Climbers relate eyewitness details of global warming

Shawn O'Fallon of Anchorage, Alaska, climbs the North Ridge of K2 in the Xinjiang Province of China during the summer of 2000. Mountain climbers are increasingly telling stories of melting glaciers and other signs of global warming.

? Mountaineers are bringing back firsthand accounts of vanishing glaciers, melting ice routes, crumbling rock formations and flood-prone lakes where glaciers once rose.

The observations are transforming a growing number of alpine and ice climbers, some of whom have scientific training, into eyewitnesses of global warming. Increasingly, they are deciding not to leave it to scientists to tell the entire story.

“I personally have done a bunch of ice climbs around the world that no longer exist,” said Yvon Chouinard, renowned climber and surfer and founder of Patagonia Inc., an outdoor clothing and gear company that champions the environment. “I was aghast at the change.”

Chouinard pointed to recent trips where the ice had all but disappeared on the famous Diamond Couloir of 16,897-foot Mount Kenya, and snow was absent at low elevations on 4,409-foot Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, in the Highlands of northwest Scotland.

Alpine climbers are worrying about the loss of classic routes and potential new lines up mountains that are melting, from the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest and the Alps in Europe to the Andes in South America and the Himalaya in Asia.

“As climbers we see these places, we go all over the world,” Mark Bowen, a climber and physicist who wrote a book on climate and mountains, told the American Alpine Club at its annual meeting last week in Bend.

“We’re in touch with the natural world like few people are,” he said.

Scientists and diplomats at an international conference in Belgium predicted Friday that global warming would turn many glaciers to lakes and cause rock avalanches because of frozen ground melting up high. People living in mountain areas can expect more risk of floods by glacial lakes.

Already, Switzerland’s Matterhorn had to be closed to some climbing at times because of recent summer rockfall attributed to global warming and its Great Aletsch Glacier – Europe’s largest – has retreated a couple of miles from its peak of 14 miles in length in 1860. The Swiss Alps’ icy soil that glues its rock faces together is thawing.

At Montana’s Glacier National Park, glaciers are vanishing like the storied snows of Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. In South America, the great ice fields of Patagonia in Argentina and Chile are shrinking; Bolivia hopes to keep its only ski area open by using artificial snow as the Chacaltaya Glacier fades.

The glacier from which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made their first ascent of 29,035-foot Mount Everest in 1953 has retreated so much that mountaineers now walk hours longer to reach it. A milelong lake replaced the glacier at 20,305-foot Island Peak in Nepal’s Everest region.

Since the 1940s, when geologist Maynard Miller began conducting research on Alaska’s vast Juneau Icefield, he has seen how global warming has affected glaciers studied in the longest continuous research program of any icefield system.

“We’re going to be in one heck of a mess, I can guarantee that,” said Miller, who was part of the 1963 expedition that got the first Americans to the summit of Mount Everest. “We have mucked up the world’s climate.”