Climbing with Purpose

Research Adventures for the Preservation of Oregon’s Glaciers

by Alli Miles

A low vibration, like a hum, fills my ears as I slowly lower into the crevasse. There’s an echo of rushing water, like a creek flowing behind a wall, obscured but nearby. Along the glossy, undulating walls of ice, a sheen of water flows downward into the darkness. Elsewhere in the distance, I hear the groan of ice moving, and occasionally, the crash of a collapse.
This glacier is alive.

Credit: Luke Webster
I lean back from the rope that’s tied to my harness as my belayer lowers me using an anchor of steel screws twisted into the ice on the glacier’s surface. The icy chasm is chilly and damp, but it offers a break from the wind whipping through the mountain col above. As I near the bottom, where the walls are close enough together that I can wedge myself with my back on one side and my feet on the other, I shout upwards, “Take!” and the rope becomes taut. I step gingerly down onto the snow, uncertain whether it will hold my weight. The snow-cone substance is a false bridge—my foot detects no purchase as it sinks into the slush below. I return to my wedge position and wait to hear “On belay!” from above, signaling that my belayer is ready for me to start climbing. When I hear it, I carefully readjust my weight without stepping back into the slushy abyss, kick my crampons and ice axes into the wall, and begin to climb.

I top out on the Hayden Glacier, located on Middle Sister, in the Three Sisters Wilderness. These are my backyard mountains near my home in Bend, Oregon, where I have lived and played for the past eleven years. The craggy face of North Sister is adjacent to the north, while South Sister and Broken Top line up to the south. The Hayden is among the larger glaciers found within this stretch of volcanoes, and during late summer, its crevasses open enough to make an ice climbing trip a worthwhile escape from summer’s hottest days. I’m really not an ice climber. In Oregon, it rarely gets cold enough for climbable ice to form during the winter, and I’d rather go skiing anyway. Yet over the years, I’ve ventured into crevasses with my partner Aaron and learned to swing tools and kick my feet into the ice well enough to get myself back out and have fun doing so. I joke to Aaron that I’m a fair-weather ice climber—doing this in the depths of winter sounds less appealing, especially if there’s an alternative option of skiing powder.

Credit: Luke Webster
Seeking respite from the summer heat was only part of my motivation for being on the Hayden Glacier on this occasion. Over the last decade that I’ve lived in this area, I have witnessed our backyard glaciers—which used to be visible from town year-round—diminish or disappear entirely. As I’ve witnessed water-rights protests in nearby communities and listened to news about record droughts, public arguments, and lawsuits over access to irrigation water for our state’s agriculture and ranching economies, and now, more record heat and wildfire, I can’t help but sense the connection between our glaciers, our way of life, and the direction things are trending. This summer, I found hope in learning that a pair of local scientists started a nonprofit called the Oregon Glaciers Institute (OGI). Founded by Anders Carlson and Aaron Hartz, OGI’s mission is to document, monitor, and preserve the health of Oregon’s glaciers, while educating the public on the role our state’s glaciers play in the environment and our economy.

Oregon’s glaciers have been studied by groups like the Mazamas or scientific researchers at various points over the past 100 years, but never for a consistent and sustained amount of time. The result is that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps using aerial photos taken in the 1950s show a portrayal of our state’s glaciers at that moment in time and not how they have changed in more recent decades. With some limited start-up funding, Anders and Aaron have gotten OGI off the ground by going into the field and examining glaciers throughout the Oregon Cascade mountains. They have prioritized glaciers they suspect to be extinct or nearly dead and have been sharing their findings on OGI’s Instagram page. They are able to assess a glacier’s viability with visual indicators, such as measuring its surface area, looking for crevasses or glacial flour (ground up sediment) in meltwater—which are signs of glacier movement—and examining moraines to determine glacial flow or retreat. In addition, they’re collecting water samples and sending them into a lab, where the samples are measured for oxygen isotopes. Measuring the isotopes tells scientists whether the water runoff is coming from older ice or newer multiyear snow, providing additional information about the health of the glacier.

Credit: Luke Webster
The next phase in OGI’s work will include more complete surveying of existing glaciers, such as the Hayden, and selecting a few benchmark glaciers for ongoing monitoring. All learnings will be shared with water resource managers, state and federal policymakers, and other stakeholders. I stand atop the Hayden Glacier, coiling the rope after Aaron and I have each taken a few turns climbing out of the crevasse. We’ll stay tied in, keeping about 10 meters of rope between us as we walk around to inspect the glacier and take some water samples for OGI. Although the Hayden is considered to be relatively healthy due to its size, I discern obvious signs of retreat. Bedrock that was not visible in past summers now emerges from the middle of the glacier. What was once an icefall has melted into a gushing waterfall. The toe of the glacier has backed away from the moraine that it once pushed downhill. We walk uphill to the exposed bedrock and I stand back while Aaron records a GPS track around the rock. Then I lead the way downhill to collect water samples at various points where water is running on the glacier’s surface and to take photos of the waterfall. A couple hours later, we step back onto the moraine and begin packing up our gear to head back to camp, and ultimately, home to Bend.

I feel a heavy sadness mixed with deep gratitude for the opportunity to experience the wonders of this glacier. My hope is that I can support OGI by sharing their work and how it might impact the wellbeing of all Oregonians. I believe that if our communities understand the connection between our state’s glaciers and their own lives, they will be motivated to do what they can to preserve the health of our glaciers.
And for those who think that Oregon doesn’t have ice climbing, or that it’s not possible to ice climb during summer, well perhaps I can shift that mindset, too.
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