A Race Against Time

The Rocky Mountains’ glaciers are melting faster than once feared. The author heads out to set a speed record and get a sense of the landscape we are losing—and the resulting consequences we face—before it’s gone.

The morning we reached the glaciers, my partner Sara and I were operating on less than three hours of sleep—as people do while trying to establish a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on a multi-day expedition. Our knees, stiff as rusty tailgates, kept moving in the predawn chill as we pressed up the icy slopes of West Sentinel Pass toward Gannett Glacier, the largest glacier left in the U.S. Rocky Mountains. Our swollen feet, dank with dried sweat and creek water, barely fit in our trail-running shoes.

This was supposed to be our final morning. We were three days, 84 miles, and 26,600 feet of elevation gain into the trek—a south-to-north traverse of the Wind River Range along the “High Route,” a 112-mile path along the crest of the range that’s mostly trailless and only dips below 10,000 feet twice. We had 28 more miles and 6,600 feet of elevation gain between us and the trailhead terminus, and the only obstacles left standing in our way were two glaciers, two snow-filled passes, and one 13,350-foot peak, plus a seemingly endless sea of rocky tundra and high-alpine moraine flats.

At this point in early August 2019, the High Route speed record was held by seasoned Wyoming mountain guide Andrew Skurka, at four days and two hours. As far as Sara and I knew, no woman had ever established an FKT on it. We not only wanted to be the first women, we wanted to be the fastest humans to mirror the rawness of this terrain internally, challenging ourselves to dig deeper and feel more than ever before.

Neither of us had attempted something so remote, rugged, or risky. As we trained through the summer, we poured over the High Route mapset that Skurka spent years researching, building, and detailing with observational notes for the route’s future mountaineers. We wanted to be as prepared as possible for the crevasses, snow couloirs, and talus chutes that lay ahead.

The Map and the Melt

I was ankle-deep in this pre-trip research when I noticed a series of special markings on Skurka’s maps: tight, curving lines of blue dots he’d drawn over each of the glaciers, next to which he’d noted modified “edges.” Skuka rendered the five glaciers relevant to the High Route—two we’d be crossing, and three we’d be skirting — as smaller versions of themselves, like the second or third Russian doll in a nesting set.

I traced these blue dots with my finger. We’d pass our first glacier, Knife Point, in close proximity, around mile 75. On the map—which the USGS last field-checked and updated in 1968—its icy tongue extends down the contour lines to the valley floor we planned to cross. Skurka’s blue dots, however, which he added in 2016, edit its edge six contour lines higher—about a quarter-mile uphill to where the glaciers had now receded.

I had to wonder what it’d be like, stumbling into the valley, staring up at Knife Point Glacier, its rippling ice curled around jagged granite peaks. The geographic dissonance between 1968, then 2016, and now today would translate to global warming before my own eyes.

Elizabeth Traver, a University of Wyoming ecologist, says that every one of the 100 or so glaciers populating the Wind River Range are rapidly melting, despite forming the highest concentration of alpine ice in the U.S. outside of Alaska and Washington,

Jeff VanLooy and Greg Vanderberg, two colleagues at the University of North Dakota who’ve studied Wind River Range glaciers extensively over the last decade, concur: “There’s no doubt that all of these glaciers are going,” VanLooy says. Knife Point Glacier, for example, melted about a half-meter each year between 1966 and 2000. Since then, it’s sped up three times as fast: Between 2000 and 2015 it melted a meter and a half each year.

The degrading glacial conditions in Wyoming are not unique. Around the world glaciers are waning. In August, Iceland held a funeral to mourn its Okjökull Glacier, which melted from 9,390 acres in 1901 to less than 250 acres in 2019. At global warming’s current rate, scientists at Glacier National Park have announced it’s likely no glaciers (only remnant ice) will survive within park bounds beyond the end of this century. 

“In the Wind River Range, glaciers are at higher elevations where it’s cooler, they should be able to survive longer,” VanLooy says. “The fact that they’re going quickly is a concern.” When a glacier disappears, a giant domino effect begins: the immediate surroundings are altered, but so are a number of ecological and human systems down the line.

