Glaciers don’t rush. Or at least they didn’t used to. During the last Ice Age, glaciers shaped our landscape while crawling, on average, but a few centimetres a day.
Today, we’re in an interglacial period (the Holocene) without continental ice sheets—and though “inter” suggests these ice sheets will return, many of those remaining are in rapid retreat. While prehistoric glacial subsidence was a slow-motion, multi-millennial process, scientists and explorers of today are documenting startling rates of glacial shift and collapse. Nowhere is this more evident than in glacial caves—water-carved windows into the guts of these giant, rock-flecked bulldozers.
words by Ned Morgan
Sandy Glacier, on the western side of Mount Hood in Oregon’s Cascade Range, is a remnant of an icecap that covered the entire mountain during the Pleistocene, a chunk of fossil ice containing air bubbles and organic material crucial to the study of life and atmospheric conditions over thousands of years. In 2012, explorers Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya mapped the Sandy cave system to a length of over two kilometres. Today, according to photographer Josh Hydeman, navigable passages measure around 300 metres. Having accompanied McGregor, Cartaya and German cave climatologist Andreas Pflitsch on a weeklong expedition through Sandy’s caves in 2015, few know Sandy’s caverns—especially “Snowdragon” (recently collapsed) and “Pure Imagination” (see photo, above)—better than the Portland-based lensman.
How challenging is it to shoot inside the Sandy Glacier?
It’s very wet. Many times, the camera’s autofocus stopped working so I stopped shooting—I didn’t want my whole system to just turn off. There’s also a lot of rock- and icefall. Once, a car-sized chunk of ice slid off the wall about six metres away; I was just turning on my DSLR and focusing and we could hear the ice cracking as I pressed record. And exiting Pure Imagination, there’s a debris chute above the mouth with so many rocks coming down you need a spotter to tell you that now would be the time to run as fast as you can. In summer, morning is the safest time to go into a cave, since the sun hasn’t affected the ice yet. But around sunset, the water is raging—a small river flowing throughout the cave—so much white noise you have to yell to communicate. In winter it’s much quieter, more echoey. You’re always surprised by the changing features; how alive caves are. They really have personalities. The level of difficulty is condition- and season-specific, and it might take rope work and crampons to see the entire cave. In winter, there’s a very icy, sideways traverse on angles anywhere from 25 to 40 degrees. In summer, it’s almost as challenging because it’s very steep talus with lots of moving rock. Few have explored “Pure Imagination” as deeply as the 2015 expedition.
What was that like?
There have been times when conditions made it easy to visit the cave, and a lot of photographers did, but they’d just go in, take a couple of shots, then leave. If you spend a week there in the summer, however, the amount of time you’re inside adds to the danger—just like a mountain climber doing a ridge traverse. Once I was shooting a sunset rainbow in a small waterfall pouring out of a moulin [a vertical shaft in a glacier formed by water percolating down from the top] and a piece of rock the size of a lawn chair came down through it… But it’s not like we’re scared the whole time. You look at the ceiling and pay attention to where rocks are and you just move quickly. And you need to go with the right people. For the 2015 expedition, we had walkie-talkie communication with search and rescue; that kind of psychological support lets you get a lot of caving done.
As a photographer, you’ve witnessed change in the caves more vividly than anyone.
I’ve been shooting in the Sandy Glacier caves since 2014. Many features I photographed are no longer there. For instance, one cave had a horizontal entrance and after a collapse it turned into a snow bridge, and then eventually that came down, too. This place is so strikingly beautiful that your memory of it is very detailed. Especially when you photograph it and have a relationship with the images. So, when I revisit, it’s very easy to see the differences.
What attracted you to glacier caves?
First it was beauty. Then I attended the International Workshop on Ice Caves in 2014 where I learned that there’s a sense of urgency about them among scientists. They want to collect samples from ice caves before they melt. Spending so much time photographing these places has been an ongoing learning process. Being able to freeze these moments with photography makes sense to me. I can help leave a record.
Among other discoveries, Andreas Pflitsch’s Sandy Glacier expedition found that volcanic hot springs farther up the mountain were helping form the caves. As part of an ongoing study of climate change and mountain glaciers, the team installed data loggers in Sandy and other Pacific Northwest glacier caves, including the summit of Mount Rainier.
Josh Hydeman is a Mountain Hardwear Ambassador.