Desperately Searching for Glaciers

The Palisades - Sierra Nevada - California

In September of 1921, legendary climbing pioneer Norman Clyde lost control of his footing as he descended the icy couloir between Polemonium Peak and the North Palisade, two of the most treasured 14,000 foot summits in the Sierra Nevada. Realizing that he could not stop himself and that a fall into the underlying bergschrund would be fatal, he hurled himself over the gap and came to a skidding halt with only a sprained ankle. If the same incident had happened today, I think his future of mountaineering would have likely come to a tragic end. Centuries of relatively consistent seasonal cycles have suddenly become much warmer and more unpredictable and the Palisade Glacier, which carved this valley into an amphitheater-like setting with its high peaks and stunning scenery, now only covers a small fraction of its original footprint. From my own recent observations, I’d say that Clyde’s leap must now be nearly nine feet from the base of its adjacent granite walls and the approach to the route is undeniably littered with boulders that have crashed to the surface due to the rapidly melting ice.

In 2011, geologists from Portland State University confirmed that the Palisade Glacier is 52% less extensive from its peak during the ‘Little Ice Age’, which occurred no more than 250 years ago. Most of this loss began by the early part of the 20th Century and, unfortunately, this is not an isolated situation. There are seven other glaciers in the Sierra Nevada with uniform area losses that occurred between 1903 and 2004. These losses ranged from 31% to 78%, averaging at 55%. Using historic photographs, geologic surveys, and field mapping, the evidence shows that the rapid retreat for all these glaciers occurred over the first half of the 20th century beginning in the 1920s and continued through the 1960s. Despite a 20 year slow-down, all of these glaciers resumed their retreat in the late 1980s with an even more rapid acceleration starting in the early 2000s[1]. Since the loss of glacier area in the Sierra Nevada is significantly correlated with summer and winter air temperatures, we can at least begin to narrow-down the list of potential contributors to climate change.

My climbing partner and I just returned from our end-of-the-season trip to the Palisades, which had originally included the summits of Mount Sill via the Glacier Notch and North Palisade via U-Notch - Clyde’s perilous adventure nearly a century ago. We found both approaches to be highly dangerous and certainly nothing as described in the books or on-line posts. The glacier is significantly lower than in past years and the (now 3rd or 4th class) scramble to the foot of Mt Sill is full of loose and crumbly talus. Particular frightening was the U-Notch, which was mostly full of loose rock rather than the treasured blue ice we had been hoping for.

In the end, our trip was cut short despite all of our efforts to make the most of the situation. Returning from the glacier after a day of climbing, I had my own fall as an enormous block of granite let loose from under my feet. The sheer weight of the rock crushed my right thumb and tore open the skin that led to enough bleeding to make any veteran adventurer a bit anxious. Knowing that stitches were imminent, we patched the wound as best as possible, returned to camp, and then hiked the additional 8 miles back to the car, ending at the Bishop hospital by 9:00 that evening, hungry and utterly exhausted.

Regardless of the unfortunate injury or the missed opportunities of summiting a handful of 14,000 foot peaks, I feel that I still came away with an important experience to share. Climate change is a reality none of us can simply avoid addressing. If the glaciers continue to shrink at their current rate, most will disappear in as little as 50 years[2] and this puts a tremendous impact on our environment and supply of fresh water - not to mention our ability to climb, hike and ski in such unique places. I can only hope there are enough people out there who share the same passion and are also willing to speak out about it.


H. J. Basagic and A. G. Fountain, 2011
Fountain and Tangborn, 1985; Moore et al., 2009