Mountaineering, Glaciers and Climate Change in the North Cascades

In August, Darcy Ottey and I went to explore a corner of the North Cascades we had never been to: the high peaks and glaciers just above the the south end Diablo reservoir, off of the North Cascades Scenic Highway in northern Washington State. After years of seeing Colonial Peak from the Highway when driving through, we picked what turned out to be a stormy summer week to venture into the area.

_10B3110 Darcy Ottey on the approach to the Colonial Glacier cirque. Colonial Creek falls off to the left with Colonial Peak above it.

An arduous approach

Hours of grinding up a steep but established climbers route through lower and mid elevation forests eventually popped us out above treeline on glacier carved slabs along a ridgeline leading towards Pyramid Peak. From hear a short traverse across talus and old avalanche debris got us to the entrance to a glaciated citadel of mountains—the upper Colonial Creek cirque.

_10B3231 Camp on the edge of the recently formed lake at the terminous of the Colonial glacier.
_10B3340 A blanket of clouds cover lower elevations in the North Cascades with high peaks sitting like islands in the sea at sunrise. The image is similar to how these mountains often appeared during the ice age when glaciers often covered lower elevations in much the same way.


A dynamic landscape

Not surprisingly, when we reached where the map noted the snout of the Colonial glacier should be we found no ice. The glacier, like most glaciers in the North Cascades (and indeed across the planet), has receded significantly. Nearly a quarter mile up stream we found the new terminus of the glacier, where it ends in a newly exposed lake, in a depression carved out by the glacier and now filled with melt water and icebergs—detached chunks of the crumbling glacier. Thunderstorms roiled a we elected to avoid campsites on the exposed rock prow above the lake, instead choosing to set up camp on the only flat spot we could find adjacent to the lake.

_10B3260 Receeding glaciers leave behind moonscapes of scoured bedrock covered with piles of rubble and rock flour.
_10B3264 Glacial ice exposed at the very top of the Colonial glacier (upper left of this photo) suggests that this glacier no longer has an accumulation zone. Under current conditions, it is just a matter of time before the glacier disappears completeley–perhaps within the next several decades.
_10B3309 Current maps show glacial ice extending much further down then where the actual terminous of the glacier is now. The retreat of the glacier has created this newly formed lake. Chunks of glacial ice still float in the lake, demonstrating how quickly this landscape is changing due to shifts in the climate.
_10B3311 Glacial lakes such as this one are filled with large amounts of ground rock powder giving the water a dark milky green appearance.
_10B3243 Earth, sky and water merge with a heavy fog sitting over the snow and ice choked glacial lake.

_10B3246 Lifting fog reveals hidden peaks.

Inclement weather dashed our plans for several peak climbs but did not deter us from venturing further south, over the Colonial glacier and onto the Neve glacier.

_10B3267 The vast exapanse of one of the largest glaciers in the North Cascades, the Neve Glacier with Snowfield Peak sitting at its head, on the left side of the frame. Seen from the Neve-Colonial glaicer col.
Darcy Ottey descending onto the Neve Glacier as a cloud rols over the glacier. Darcy Ottey descending onto the Neve Glacier as a cloud roles over the glacier.
Heading into a cloud on the glacier. Heading into a cloud on the glacier.
_10B3280 On the broad expanse of the glacier, the peaks and landmarks disappear leaving an eerie world with land and sky blending together into a world of white.
_10B3266 Paul Bunyon’s Stump, Pinnicle, and Pyramid peaks from Colonial-Neve glacier col.
_10B3319 Looking north from the area into the upper Skagit river valley. Ross Lake, a large reservoir built to provide hydro-electric power for the city of Seattle is a more obvious sign of our species quest for energy then the retreating glaciers of the region but both reflect the long reach of modern human’s influence on even the most wild and rugged landscapes in the world.
_10B3362 Descending into the clouds from the glacial cirque back into the forests of the North Cascades.
_10B3371 Sections of forests on the western slope of the North Cascades get enough precipitation to qualify as temperate rainforest. Only 10,000 years ago these slopes likely appeared much like the higher elevations do now, having just been released from retreating glaicers which filled the mountains and flowed down into the ocean. Climate models predict these mountains to get warmer and wetter in the decades to come. Glaciers will retreat and forests will advance unslope in an ongoing advance of forests through these mountains which began millenia ago.

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