Slow-burning, life dies like a flame,
Never resting, passes like a river.
Today I face my lone shadow.
Suddenly, the tears flow down.
— From “Cold Mountain,” by Han-Shan (Trans. A. Kline)
I’ve made this same climb up the rugged northeastern slope of Mt. Hood every year since we moved to Oregon. This is expedition 26. The route is challenging to the point of being cruel. It’s even more demanding on an aging body that has spent far too many years bent over a Macintosh.
The trail up Cooper’s Spur, a sharp ridge plunging off the volcano’s pyramidal peak, is steep and treacherous. The slope is coated in fine steel-gray volcanic ash, ground down over the centuries by snow and ice. You take two steps up and slide one step back. The trail zigzags its way ever-upwards, gaining more than 3,000 feet, in dozens of switchbacks through ash and scree to a place called Hieroglyph Point, where the path finally peters out. According to mountain lore, Hieroglyph Point was named after a boulder featuring “mysterious markings.” In fact, the markings aren’t mysterious and they aren’t hieroglyphics. They are beautiful kanji characters carved into the rock by Japanese climbers who summited Hood via this precarious route in 1908. This is the highest spot on the mountain that you can reach by trail. But having reached 9,000 feet, I usually scramble even further up the 45-degree slope to the Chimney, a near vertical passage through dark basalt to the summit.
At several vantages, the exposure along the deeply incised canyons that flank both sides of the Spur is extreme, dizzying. The sense of vertigo is enhanced when the winds pick up, as they tend to do in the afternoon, whipping around the summit at speeds of forty to sixty miles an hour. Two years ago, I watched as group of four climbers a few hundred feet above me where blown off the Spur and into a boulder field, escaping largely unscathed. Others haven’t been so lucky. This is the most lethal quadrant of a deadly mountain. Since 1980, at least 28 people have perished on and around Cooper Spur, many of them plunging headlong onto the Eliot Glacier 2,500 feet below, their corpses emerging months, sometimes years, later in the milky waters of glacial melt. Tears of the mountain, climbers call it.
The Spur itself is a massive moraine, formed by the advance and retreat of an ancient glacier. This is a testament to the power of ice and water to sculpt and shape landscapes on a vast scale. That transformative force is diminishing, year-by-year, as a warming planet works inexorably to eradicate mountain glaciers.
When I first climbed Cooper’s Spur in the early 1990s, much of the ridge was still under snow well into August, the route visible only by following stone cairns and wooden posts. By 2005, these high slopes on Mt. Hood were clear of snow by mid-July, if not earlier. This spring, after a blistering run of days in April, the snowpack on Cooper’s Spur had melted off by early May, exposing the mountains largest and most vulnerable glaciers to at least six months of unrelenting sun.
Even following a stormy winter of heavy rains and mountain snow, Oregon’s snowpack was reduced to 56 percent of normal, a trend that has been getting worse for the past twenty years. The story is the same up and down the Cascade Range, from North Cascades National Park on the Canadian border to Mt. Shasta in northern California. One consequence of the dwindling snowpack is the fact that the soggiest part of the country is now facing the prospect of water shortages. The prospect of diminished snowpacks and early melt-offs is even more dire for the salmon and trout that spawn in the mountains small rivers and streams.
On my descent, I stopped at the elegant stone climber’s shelter built seventy years ago, which has somehow survived rockfalls and avalanches, to get a little relief from the blistering sun and near 100-degree temperatures. Inside I met a Swedish glacierologist named Arne Sjöström, who has been studying Cascade glaciers for the past decade. He invited me to walk with him down into Eliot Canyon for a close up look at Oregon’s largest glacier. On the floor of the canyon we crossed numerous small terminal moraines, the traces of the glacier’s accelerated retreat. Eliot Creek was gushing, a white roar from the late afternoon melt.
Sjöström told me that the Eliot Glacier has lost more than 140 feet in thickness over the last century and has retreated more than 1,000 feet from the first photos of the glacier taken in 1901. Across the Northwest, Svensson said, glaciers have retreated by more than 50 percent and the pace of retreat is quickening. Dozens of northwest glaciers have disappeared entirely, including ten named glaciers in Oregon, along with hundreds of other smaller perennial ice and snow patches.
The headwall of the Eliot Glacier is iridescent blue, a blue that casts an eerie glow in the summer moonlight. As we approached the wall of ice, we were struck by waves coolness emanating from glacier. The face of the glacier was deeply fissured and we could hear it rumble and crack, as if the mountain itself was moaning at the loss of ice that had coated its flanks for the last 20,000 years.
We live in a time when essential elements that have shaped life on our planet are vanishing before our eyes.