As we unloaded the car and laced up our boots in the predawn chill, a glance up through the fir boughs revealed wispy clouds whipping off the craggy pyramid of rock on the horizon, driven by winds gusting over 95 kilometres per hour. It was just after 6:30 a.m., but my dad and I had been up before the sun. I couldn’t think of a better way to start a Monday morning.
Standing at over 2,700 metres, Mount Shuksan, located in Washington state, is touted as one of the most-photographed mountains in the US — but this photogenic fixture is under threat.
Like many of the world’s mountains, Shuksan and the glaciers that coat its flanks are undergoing dramatic change as the climate crisis escalates. The Hanging Glacier that dominates the mountain’s northern aspect, improbably suspended high above the valleys below, is in retreat. The Lower Curtis Glacier has run back uphill more than 130 metres since 2007 and each year, less snow and ice accumulates on its surface than melts away at its tongue.
As we climbed away from Lake Ann towards the entrance to the Fisher Chimneys, the Lower Curtis steadily came into view. My dad was stunned by how far the glacier had receded in the four years since he had been there last. I didn’t have any sense for the scale of the shrinkage until I compared my photos from our trip to photos from his previous trip. When I did, I shared his shock.
The higher we climbed, the clearer the extent of the damage became.
Across the mountain ranges that have come to feel like a second home to me, the combined effects of retreating glaciers, below-average snowfall during the winter and accelerated warming are having a dramatic and devastating effect.
Popular routes up peaks like Shuksan and Mount Rainier are becoming increasingly compromised. These routes depend on intact, stable glaciers in order to be passable, so as the ice recedes and breaks up, they become impossible to safely navigate.
The Price Glacier route up Shuksan — one of the 50 classic climbs of North America according to Steck and Roper’s seminal guidebook — has become increasingly difficult as the glacier has retreated. In a few decades of business-as-usual, climbing it may become all but impossible.
To those who have never been close to such mountains before, these might not seem like pressing concerns. But as someone who was lucky enough to get out into the hills frequently growing up, trends like this fill me with sadness.
The mountains of the Pacific Northwest have challenged me, awed me and filled me with a profound appreciation for the overwhelming beauty and daunting power of the natural world, as well as our comparatively diminutive place within it. On the geological time scale by which the lives of mountains and glaciers are measured, humanity is a mere flash in the pan — yet we have gained the power to irreversibly alter landscapes millennia in the making.
That morning, my dad and I were turned around by a combination of poor conditions and the effects of what would turn out to be a 40-degree fever, but I returned to Shuksan the following summer. We successfully topped out, despite the best efforts of an enterprising mouse who raided my cache of PB-and-J tortillas and chewed a third of the way through the waist belt of my climbing harness.
Standing on the summit in the bright morning sun, my partner and I were afforded a sweeping panoramic view of the North Cascades. As I looked out over the skyline at all the places I had been and all the places I wanted to go, I felt the comfort and excitement that comes from returning to a place you love, like arriving at my grandparents’ house for the holidays.
I can only hope that generations to come will be able to stand on that same summit and find those feelings of love and awe high in the cool alpine air.