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Melting rocks By Stine Wannebo

“Letting them fall in love with the glacial landscape”

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SARAH EBRIGHT; ROOT GLACIER


Every guide knows the looming dangers of falling into a crevasse; it is like being swallowed by the ice itself. One could slip. One could fall. A human body could easily be stuck, wedged between the frozen walls. Sometimes his chest is crushed. Sometimes the body temperature melts the ice, forming a layer of water around the body that will eventually freeze. When it does, it becomes almost impossible to get the person out before it is too late. Before he is too cold to climb. Frozen. All of this is likely to have crossed his mind before he fell. Few come as close to glaciers as the people who guide on them. No one knows more about the icy dangers, the compelling thrill and their breathtaking beauty. Every day they experience glacial meltdown first hand. FREDRIK MALMO; NORDSKIOLD GLACIER

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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC l DECEMBER 2013

Over 16 million kilometres of the earth’s surface is covered by large chunks of blue, crisp and ancient ice. Glaciers. Like mythical creatures they sleep, old and still. At least that is what people think. The reality is so very different. After talking to three experienced glacier guides from across the globe, this might be the single most striking realisation of them all – glaciers are not passive bodies of frozen water. A glacier changes, transforms and reshapes, but the only way to see this is to have a closer look. If you slide your hands along its rough surface and feel the cold katabatic breeze on your face. From afar a glacier might look polished and smooth, but at close range the ice is dangerously sharp, rough

enough that you can easily cut yourself on it. A glacier is never flat. It is not a colossal ice cube randomly placed between white majestic mountains and deep green seas. It is full of terrific features; of deep cracks, gaping tunnels, holes, walls, rivers, streams and anything else your imagination could possibly desire. But it never lasts for long. In the blink of an eye the landscape has transformed, peaks as sturdy as rock have suddenly melted away as if they were never there and new attractions have appeared where there used to be just thin, cold air. In the midst of all of this there are people living their normal everyday lives, going to work in the morning and returning to bed in the evening. MELTING ROCKS

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Except it is not normal, not to the majority of the world’s population who has never set their foot on a several thousand year old block of ice and is unlikely to ever do so. To most people a journey into a frozen landscape would be an experience of a lifetime, exceptional in every way possible. But someone needs to show them the way. Teach them to treat the mighty old monster with respect, to avoid falling into one of its deep, dark jaws or get crushed in its tight and frosty grip. The glacier guides are men and women of all ages, but what they all have in common is a fascination and admiration for the elements. It comes as no surprise that a burning passion is needed when working in the coldest conditions of all.

When the paper mill closed down in 2000, Graza saw it as an opportunity to do something he wanted to do. He signed up for a training course on the Fox Glacier and that is where he has worked ever since. Unfortunately, according to himself, he tends to remember the good days and not the bad ones. Knowing the worst of them, no one could possibly blame him. Sarah Ebright also spends her days on the ice, but at the complete opposite side of the world. Since 2012 and the age of 24, Sarah has worked on the Root Glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, the Mountain Kingdom of North America, in Alaska. The glacier is situated close to the small town of McCarthy-Kennecott and almost 100 km away

Fredrik Malmo has been guiding for three years after graduating from the Arctic Nature Guide study programme in Longyearbyen on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard. Located in the Arctic Ocean, the islands have Norway’s biggest glacier and the third largest sheet of ice in the world; Austfonna. At the age of 27, Malmo has not been guiding there yet, but he has worked on glaciers on the Norwegian mainland and on the Longyear Glacier and Nordelskiold Glacier on Svalbard. Being so close to the Arctic Circle he faces challenges that few of his colleagues in other parts of the world would ever encounter. In addition to the regular kit, of ropes, ice pick and crampons, he will also have to carry a lethal weapon. In case they meet a polar bear.

The Fox Glacier is one of two glaciers on the

from the nearest paved road. Just like the rest of the inhabitants of the town, Ebright has willingly rejected the modern lifestyle in favour of a life close to the environment in which she works. There is no running water, houses or electricity in the camp where the guides live. She admits these living conditions are rare among glacier guides, even in Alaska, but she has no complaints about bathing every three days in a wood-fired sauna or sharing two kitchens between 30 guides. Most of them sleep in tents, but this season Sarah was lucky enough to get her very own plywood shack where she has threesquare meters all to herself. “I lucked out and got a mattress too,” she says.

