Some people peer into ice caves and see yawning caverns tucked deep in glaciers, the glassy sheen on scalloped walls and a brilliant blue glow from beneath the ice.
Eddy Cartaya and Brent McGregor see a chance to study what life on Mars might be like, the opportunity to develop a warning system for communities at risk from lahars and the excitement of doing something no one else in science is doing.
They also see skyrocketing costs as their expeditions on Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood continue to grow.
The men, who founded the nonprofit Glacier Cave Explorers, are mapping the ever-changing ice caves and gathering data from beneath the glaciers.
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In 2011, they discovered three caves on the northwestern slopes of Mount Hood and since have mapped 7,000 feet of passages, which some experts say is the longest glacial cave system in the lower 48 states.
Two years ago, they stumbled across a lake in one of the fumarole caves near Mount Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit. Cartaya’s wife named it Adelie Lake because the azure water reminded her of the blue-eyed Adelie penguin.
“No one else is doing this research,” said Craig McClure, the team’s safety and logistics officer. “This is so far the only team that’s been able to pull together the right people with the right passion and the right skills to go do it.”
GIVING AN X-RAY VIEW
Cartaya and McGregor have decades of experience caving and mountaineering.
But it wasn’t until they found the Sandy Glacier Ice Caves on Mount Hood that they realized the caves offered an X-ray view into the internal workings of a glacier and brought science into it.
They launched their first expedition there in 2012, hauling 80-pound packs loaded with survey gear, ropes, wetsuits, crampons, ice axes, food and tents.
Over the years Cartaya and McGregor have been studying them, the caves have drastically changed by shrinking in length and getting taller and wider, indicating Sandy Glacier is receding at a fast pace.
More than half of Snow Dragon — the largest cave and once 2,300 feet long — has collapsed.
The entrance to Pure Imagination was just a fissure when the men discovered it, but now it could fit a bus inside. It has shrunk from more than a half-mile long to about 1,400 feet.
Frozen Minotaur keeps adding passageways, which allows more warm air to pass through.
In essence, the caves are causing the glacier to melt from the inside out.
In 2014, the Glacier Cave Explorers organized the first expedition since the 1980s into the ice caves in Mount St. Helens’ crater.
Within months, they expanded their studies to the fumarole caves at the top of Mount Rainier. These caves form as heat rises from deep within the volcano and melts the base of the ice cap that fills Rainier’s twin craters.
Nobody knows when those caves were discovered, but they first were described in 1870 by Gen. Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump during the first documented ascent of Rainier.
The climbers were caught in an unexpected storm and sought shelter in one of the caves after noticing steam coming from the rocky rim.
In the 1970s, a team mapped some of the caves but no studies were conducted.
The Glacier Cave Explorers’ first expedition to the top of Rainier was to scout the caves. Last year, they led a team that used lasers to create 3-D maps, measure ice walls and take water and microbial samples.
Occasionally called the “backside of the moon,” Rainier once was considered to be a training ground for astronauts.
The extreme ice conditions combined with volcanic heat and gas could simulate conditions found in places such as Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa, both places scientists believe might harbor life.
CLIMATE INDICATORS AND HISTORY BOOKS
Ice caves indicate different behavior on Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.
Rainier appears to be a healthy glacier with an equilibrium between how much snow falls and how much melting happens on the crater floor. Mount St. Helens has the only growing glacier in the lower 48 states. Hood’s Sandy Glacier is quickly receding.
Cartaya said the caves are both climate indicators and history books.
“Those are our records of climate history,” he said. “The caves expose ice layers inside the glacier and allow us access to the history of the mountain and the climate of the Pacific Northwest.”
The team’s work also could help search and rescue crews better find climbers who seek refuge in the caves during bad weather.
It also could provide information on how glaciers — and, in turn, the watershed — are disappearing and help scientists monitor volcanic behavior that could help predict lahars.
“There’s a lot of relevancy to the communities around these mountains,” Cartaya said.
RAINIER EXPEDITION PLANNED
In August, the Glacier Cave Explorers will lead a trip to Mount Hood and another expedition on Mount Rainier, where they’ll spend nearly two weeks camped in the summit crater.
The next trip to Mount St. Helens will be in 2017.
Glaciologists, climatologists, microbiologists and astrobiologists will join the team on its expeditions.
Rainier is the biggest expedition, although only 12 people will climb to the summit. Planning began almost immediately after the last trip ended.
One of the team’s goals this summer is to determine what is causing the change in cave volume to, in turn, detect any changes in the volcano’s hydrothermal and geothermal activity.
They also will monitor Rainier’s steam activity, which could help predict major landslides.
Scientists from Germany, Canada and across the United States will participate.
The budget for Rainier’s expedition, which includes scientific and safety equipment, is $80,000 to $90,000.
Although Cartaya and McGregor have mostly paid out of their pockets or relied on support from grants, for the first time they’ve launched a fundraising effort to help pay for the expeditions.
“As more and more scientists signed on and the scope and complexities grew, it became completely unaffordable,” Cartaya said.
The group has raised $3,335 of its $25,000 goal.
The money will be used for survival and rescue gear, medical supplies, science equipment, laboratory analysis of samples, breathing apparatus, volcanic gas monitors, satellite phones and expedition-style food and tents.
Last year, the team used 900 pounds of gear on Rainier. They enlisted help from mountaineering volunteers to help carry the equipment to the summit.
If the park grants them a permit for a helicopter this year, that pile of gear will expand to 12,000 pounds.
“There’s a little bit of stress to figuring this all out,” McClure said.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653
To learn more about the ice cave projects or to donate, go to bit.ly/22s7ACM