Saturday, November 9, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Acrophobia, Glacierlets, and "Summer" in Whistler, B.C.

Inuksuk near the top of Whistler Mountain. See the note at the end of the post.
Acrophobia, the fear of heights, is an interesting phenomenon. I don't have it, I swear. I have no trouble standing on cliff edges, or climbing up in trees, or flying. Gondolas don't bother me. There are variations and subcategories though. I can stand on a high cliff and look over the edge, but I cannot abide watching someone else do it, especially my students. And I really don't like dangling.

There are lots of creepy heebie-jeebie moments in movies, like "Here's Johnny!", or "the call is coming from inside the house", but none gives me heart palpitations like the opening scene of "Cliffhanger" when Sylvester Stallone is trying to save a young women dangling from a rope over a vast chasm. She falls unfortunately, and I always drop the popcorn while covering my eyes. And then there is that first scene from "Vertical Limit", when not one, but three people fell down the cliff.

In my youth (roughly the ages 12 through 60 years) I was a regular peak bagger and rock clamberer. But I couldn't handle dangling from a rope. I only feel comfortable with solid rock or flooring under my feet. I rappelled down a cliff just once, I've never parachuted or gone hang-gliding, and rides at amusement parks that mimic the experience have never held any appeal for me.

This fact that I hate dangling is the background to today's description of our exploration of British Columbia that we undertook last summer in July. It's because I had to dangle over a cliff in order to see something I really wanted to see: a glacier from above.
Whistler Mountain from the Roundhouse Lodge at the top of the Whistler Gondola.
We were well into our trip by the time we reached the town of Whistler, BC. We had explored the Olympic Peninsula, parts of Vancouver Island, crossed the Strait of Georgia, and wandered for days in Howe Sound, the southernmost fjord on the west coast of North America. We drove there on a modern highway, much of which was stapled onto cliffs of Howe Sound. Before the highway was completed (in the 1960s) and improved and widened in the early 2000s (in preparation for the Winter Olympics of 2010), Whistler was an isolated logging community. Today it is a busy recreational center, winter and summer.

On the day we arrived in town it was a little hard to tell which season it was July and it was cold and rainy. It could hardly be anything different (under the rules of Murphy's Law) since our weather thus far had been rather nice, and I was looking forward to seeing the spectacular alpine scenery around Whistler (my previous two visits had been in poor weather as well). We had scheduled only a few activities in the morning so the students could do some exploring on their own during the long afternoon.
The Peak Express ski lift leading to the summit of Whistler Mountain
As a major winter recreation site, the mountainsides are draped with all manner of gondolas and ski lifts, as well as some incredibly long ziplines. A single ticket provided access to most of the gondolas and the ski lifts that were running in the summer, so I headed up the Whistler Gondola, with the intention of riding and walking over a glacier for the first time (I've been to Athabasca Glacier, but not over it). There was also something up there called the Cloudraker Skybridge and the Raven's Eye that sounded worth checking out.

So this is where we talk about acrophobia. I had no problem with the gondola ride at all. It's in an enclosed space with seats and a floor and all that. But when I got out at the Roundhouse Lodge at 6,069 feet, I found that I was still 1,100 feet below the summit of Whistler Mountain. And I would have to get their via...a ski lift. A spindly rickety dangling ski lift. I know all you skiers out there are used to these things, but I'm not. I don't like them. But it was the only way to get to the top of Whistler Mountain within our time constraints, so I hiked over to the base of the cliff and loaded myself onto the lift.
The Cloudraker Skybridge and Raven's Eye (on the far right). The "snow" is actually the top of a glacier.
There are a few places I've been that feel like no human should really be there. At the very bottom of a huge open-pit mine, for instance. One looks at the rocks exposed for the first time in millions or billions of years, and it just doesn't feel comfortable. Standing two feet from flowing lava. And dangling from a thin cable over a cliff of crumbling rock. It just didn't feel right. But there I was, and soon I reached the top no worse for the wear.
Walking out onto the Cloudraker Skybridge. The Raven's Eye is in the distance, upper left.

