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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


Ice Climbing Is Having Its Moment. But How Much Longer Will the Ice Be Around?

Yet just as ice climbing is surging, its future is uncertain. The mountains, waterfalls and cliffs that draw climbers are falling apart. Warmer winters, melting glaciers and summer droughts and heat waves make spending time in the mountains riskier every year. This is ominous not only for climbers but for all of us, a portent of the warming planet.

This summer, local guides suspended climbs above Chamonix, France, for fear that the permafrost (embedded deep in the surface and gluing the peaks together) had thawed. A glacier collapsed on the Marmolada in the Italian Dolomites, killing 11 people, including two local mountain guides. The glacier was in decline, Tristan Kennedy reported in Wired magazine this summer, but “there was very little to suggest this slow death spiral was about to accelerate so violently.”

Silas Rossi, one of a handful of American guides who work in New England in the winter and in the Alps for the summer season, said traditional risks inherent in climbing are growing harder to predict. The dangers of avalanches and ice and rock falls have been amplified. “The term ‘unprecedented’ gets thrown around a lot,” he told me. “But I think it’s actually true. We don’t have historical data to rely on to make judgments about these events.”

The scarcity of ice-climbing terrain and the growing popularity of the sport are colliding. Paul McCoy, who runs the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest, told me that the ice in the name is no longer a given for the event. “Rain events are just more and more common,” he said. “It’s stressful. It almost keeps me up at night.”

In a study coordinated by the American Alpine Club, a team of researchers focused on ice-climbing conditions in the Mount Washington Valley from 2001 to 2021 to project the sport’s future in the region. Relying on anecdotal and photographic evidence from area guides, as well as existing climate models, the team came up with scenarios for what winter climbing would look like in 2100. Without a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century, the average annual number of climbable days may shrink to just 30 in the region from the nearly 100 over the study period. Already, the researchers found, midwinter conditions are increasingly springlike, increasing the hazards for climbers.

The last time I climbed Repentance, in 2019, its skeletal ice dribbled down, a fraction of what it was when Mr. Bragg and Mr. Wilcox climbed it in 1973. Struggling to keep warm as I paid out rope, I found it hard to think that this climb might evaporate into little more than memory. My wife worked her way past the most difficult section, carefully pecking at the meager ice so as not to dislodge any. In 2020 and 2021 the route hardly formed at all, yielding just a handful of ascents. In 2022 it returned for just over a week, with eager climbers queuing up to climb it, before disappearing again.

It’s not lost on me that the skills that ice climbing teaches, the ones used on the first winter ascent of Repentance on Cathedral Ledge — problem solving in the face of dire odds, unyielding optimism — are now required to preserve this climb and many others by slowing the warming of the climate. May we all take a page from Mr. Bragg and Mr. Wilcox’s playbook, and soon, as we confront this challenge.

Michael Wejchert is a climber and the author of the forthcoming book “Hidden Mountains: Survival and Reckoning After a Climb Gone Wrong.”

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