Each year, the province’s glaciers lose enough water to fill BC Place Stadium 8,300 times. Scientists in the province and the outdoor community fear people and wildlife are at risk.
Mike Douglas was camping atop Cloudburst Mountain when he got the call – his friend and longtime pro skier Dave Treadway had fallen across a collapsed snow bridge and plunged 30 meters into a crevasse.
Treadway, a legend in the ski community, set out on the Rhododendron Glacier, his home ground, about 9 miles from Pemberton. Retiring from the most dangerous lines in the hinterland, in April 2019, the 34-year-old had settled with two young children and a woman in Pemberton.
His father and a film crew joined him in what friends describe as another “sweet day” but soon to turn deadly.
âThe sky has cleared,â says Douglas. “It was just a beautiful spot of light on the face.”
“Dave thought he would do a few laps.”
THE BIG LEAK
Glaciers west of Pemberton have replaced the coldest regions of the planet in popular culture, from Antarctica to X files Arctic film on TV shows like “Stargate”. But just as the poles melt into the sea, the Pemberton Icefield – along with 17,000 other glaciers in British Columbia – faces its own slow demise.
Glaciologists estimate that 22 billion cubic meters of water are lost each year by glaciers in the province. That’s enough to fill BC Place Stadium 8,300 times.
Brian Menounos, a glaciologist at the University of Northern British Columbia, says the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and melting ice is clear, and many of the province’s glaciers are not expected to survive until ‘at the end of the century.
A winter can be colder and receive a lot of snow. But the long term trend is in one direction.
âAre you planning to climb a sand dune. With each step you take, you take a step back, âMenounos explains.
In a recent study co-authored by Menounos, researchers found that 21% of sea level rise could be attributed to melting glaciers.
But it’s not just coastal communities that could suffer.
Doug Washer has been guiding people in the mountains for three decades; since 2013 this has meant bringing in tourists to explore the electric blue ice cave at the pemberton ice field.
âWhat we do in these ice caves is take some pretty pictures. But from a guide’s perspective, we record the changes over the years, âhe says. âThere is nothing like watching climate change as sitting there and watching an ice cube melt. “
Washer says his team documented an average of 26 feet of vertical ice loss each summer. This prompted them to move to higher elevations.
âWe just can’t travel there with guests. The crevasses are too big, chasms have opened. It’s just too dangerous, âWasher explains. “It changed so much, so quickly.”
The loss of this slow runoff of icy water in mountain streams is expected to have devastating consequences for B.C.’s iconic salmon populations and the web of life that depends on the cooling effects of glacier runoff. Many of these effects are expected to affect First Nations communities.
âThe change over the past 150 years, some of which is so rapid that we haven’t seen it in the past 10,000 years,â says Johannes Koch, a glaciologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who has spent the past 20 years. years studying glaciers in Garibaldi Park and the Pemberton Icefield.
âMost ecosystems adapt well to things, but they need time. ”
The people too. In August, about a quarter of the water in mountain rivers comes from melting glaciers in many watersheds in British Columbia, including the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan. If we lose them in the summer, Koch says it’s a bad time for farming.
In the winter, cracks and cracks open during the warmer months don’t get enough snow to make up for all the melt. Each year, this increases the risk of a fatal encounter for climbers, snowmobilers and skiers. Koch says it’s time for these communities to rethink what they know about established glacial routes.
âThe risk increases as the climate changes, as the terrain changes every year,â says David MacKenzie, Pemberton District Search and Rescue Director, noting the simultaneous pressure from the growing crowds. âWhen you look at places like Europe or certain places in the United States, the incidents are on the increase. ”
YEARS OF MANUFACTURING
Mike Douglas remembers skiing the Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain for the first time in 1988.
âHere, I ski in summer in August. It’s awesome, âhe says. “It seemed like something that would always be there.”
As a professional skier, Douglas says he cut his teeth on the glacier during the first half of the ’90s. At the time, he was seeing up to 2,000 people and 20 summer ski camps by. day on the glacier.
â33 years ahead, this glacier has almost disappeared to the point that they had to remove the T-bar last year. It’s like a bowl of milk, âhe says. “It was something that happened right in front of my eyes.”
In 2005, Douglas said he had had enough. The melting ice had made the professional athlete an armchair activist. Over the next decade, he used his public profile to take action on climate change on the slopes.
In 2018, he helped found Protect Our Winters Canada, a climate advocacy group uniting the outdoor industry with champions in skiing, mountaineering and trail running. Compared to other environmental organizations, Douglas says its 20,000 members are among the youngest.
âAn Olympic gold medalist shows up at your school, you’re excited,â he says. âWe’re pushing ski areas to run as clean and green as possible, starting with Whistler. “
The group’s pressure came in the form of 11,000 letters, which helped push for a federal environmental review of the Vista coal mine near Hinton, Alta., A move that echoed in the industry after the government discovered that the expansion of existing coal mines would have “unacceptable effects on the environment.”
Of course, says Douglas, no amount of superstar athletes can stop the inevitable melting that occurs in the alpine valleys of the world. He points to friends who line up to cross increasingly terrifying terrain, from the Alps to Mount Baker, and a cathedral-sized hanging glacier, which caused the evacuation of an entire Italian village when threatened to collapse last summer.
âIt’s just changing. The way we move in the mountains and the fear we feel, âhe says. “It’s starting to bother you mentally. These glaciers are falling apart. They are full of holes.
“RHODO WAS HIS HOME”
David MacKenzie received the call through 911 dispatch; someone had fallen into a crevasse on the nearby Rhododendron Glacier.
MacKenzie immediately mobilized his avalanche technician and crevasse rescue team. A four-person mountain rescue team made their way to the site, landing where the victim’s ski mates were waiting.
Pemberton is a small town with a tight-knit community. Yet nothing could prepare them to discover that their friend and years’ search and rescue colleague lay beneath their feet, his body shattered by a 30-meter drop in the ice.
Another helicopter from Whistler was called in and a total of 14 SAR volunteers helped recover the body of the 34-year-old skier.
When Mackenzie looks back on the death of the Treadway, his search and rescue team says there’s always a chance something could go wrong on a glacier.
On the other hand, he says, as glaciers disintegrate in the face of climate change, “No level of experience can explain a change in terrain.”
Or, as fellow professional skier and friend Mike Douglas said two years after the accident, “My first reaction when I heard it was Dave was, ‘It could have been me.’
âDave spent so much time there. Rhodo was his home. He knew it very well … Dave was in his happy place.
When considering 50 or 100 years in the future, Douglas says the worst thing we can do is worry so much that we don’t understand what’s left.
âEnjoy it. Go out and get it while you can.
With files from Brandon Barrett and The Canadian Press