Walk Softly and Carry a Big Pick

Safe Travel on Glaciers
By Francis P. Zera
  |  Gorp.com
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View of Coleman Glacier from Forest Service Trail 677
Coleman Glacier (Francis Zera Photography)

When the weather clears during a Pacific Northwest summer, outdoor-lovers flock to places such as Mount Baker (10,778 feet) and Mount Rainier. The glaciers on these mountains are especially popular hiking destinations. When hiking mountain trails near tree line, it's easy to be captivated by the beauty of a glacier and want to take a closer look—especially when climbers and mountaineers can be seen scaling them.

Sometimes a glacier simply provides the best path to a summit, but glacier travel can also reveal some amazingly beautiful sights. For example, the terminal moraine of Mount Baker's Coleman Glacier looks mainly white and brown from the Heliotrope Ridge viewpoint. But up close, the changing angle of the sun fills the broken portion of the glacier with light and color—from the soft, delicate, powder blue of recent snow to the hard, cold blue of ancient ice. Depending on the local topography and soils, there can be black, reds, and grays mixed in. Pools of meltwater reflect the sky and deep greens of the surrounding forest.

Meltwater running beneath the ice adds a captivating array of sounds, from soft trickling and gurgling to loud rushing and venting sounds from air being forced through tight, unseen spaces. The glacier often creaks and groans as it creeps ahead.

Water and sunlight conspire to create fabulous shapes, and every ridge or corner hides something new. The colors add an interesting depth to the shapes, making the glacier feel a bit like a constantly changing installation of modern art.

That beauty, however, is packaged with a very dangerous natural feature. After all, they're "alive." Glaciers move—sometimes quite dramatically and catastrophically.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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