I first started hiking and backpacking in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming some fifty years ago. The two real changes I have seen in the Winds over the years have been that the pines are beginning to die on a large scale and that the glaciers are melting.
I remember one Wind River trip in particular that really brought this home to me.
In about 1980 I went on a 12 day backpacking trip into the northern Wind Rivers. In those days everyone doing any serious hiking in the Winds always carried an ice axe; it was just something you needed on a regular basis.
In the first couple of days of this trip I remember using my ice axe to cross a long, steep, icy snowfield that the trail cut across; using an ice-axe was absolutely something I needed to have in case I slipped, and began rocketing down the steep slope. I absolutely needed to be able to a self arrest using my ice axe.
Something like this had happened to me in the Tetons several years earlier. I did slip on a very steep snowfield, while carrying a very heavy pack. If I had not had my ice axe, I would clearly have been dead quite shortly.
Anyway, back to that Wind River trip. A couple days later the friend I was with and I crossed a high, trail-less pass to get into Titcomb Basin and I used my axe to glissade seven or eight hundred feet off the pass and down into the basin. No slips, but the axe was necessary for a safe descent.
The following day, back in 1980, we hiked up toward Dinwoody Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming, and spent all of one afternoon climbing a long, steep snowfield where we kicked steps and used our ice axes continually.
Then, later in the trip, while hiking on a main trail we topped a rise to see that the trail on the lee side of the rise had disappeared under a huge, very steep, very icey snowfield. In order to get down at all, ice axes were an absolute essential. And all this wasn’t in the early spring, it was in the middle of September when most of the snow had melted.
Fifteen years ago I made the almost identical trip in the Wind Rivers with my wife, one of my sons and his wife. We were planning to climb some of the higher peaks so we took ice axes. I figured, just like on my earlier trip in 1980, we would be constantly using them.
As it turned out, we never used our ice axes once on the entire trip, even on the highest peaks or passes. There wasn’t even a hint on snow on any of the trails we used. The difference in Titcomb basin was particularly striking. None of the miles-long snowfields I had spent so much time climbing and descending with ice axes on the previous trip even existed anymore. They had all turned into large, completely dry, snow-free scree fields.
The Wind Rivers had turned from a land of ice and snow and rock into a land of rock and bare earth.
Even though we were climbing on large snowfields on the first trip, not on any real glaciers, the glaciers are also disappearing in the Wind Rivers and all over the Rocky Mountains. This was very apparent on the long summer photo-shoot I did in 2010. And it was particularly apparent in my visit to Glacier National Park that year.
In 1850 there were 150 named Glaciers in the Park. Now there are 26. Back in the 1990’s the USGS was predicting that Glacier National Park would have no glaciers left at all by 2030, now they are predicting that this will happen by 2020 or even sooner. In 1850 there were 21.6 square kilometers of glaciers in the Park, by 1974 this had shrunk to 7.4 square kilometers and today there are only tiny scraps of glaciers left.
I can remember hiking the wonderful trail to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park when I was a little kid of 10 or 12. I remember thinking that the glacier was huge, that it covered the whole side of the mountain. Undoubtable this was partially the result of my memory magnifying everything I had seen as a kid. But still, when I repeated the hike in 2010, the glacier seemed to be a shred of the gigantic expanse of snow and ice that was there on my childhood hike. And in fact, Grinnell Glacier has, by official measurement, shrunk by ninety percent over the past century.
The Wind River Mountains, Teton National Park, Glacier National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park are all going to be glacier-less in the next five or ten or twenty years. It’s hard to predict exactly when this will happen; but even if the glaciers last twenty years, that is less than a blink of the eye in geologic time. Without glaciers these great National Parks will be very different places ecologically and scenically. The old world of glacial clad peaks is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. It all makes me pretty sad.
Bill McKibben was one of the first people to bring climate change to public attention in 1989 with his book, “The End of Nature.” This book isn’t really an ecology book, it is more of a philosophical discussion of what global warming means for human beings. The basic concept of the book is that the idea of nature we have always had, now no longer exists. For thousands of years human beings have thought of nature as something beyond man, something that would always endure no matter how badly man screwed things up; nature was something beautiful and eternal that was separate from man and which would last forever and never change. Mckibben says that with global warming, this is no longer true. Now man is actually changing nature in his relentless consumption of the bounties of the earth.
The image at the top of this page is of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
There are no glaciers in this picture. What you
see are snow fields.