Once I was on solid ground again I felt better. I walked over to the Skybridge and crossed it several times. It didn't bother me one bit, and I had a great view down the small glacier beneath my feet. Glacier is perhaps a strong word for what this icefield was. A glacier is defined mainly as a mass of ice large enough to flow under the influence of gravity, and this one qualified, but I suspect the rate of movement is on the order of a few inches or feet per year. The term glacierlet is sometimes applied to these ice fields (most Sierra Nevada glaciers are of about this magnitude in size).
It was immediately clear that this glacier was only a shadow of its former self. On the slope far below I could make out a barren ridge surrounding a turquoise lakelet with a couple of huge boulders. This was a very young terminal moraine, so young that plants had not had a chance to grow. The glacier ended down there only a hundred or so years ago. Although there is snow in the lower reaches, the actual glacier ends today hundreds of feet above the lake.
Terminal moraine and moraine lake at the former end of the glacier at Whistler Mountain.

The true size of the glacier today can be seen in a satellite image taken in the late summer when nearly all of the snow (but not glacial ice) has melted away (below). The loss of glacial ice is a worldwide phenomena indicating that the global climate is warming. When these glaciers disappear, their loss will have serious ramifications for the regional ecosystem. The glaciers serve as a dependable year-round water source for alpine creeks, and when that disappears, so will the animals and plants that are dependent on that water. They don't have anywhere else to retreat to.
Meanwhile, I had one more challenge. As physics tells us, what goes up must come down, and I had been procrastinating, walking around the nature trails around the peak of Whistler Mountain. I was out of time, and was going to have to take the ski lift back down. I'm glad no one was with me, because I was whimpering "oh, sh*t" over and over as the ski lift chair tipped over the edge of the void.
The arete on the east side of the glacier. The ski lift went right over it.
The scenery gave me something else to concentrate on, so I snapped lots and lots of mostly useless pictures, but I did get a decent perspective on the terminal moraine and small moraine lake behind it. The turquoise color is caused by clay-sized particles suspended in the water, derived from the grinding action of the glacier on the rocks at its base. An arete is a sharp jagged ridge that divides glacial valleys. The ski lift carried me right over the top of it.

You'll all be happy to know that I gathered myself together and was not whimpering by the time I reached the bottom of the lift.
In the end, the lousy weather mostly kept me from seeing the spectacular alpine scenery that surrounds Whistler. On the other hand I was able to see a glacier up close, and learned to live with my subtle form of acrophobia.
Google Earth image of the small glacier at Whistler Mountain. The cirque is the bowl-shaped valley where the glacier originates. The skybridge traverses the upper end of the cirque.
The Inuksuk at the beginning of the post was the icon of the 2010 Winter Olympics that were held in Vancouver and Whistler. The stone men have been a part of Inuit and other Arctic cultures for thousands of years. The use of the Inuksuk at the winter games was somewhat controversial, as no Inuits ever lived within hundreds of miles of the site of the games. The local First Nations people were the Squamish and Lil'wat.

Whistler refers to the Hoary Marmots found in the region. I saw one of them at the Roundhouse Lodge when I got back from the mountain.


rchesson said...

It's too bad that both of your movie examples are terrible examples of real climbing. Hollywood just doesn't get it and presumably the general viewing public doesn't know enough to know when what they are watching is junk. If you want to see some real climbing watch FREE SOLO. Admittedly not your typical climbing - solo climbing at this level is rare but it's a great film.

Garry Hayes said...

Free Solo was a great movie. In mentioning the others, I did fail to mention the ridiculous nature of the climbing scenes (plus other silly plot lines), visible even to an amateur like me! A more realistic film I enjoyed in decades past was "Solo" by Mike Hoover, produced in 1972. It was even nominated for an Oscar.

Garry Hayes said...

Here's a link to a version online complete in all its faded pink film glory: