Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Researching Mount Rainier's Glaciers

Everyday, climbers inquire about thinly covered crevasses, glacier conditions, or that “bergschrund” on top of the Emmons. And we’re here to share what we know about the Emmons, Kautz, Tahoma and other major glaciers on Mount Rainier. But we also wanted to let you know that the NPS is actively monitoring these glaciers in an effort to better understand how the climate is affecting them and how these glaciers are affecting the mountain and the surrounding areas. This is important stuff when you consider that Mount Rainier’s glaciers are a primary water source for many Washingtonians, while at the same time a potential geological threat to communities in the floodplains downstream.

Basic Science Recap:
Glaciers are permanent sheets of flowing ice that erode mountain slopes, carve valleys, and affect the geography of the park. Rainier’s glaciers have an “accumulation zone” (where more snow gathers than melts) and an “ablation zone” (where more snow melts than accumulates). The most recent detailed measurements (1913 to 1994) on Mount Rainier indicate that the combined glacial area has receded by a 1/5th, and that the total volume of glacier mass has decreased by 25%.

The Nisqually and Emmons are part of a long-term monitoring program making them the most scientifically prodded glaciers in the park. The current study is a cooperative venture between Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks and includes field measurements of snow depth, snow density, and snow/ice melt. It includes an annual series of terrestrial, aerial and satellite images. To better understand what's going on, researchers place “ablation sticks” (PVC poles) at various elevations and locations on the Emmons, Ingraham and Nisqually Glaciers. In the spring, researchers us a steam drill to sink these stakes into the winter snowpack until they reach the glacier ice. Then throughout the season, researchers measure the snow accumulation and more importantly, the rate of snow melt. This allows them to calculate the net balance of the overall snow and icepack. The graph below shows the results gathered since 2003. As you can see, the overall mass balance of the ice is decreasing.

So why are we sharing this geeky science information? Well, we like it, but also because climbers have been noting the PVC poles buried on the glacier and have asked, “What’s the plastic pipe all about?” Those PVC poles are the measuring sticks. If you keep your eyes peeled on your next summit attempt, you may note one or two of them on the Muir Snowfield, Nisqually, Emmons, or Ingraham Glaciers. If you do see them, please do not disturb or remove them.

For more information on the glacier monitoring being conducted by North Cascades National Park, check their website. And if you’re interested in the historical Mount Rainier glacier studies referenced above, check out the “Glacier and Glacier Changes” homepage on the Mount Rainier website.

Photo contributed and graph by North Cascades researcher Jeanne Wenger.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

New "Unoffical" Speed Record Set

On Wednesday morning, July 11, Justin Merle, an avid climber, international mountaineer and current employee as a guide with International Mountain Guides (IMG), broke the Mount Rainier summit speed record with a time of 4 hours, 49 minutes and 35 seconds. Here is a link to a recent article on his climb in The News Tribune.

The previous record holder, climbing ranger alum Chad Kellogg, set the record in 2004 with a time of 4 hours, 59 minutes and 1 second. Like Merle's time, it too was not officially recorded; there was no time keeper available at Paradise, Camp Muir or the summit to confirm the event. However, we do have pictures taken by Merle of his watch before and after the climb and climbers up at Camp Muir also confirmed seeing Merle on his descent. This obviously leaves room for disagreement for all those non-believers, but this level of athletic achievement, in such a challenging sport as it is, and a dangerous location as Mount Rainier can be, deserves a nice tip of the hat and a hearty "congratulations". There is no doubt Merle has raised the bar, and the level of anticipation for those other hopeful climbers looking for a new challenge. So, a lingering question remains, “Who's next?”.

Below is Merle’s account of the trip:

Times 6:00:05 -- left the upper Paradise parking lot
7:33ish -- climbed through Muir
8:30ish -- top of Cleaver
9:27 -- Columbia Crest
9:30 -- left register after signing the book
9:35 -- descended from crater rim
10ish -- Ingraham Flats
10:10 -- Muir
10:30 -- Pebble Creek
10:49:40 -- back in the parking lot
Roundtrip -- 4:49:35

I wore light boots (Sportiva Trango S) and Kahtoola

aluminum crampons, lightweight pants and a lightweight longsleeve top. I carried a BD Bullet pack with 2 liters of Cytomax in a hydration bladder, a light Goretex top, warm hat, and gloves. For fuel I carried 6 Gu packages and a pack of Shot Blocks. Overall, the route conditions and weather were almost perfect. The route was direct above the Cleaver and there wasn't much for traffic aside from the guided parties, who were all quite nice in letting me pass. I went to the tippy top and took the time to sign in at the register. It was quite windy on the crater rim and on the summit; aside from that the breeze was pleasant and I did not have to add any layers except a pair of gloves during the ascent. The descent went well--good snow for plunge-stepping and striding out pretty much all the way down. I did fall once on moderate terrain near 13000' as I was cutting some switchbacks--slid a couple meters before regaining my feet. On the descent, I left my pack at Muir and my crampons at Pebble Creek--thanks to the guides for carrying them down. I timed myself on my Suunto watch, and also used the logbook funtion to record the ascent/descent. The only "proof" I have of the times are a couple of before and after photos of the watch, and video taken with the same camera, before and after (I left the camera in a stuffsack at the trailhead). I did sign the register, and saw a lone climber on Columbia Crest, but did not speak with him.

This was my 106th summit of Rainier, by my best count.

~Justin Merle