cape Horn, the reported forms and coordinates of the Auroras occasionally shifted, yet it seemed something must be there, and navigators took detours to avoid the risk of crashing into them. Then in 1820, British sailor James Weddell searched diligently throughout the entire potential region, finding only drifting kelp that hinted at the possibility of shores and fog banks that looked like delusions of land. Perhaps, he thought, icebergs had washed up against the real stone pinnacles of the Shag Rocks until they resembled descriptions of the snow-draped peaks of the Auroras. Yet if Bustamante had confused the two, it was a curious mistake to make, for the Shag Rocks were around six degrees of longitude away.

The search for the Auroras continued unabated, their existence or nonexistence described in both expedition reports and fantasy novels and in hazy accounts that blurred fact and fiction. One nineteenth-century seeker, American seal hunter Benjamin Morrell—later accused of fabricating parts of his tales, including an island he named for himself— described spending weeks trying "to discover this terra incognita," before deciding that the Atrevida sailors must have mistaken dirty icebergs for land and thus (quoting Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) given to "—airy nothing / a local habitation and a name."

Long after they vanished from maps, the Auroras remained a topic for debate. In Lost Islands, twentieth-century oceanographer Henry Stommel questioned how the skillful navigators of the Atrevida could have confused the Shag Rocks or the Falkland Islands for the Auroras—especially since they'd checked their chronometers at the actual Falklands. Did the long, storm-ridden voyage affect the carefulness of their records? If the Auroras were only icebergs or mirages, other historians asked, why did so many sailors report them in more or less the same area? Did the illusions appear because of a desire to see something, anything, amid the endless waves? "The romantically minded reader may wonder if perhaps they sank," Raymond Ramsay declared in No Longer on the Map. "There is actually no wholly satisfactory explanation for the Aurora Islands, and they remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of the sea."

Ascents of Airy Nothings

The twentieth century, as Malachy Tallack wrote in The Un-Discovered Islands, became "largely a time of un-discovery," an increasingly rapid removal of phantom places from maps, with the rise of aerial and satellite imagery. Still, a few fabled places lingered on charts even after the start of the new millennium, and Tallack suggested the remaining ones be left alone, forever awaiting their un-discovery, emblems of "hope" that mysteries still existed.

What happened to the hundreds of other un-discovered islands that dissipated into thin air? To all the flotsam and jetsam of shattered fantasies? In Barbara Hodgson's 2001 novel, Hippolyte's Island, her protagonist, Hippolyte Webb, ponders the missing Auroras: "Who would mourn these lost or sunken bits of uninhabitable rock, anyway? The navigators who christened them were long since dead." He sets out to "re-discover" them, seeking evidence of realms beyond the "prying eyes" of modern technologies. But their cliffs appear to vanish once he maps them. His hand seems to pass through their stone, as if he's merely "suspended in transparent fog," perched on airy nothings, above the rolling sea. Sailing away, he wonders what would happen if he looked for them again: Would the same shapes emerge from the mist? "Or would there be yet another world in their place?"

In his definition of islomanes, or people obsessed with islands, author Lawrence Durrell asserted (citing his friend Gideon), "It is towards the lost Atlantis that their subconscious yearns." Perhaps it's not surprising that the peaks and pinnacles of the Auroras could seem so alluring, when both mythic islands and sacred mountains have long represented thresholds between one world and the next. After all, when novelist Rene Daumal wanted to depict a portal that connected earth and heaven, he placed it on his imaginary Mount Analogue, atop a remote island where the effects of a curvature of space kept it safely invisible to mapmakers.

But I've also come to think that the idea of "airy nothings" was, in itself, alluring for the Auroras' most persistent seekers. Once a place is un-discovered, un-found, it will always be mysterious, its contours always fading like the colors of the dawn (aurora) or of the Southern Lights (aurora australis) that transfigured cold desolations of ocean, ice and snow, as many Antarctic explorers wrote, with hues of violet, rose, scarlet, gold, evocations of fleeting, mythic paradises. Something that is already lost can never be lost again.

What might it mean to climb to those summits? I've fantasized of writing a guidebook to phantom ranges, though any ice route is a land that appears and disappears, never taking an identical shape twice, leaving ghostly outlines in climbers' memories of past forms—and posing the question of which ascent might be the last. Words trace themselves like litanies in my mind: names of imagined, undiscovered places, scrawled across maps of sepia and indigo, Auroras, Sandy Island; names of real lost bodies of ice, melted as global temperatures soar, Lillian, Okjokull; names of actual lands at risk of sinking beneath waves, Kiribati, Tuvalu; names of others that have already succumbed to rising seas and intensifying storms, like the East Island of Hawaii, washed away during a hurricane several years ago; words flickering like crystals of ice and snow that sparkle and vanish and sparkle again.

Age of Un-Discovery

"It all begins with maps of bygone centuries, upon which vast territories were labeled 'Unknown Land,'" mused Hippolyte Webb. The term terra incognita contains empires of imagination, a beguiling, but misleading, phrase that hints at spaces where anything might be drawn. Behind tales of un-discovery are realizations that such long-held assumptions can be wrong, or even dangerous—reminders to seek ways to stop tracing the same patterns over and over: exploration, discovery, colonization, exploitation, devastation.

An April 2022 study published in Nature posits that if all countries actually stick to the pledges they made at the UN Climate Change Conference of 2021 and elsewhere, it may now be possible to reach the objective of the Paris Agreement: to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. A better goal would be to stay below 1.5C; even differences of half-degrees can mitigate some of the catastrophic effects of our world's warming. Yet not all variables can be predicted, particularly political ones, and this spring's deadly wildfires and heat waves remind us what's at stake. "The fear of a far worse world should spur us on, but the hope of a better one can motivate us too," observed Guardian writer Rebecca Solnit in August 2021, and she urged people to join a "great ground-swell" against the reliance on fossil fuels.

Cartography can be an act of mourning, but it can also be a means of re-envisioning the future. Far to the north, Inuit author Siila Watt-Cloutier speaks of the concept of sila as part of the Climate Atlas of Canada: "It's an all-encompassing understanding of our environment.... Sila is outdoors, sila is weather, but it also means consciousness...all that is around us.... As Inuit, we rely on the cold, the ice and snow—that is our life force up there. It isn't just about the ice itself; it's what the ice represents.... We can really teach others around the world on how to respect nature.... I think we can find solutions to this planet in peril."

That April day on Agiocochook, my companions and I climbed unroped, lulled by ice that was soft, yet still so thick it responded to each swing of an axe with the familiar, reassuring thunk that can sound like a continuation of life itself. I felt as if I were simply flowing upward, borne along by a steady tide. On the surrounding mountain, there was no visible sign of spring, yet, merely dry alpine tundra, cold wind, snow-laden rocks. But in the deep swells of aquamarine before me, the ice was already the haunting blue of a midsummer sky. A color of longing, of foreboding or of hope.

[This Sharp End is a sequel to the one in Alpinist 77, "Of Thin Ice." Some ideas and phrases are adapted from the author's 2021 book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams. The story originally appeared in Alpinist 78, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 78 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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