Orion Ahrensfeld_Coleman Glacier twilight

I recently journeyed up the Heliotrope Ridge Trail to catch a glimpse and perhaps venture out onto an active glacial field. For years I had held the concept of glaciers in abstract fascination. They were distant, large, slightly frightening places where climbers cautiously skirt around crevasses and occasionally disappear. When I was 12, I visited Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska with my parents and grandparents who had grown up in Juneau and been there for years. I took photos with my 35 mm point and shoot camera, not realizing then that I was capturing something that would slowly recede into the mists of time.

CHR_mendenhall 1964_Kurt Ahrensfeld

Much later, in 2007, I ventured out to Heliotrope Ridge at Mount Baker for the first time. It was June, a time of the year when the trail is still very much covered in the melting remnants of winter snows. I’d crossed snow bridges and climbed onto the ridge crest get a good look at the heart of the active Coleman Glacier. I wasn’t much of a photographer then, having just purchased my first DSLR and still shooting on automatic. But I was a mountain lover, and was captivated by this thing, this icy tongue of jagged cracks and crevasses extending from a behemoth peak. I spent some years chasing glacial views in the pacific Northwest  but after seeing boulders larger than my head falling down while at one overlook, I opted to keep my distance. The experience only whet my appetite to get closer.

Orion Ahrensfeld_Coleman Glacier_2007

Later on, hiking the Paradise Glacier trail at Rainier, I remembered seeing a photo of the famed ice caves at the Paradise Glacier. I later learned that those caves were long gone, melted away as the glacier itself receded up the rock face and away from access. All along, there was talk of this thing called climate change. It was best represented in my own experience by computer models, forecasting dire consequences of doom and gloom. “So and so many degrees in temperature rise will create inland flooding and a blankety blank rise in sea levels.” Abstract figures floated in scientific reports, distancing me from the reality. I simply said “Computer models? Created by human beings?” I was a skeptic at best.

But back to Heliotrope Ridge. I decided this last September to get closer to a living, breathing glacier. I mean this quite literally. A glacier is alive. It breathes, it moves, it grows, it changes. The way I see it, they are absolutely not static, dead things. I wanted to see this thing, to stand on it, to be connected to it somehow, and standing on an overlook, looking down on it from afar was just not going to do. And so I plotted my return to Heliotrope. I hiked the trail with a friend of mine and soon we found ourselves standing above the glacier until we were face to face with it. Cracked, broken, deep blue crevasses stared back at me and a raging torrent of water flowed through it. I could practically feel the glaciers pulse as I reached out and put my hand on frozen ice. Afterward, I rushed back down the rock face to beat sunset, in the process sending my tripod down the slope in front of me. Returning home I realized that I had merely fed my desire to experience a glacier in its raw form.

Orion Ahrensfeld_Glacial crevasses Orion Ahrensfeld_Mt Baker glacial crevasses Orion Ahrensfeld_Coleman Glacier_2009

As timing would have it, I became aware of the film “Chasing Ice” with photographer James Balog. I watched the trailer again and again then realized that there was somebody else who’d been captivated by the glaciers, only he had captured something I had not with his time-lapse photography.  He was documenting the death of a glacier.  I was somewhat aware of glacial shifts in general, of course because of the aforementioned computer models and science news, but that’s as far as it went.  Seeing the final film, Balog’s photography showed in raw, heartrending clarity exactly what happens when a glacier is dying. His imagery was stunningly beautiful and absolutely horrifying to watch. “My god” was the first thing I said when I saw the first sequence.  It shocked me to the core, to realize that now this abstract climate change thing had a face.  It was at this moment that a light went on.  When he showed time-lapse footage of Mendenhall Glacier, circa 2009 I realized just how much it had already changed from the photos I’d taken when I was 12. I didn’t even recognize it at first. The glacier had literally crept back up the bay, abandoning the large waterfall that used to be its near neighbor, and then crept back over the large rock slope adjacent to the calving face of the glacier. That hit it home for me, showing me visually that there may be a time when there won’t be glaciers you can hike to. There may be a time that they are gone, completely and utterly. And as Balog said during the making of his film, “I have to go back.”

CHR_mendenhall 2009_Kurt Ahrensfeld CHR_mendenhall 1990_Orion Ahrensfeld

Leave a Reply