Washingtonians without air conditioning aren’t the only ones suffering from record-setting temperatures this summer.
The glacier-covered faces of Mount Rainier are melting faster than usual this year, creating conditions on the mountain that were more like August or September just a few days into July.
“This season is definitely posing challenges,” said Gordon Janow, director of programs with Alpine Ascents International, which offers guide services on the mountain.
The warm weather has led to widening crevasses and increased ice and rock fall, said Peter Ellis, supervisor with the National Park Service’s Mount Rainier climbing rangers.
Even so, crossing the glaciers and the challenge of the difficult vertical ascent attract many climbers to the highest peak in Washington. Groups successfully reaching the summit in recent weeks have found unusually calm winds and relatively warm temperatures.
Guides place ladders over crevasses so climbers can cross, but as the giant cracks get too wide even for ladders, new climbing routes have to be sought out, Ellis said.
The park’s climbing rangers maintain a blog in which they report up-to-date conditions and route information.
Janow said the conditions are not uncommon for the 14,411-foot volcano — he just expects them a little later in the year.
The summer climbing season — busiest from Memorial Day to Labor Day — isn’t going to end early, Ellis said. But the guide services, which maintain the routes to ascend the peak, will likely have to start finding some creative new routes if the warm temperatures continue, he added.
A recent heat wave only added to a winter that saw little snow pile up below 8,000 feet in the Cascades, Ellis added. The overall effect was a different upper mountain this year.
“Things just look different than they have in the past,” Ellis said.
Ice caves still show up in places on the mountain, formed when water flows under a glacier or other ice formation, but explorers should be aware of the dangers, said climbing ranger Forrest Madsen. That danger became obvious with the partial collapse of an ice cave in Snohomish County earlier this month.
“Whether you’re above them or in them, it’s a fairly dangerous spot to be caught,” Madsen said.
Things have been looking different for the last 40 years, at least, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report that found Mount Rainier glaciers had lost 14 percent of their volume from 1970 to 2008.
But while global warming is fingered for shrinking glaciers, it may not be behind the most recent hot weather, according to University of Washington atmospheric science professor Cliff Mass.
Mass said the warmer weather over roughly the last year — and especially the last few weeks — is so out of the ordinary that it can only be attributed to natural variations in weather.
“If you have a very, very extreme situation, global warming can’t be the cause of most of it,” Mass said. “Global warming isn’t large enough to be the cause of it.”
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