It is no secret that all the glaciers on earth are

On the Ice

Fredrik Malmo (right) has already tested his skills across a wide range of glaciers close to the Arctic. Sarah Ebright is technically an Engineer in Training (middle), but like Graham ‘Graza’ Willcock (far right), she spends most of her time exploring the ice. PICTURED’S OWN PHOTOS

West Coast of Southern New Zealand. Several hundred metres thick and stretching across 13 km of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, it attracts thousands of eager tourists and adventurous guides from across the world. Graham ‘Graza’ Willcock has spent the last 13 years as one of the lucky few that gets to explore and interact with the blue masses on an everyday basis. 62 years old he is no longer the average age of a glacier guide, in fact he never was. Unlike most of his colleagues he has several jobs behind him, and is proud to say he was both a joiner and an operator at a paper mill before he started out on the glacier. 36

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC l DECEMBER 2013

slowly melting away. They are still growing in the winter, but not enough to make up for the meters that trickle of the ice every summer. It is the amount of snow that falls in the winter that determines how much the glacier shrinks or grows. The decline is particularly visible on the tracks used to find the way around the ice and which the hikers keep to because they know they are safe. “A set track is cut every day, every morning it is re-cut because it melts away over night,” Graza says. The rapid melting of the ice makes the outlook of the glacier change in the course of a day, making exploring the only way to keep on top of the MELTING ROCKS

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changes. The others have similar experiences as well. Malmo says he often finds the glacier a meter slimmer in the afternoon than he did in the morning. None of them are in denial. They all know that what is happening is unlikely to be of nature’s own making. “There is no compromise about the fact that we do have global warming,” Graza says. “The question is really how much anthropogenic CO2 production is accelerating that warming.” The Fox Glacier grew 200 metres a week, between 2004 and 2008, adding another 80 metres in thickness to the vast block of ice. But since 2009 the measurements have reversed. I feel, Ebright says, “there are natural cycles in the global temperatures in the history of the world, and I wonder if we are just on a warmer cycle right now.” Does that mean there might be hope for the glaciers? Graza seems to think so. “It is quite possible that we lose them,” he says. “It is also quite possible that they could advance.” Malmo does not think there is any chance that the glaciers will last forever and says that at some point they are going to be gone. “It is impossible to stop it and it is a terrible shame for the generations to come.” What many tend to get wrong when talking

about the effects of global warming is that the glaciers melting, as opposed to shrinking, is as natural as green new leaves appearing in spring. It is the summer, sunny weather and melted water that give birth to all the glacial attributes that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. On the Root Glacier it has even resulted in somewhat of a tradition for the locals living near the ice. Ebright calls it “when the Hidden Creek Lake goes”. It happens every year, and only when the glacier has melted enough to make tunnels reaching as far as the surface of the ice. When this happens under a lake on the glacier, a jökulhlaup, it will drain the entire lake. “Out on the glacier that day, water is spouting out of cracks and holes in the ice, caves are filling up with water and then draining, and the glacier is making these popping and cracking sounds,” Ebright says. The whole town goes down to see the Kennecott River rise, while hikers are mildly concerned about the breaking noises and the water suddenly bubbling up from cracks in the ice. 38

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC l DECEMBER 2013

Cracks, or crevasses, are made when the glacier

moves. As the glacier slides down the valley, as it invariably does, it creates tension in the ice causing it to crack open and reveal a deep rift. It is just like when lightning strikes between the clouds, except that it is ice rather than air. Unlike most features on a glacier, a crevasse is not made from the cold, clear and clean water running in, upon and even under the ice. “Falling into a crevasse is the worst case scenario,” Malmo explains when talking about the many dangers of guiding on the ice. “But chunks of ice the size of houses that suddenly decide to come tumbling down the side of a mountain they are pretty dangerous too.” All glacier guides know about the risks. Graza has experienced a few. He once had an ice pick through his foot, creating a gaping hole on the top of his boot, big enough to stick his little finger into. “The other accident was when I fell into a crevasse,” he says. “I was really really lucky to have walked away from that one.”The glacier can be a slippery place, and the less ice, the more hazardous it is. One could slip. And that is exactly what he did. Graza fell backwards off a small wall of ice, landing on the narrow ridge between two yawning cracks in the ice. Terrified, he went down one of them. “Fortunately I got stuck and was caught about halfway down,” he says. The only thing keeping him from falling even further into the frozen rift was a slight bulge on one of the icy walls and the radio he kept in his pocket. “That bulge and the radio was what saved me,” Graza says. The reason he got himself out of there was the fact that he had taken more equipment than he usually did, and was able to climb back out. With any less equipment he would not have been able to. With any less strength he might have been stuck. Graza is still on the ice. So are the other two.

They all say that what keeps them going is the people they meet and the astonishing surroundings they are allowed to work in. “I like to think that I go on one or two ‘once in a lifetime’ trips each summer,” Ebright says. “Getting people out on the glaciers, seeing what unique environment it is, and letting them fall in love with the glacial landscape is a great way for people to realise what important resources they are.”

Tunnel of Glass

When the glacier melts, the several hundred-year-old fresh water starts to dig its way through the ice, creating tunnels, caves and moulins out of the clear blue mass. GRAHAM WILLCOCK; FOX GLACIER


The Blue Masses

Malmo is sometimes baffled by the questions he is asked. He says not everyone understands that what they are walking on is a natural phenomenon. “A few have asked how often we empty the air out and clean it.” FREDRIK MALMO; NORDSKIOLD GLACIER

Melting rock, by Stine Lise Wannebo  

Magazine coursework for the University of Kent Centre for Journalism, in the style of National Geographic.

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