Glaciers, have a high albedo effect, reflecting solar radiation and helping to cool the planet, Traver explains. As they shrink, and ultimately disappear, alpine areas will get warmer. The consequences will trickle down, changing the chemical balance of run-off streams, and disrupting the mountain ecosystems that sustain shoreside plants and fish. 

Without glaciers, snow will melt from alpine bowls much faster during the spring. Traditionally, glaciers have acted as water “savings accounts,” storing snow during the winter and dispensing it during the summer. The actual water a glacier contributes to creeks is minimal, but its role in managing the rate of snowmelt is huge. “If you get to the point where there’s no [snow] to melt in August, you’re probably going to have fairly dry stream or no stream,” Traver says.

And in a place like Wyoming, which serves as a headwater source for three major U.S. drainages (Colorado, Mississippi, Columbia) and where agriculture is a critical economic force, creeks that run dry before autumn’s rains are bad for crops, business, and people. “If farmers want to irrigate, we need streams flowing all summer long,” Traver says.

The Big View

The irony—that Sara and I were vying for a speed record in an environment that was vanishing too soon—wasn’t lost on me. When the rawness of the High Route grew too intense to bear, thinking about the glaciers kept me moving. What if this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to trace my fingers across this ancient ice?

All we carried was food, headlamps, bivy sleep systems, ice axes and crampons, navigation supplies, and minimal emergency gear. From the beginning, we spent hours picking our way up talus cones, hours sniffing out elk trails, hours hacking phlegm into thin air, hours winding through raw forest (a section of Eastern Shoshone tribal land that extends into the Wind River Range), hours walking around lakes, hours walking through floodplains, hours exposed on ridgelines, and hours praying for safe passage.

On the afternoon of day three, we dropped into the valley below Knife Point Glacier. Before I saw it, I heard it: icy water gushing from its innards, rumbling like a million waterfalls, draining fast as gravity, sweating under August’s sun.

We rounded a slope and the giant ice body loomed overhead. Instead of filling in the blanks, imagining what it must’ve looked like in 1968 during the USGS’ last survey, I found myself drifting toward the future: a dusty rock pile? a barren cirque? 

I felt smaller than I’d ever felt, dwarfed by time and rock and bones. We pushed onward. We were behind schedule.

That night, our last one, Sara’s headlamp died while we were descending the steepest pass. Earlier, we’d crossed a thick, braided, raging waist-deep creek and spent two hours searching for each other after realizing we’d separated. We didn’t lay down to sleep until 1 a.m.

We woke up again at 4 a.m., ready to climb West Sentinel Pass, traverse the Gannett and Grasshopper glaciers, and finish the final series of peaks, passes, and tundra flats. That morning, I was half-delirious, jacked up on powdered caffeine and robotically moving my limbs, yet more excited than ever to see these last big glaciers of the Rockies—whether they symbolized steps closer to the finish line, or larger inspirational reminders of the precious and peculiar power of time, it became harder and harder to tell.

Stars pulsed overhead as we ascended West Sentinel Pass. Half-way up, we tied crampons to our rubber shoes and moved methodologically: ice axe, step, step, ice axe, step, step. I soon slid into a groove and lowered my head until I crested the pass. When I looked up, Gannett Glacier fanned north in ancient ripples and textured hues.

It was like seeing a movie star in real life, a being you believe to be perfect, suddenly rendered ordinary, human, relatable. I knelt down and peeled a glove off, pressing my fingerpads to the wrinkled surface, glassy in some places, snow-crusted in others.

A few hours later we reached Grasshopper Glacier and began making our way up again: ice axe, step, step. We climbed up to the Continental Divide and stood on the backbone of the United States, looking east and west as an eternity of land unfolded beneath us. We hiked north, up another 13,350-foot peak, and it was all downhill from there.

The sun went down. We tippled into delirious laughter, out of pain, and then back in. Our thickened toes bashed against our shoes. We jogged the last eight miles, zig-zagging down a slope carved by ghosts of glaciers past. These valleys, streams, peaks, trees, me—we all exist at the hand of geologic forces far greater than our singular selves.

When Sara and I collapsed at the northern terminus—3 days, 17 hours, and 20 minutes after we’d started—we feasted on freeze-dried food, suddenly the fastest humans to traverse the entire Wind River Range on foot. But as I’ve thought every day since then, if I could rearrange the significance of time to favor the glaciers, I’d give up the record and slow down for good.

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