Retreating glaciers, unbearable desert heat and ice-climbing routes that are only a memory – for years mountain guides have watched global warming forever change the landscapes in which they work.
As longtime RMI Expeditions guide Mike Haugen says, the evidence he’s seen of climate change is “beyond the circumstances.”
“Take the example of the glaciers of the Himalayas,” said Haugen, whose resume of 20 years as a guide includes iconic mountains like Everest, Denali and even Antarctica’s Vinson Massif. “It’s a fact that these glaciers are disappearing, and they’re not coming back anytime soon.”
Based in Washington State, RMI Expeditions organizes trips from the volcanoes of Mexico to Denali National Park in Alaska. One of the places where climate change is most evident, says Haugen, is in RMI’s backyard – Mount Rainierthe most glacial peak in the continental United States
“When I started 20 years ago, we hadn’t seen freezing levels of 17,000 feet,” Haugen said. “It just wasn’t in the weather report. And now it’s relatively common in the middle of the season…we used to ice climb in some areas where you would never ice climb now.
Haugen is not aberrant. According to a recent survey conducted by the guiding company 57 hours98% of mountain guides say they have seen the effects of climate change during their career.
This has shortened their seasons, eliminated conventional routes and approaches, impacted decision-making and increased risk. Consider the results of the study:
- About 73% said climate change had forced them to modify their mountaineering routes or avoid certain areas due to melting snow, falling rocks and receding glaciers.
- A further 63% said these effects made their job more dangerous.
- About 81% said their seasons were changing and climate change had changed the time of year they could guide to certain places.
The survey gathered responses from 59 mountain guides around the world, most based in the United States and Europe. At least 40% of guides surveyed have been in the industry for over 10 years, 34% for over 20 years.
“It’s a small sample to be sure,” Cody Bradford said. “But I think we can all say, no matter how small, that we see climate change happening. So many aspects of our operations are changing due to less predictable conditions.
Bradford, an AMGA-certified rock guide who follows the Alpine and Ski Guiding Program, was on a personal trip to Mount Baker’s Easton Glacier last summer as the heat dome settled over the Pacific Northwest, leading to unprecedented temperatures. Portland, Oregon, saw a record high of 112 degrees.
Bradford witnessed the surreal phenomenon of generalization sublimation, where it is so arid that the snow evaporates without melting into the water. The glacier has transformed into a disorienting and torrid lunar landscape.
“There was this sliver of snow, because it evaporated so quickly you couldn’t really see where the crevices were,” he said. “I know at least one person who fell because they thought they were on a snowfield while still on the glacier, it just wasn’t obvious where the glacier ended.”
Academic studies suggest that these bizarre weather patterns could occur more frequently, possibly even leading to a snowless winter.
In the West, the water equivalent of snow – essentially the water that enters a snowpack – is projected to decrease by about 25% by 2050, 35% by 2075 and 50% by 2100 , according to a study published in October.
The forecast is grimmer for maritime mountains like the Cascades, home to Mount Rainier, where researchers say there could be a 45% loss of snowpack by 2050.
It’s a daunting prospect for first-year guides like Joey Manship, who in early April took a client to Little Cottonwood’s Grizzly Gulch against the backdrop of a nearly snow-free south-facing ridge.
“I doubt I’ll be a Wasatch ski guide in 30, 35 years. It’s interesting to come into this industry knowing that it’s probably not permanent, at least in this place,” said Manship, who wrapped up his first season at Inspired Summit Adventures in April and is moving to Washington this summer. to guide RMI Expeditions.
Utah ended its winter with 74% of normal snowpack. And while it’s not “as bad as it could be,” says Utah Snow Survey supervisor Jordan Clayton, the winter of 2021-22 saw a historically long dry spell in January, followed by the first 80 degree day never recorded for Salt Lake City.
Now the Weber Basin Water Conservation District is enacting strict water restrictions ahead of summer.
For ski guides like Manship, a disappointing winter translates into disappointing goals for its clients. In Utah, warm spring temperatures generally stabilize the snowpack. But this winter, a combination of unusual avalanche hazard and low snow cover made it difficult to get customers into the Alps.
“When people think of spring skiing, they think of skiing steeper iconic lines. And that hasn’t really happened this year,” said Manship, who also takes clients on snowmobiles.
That too was hampered this winter — “we couldn’t get to some places because there just wasn’t enough snow on the roads,” he said.
The potential impacts that climate change could have on the guide industry are not all the same. Mountain bike guides, for example, could see an extended season with less snow in alpine regions. Bradford leads climbing trips in the Moab and Las Vegas areas, and says his season is starting earlier now.
“I was at Red Rocks in March and it was 90 degrees every day – it was late March and those temperatures are maintained. You would expect these temperatures in late April, early May,” he said.