Chasing Glaciers

by Alison Gannett
Winter 2008

Gasping at almost 20,000 feet, Zoe Hart carefully belayed me over gaping crevasses toward the summit of Mount Bullock Workman, nestled in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan. The cone-shaped snowcap above had seemed benign, but lumps formed in my parched throat as we now realized it was precariously cantilevered over a vertical-rock north face.

As we got closer, I probed each step deliberately and quickly slid my skis over gaping cracks, trying not to glance at the rock below. Forty feet later, I halted suddenly – my stomach clenched with an intuition too churning to ignore. This would be our final step, I declared. We had both lost friends to cornice failure, and weren’t interested in becoming another mountaineering statistic.

Weeks of work had now become a dream come true and we would soon begin a first descent. We celebrated by having a look around. K2 and the Ogre, peaks of my childhood climbing dreams, watched us protectively as they held the clouds of a predicted storm momentarily at bay. To the south and down the Biafo Glacier, our next ski goal Koser Gung popped into view, standing at just over 21,000 feet yet strikingly without snow.

Explorer, writer, geographer and mountaineer Fanny Bullock Workman had left records of her expeditions to this area, and we were retracing her footsteps. Her photos showed a landscape that was drastically different a century ago. In the 1990s scientists noted that climate change had brought more snow to this area as warmer air fueled stronger storms. Yet in recent years, temperatures had warmed further, turning much of the snow to rain and lubricating the glaciers like slip ’n slide. Miles of ice were disappearing overnight, and side glaciers we encountered on the way up were barely recognizable in century-old photos.

I stared at Koser Gung’s bare flanks and realized we would not be able to ski her. I thought beyond my love of skiing to what would become of a world that relied on snowpack for its primary supply of drinking water and irrigation, whether here in Pakistan or at home in the U.S.

I brought my mind back to the objective at hand. We quickly readied to ski, trying to concentrate on details in our altitude-induced haze and excitement of the descent. The intense sun was searing my eyeballs, driving a nail into my forehead. Conditions were becoming dangerous with the heat. The slush was now a foot deep, begging to tweak a knee, but sun was far preferable to the rain and snow that had been predicted. Coiling the ropes, we sacrificed the safety of lines for the speed and bridging of skis.

Turn, turn, oh sheeit … big crack, point it over the crevasse … recover, don’t break a leg in the slush, another crack … point it again, screech of brakes, slow down, turn, turn, big crack again, repeat, where is Zoe? Okay, she is still above ground – breathe, breathe, CRACK, point it. It went like this for a few hours – not exactly a descent filmed for the big screen. It was survival skiing. The slope mellowed and the worst of the cracks was over, but another 1,000 feet of more well-covered snow bridges over crevasses lay ahead, surrounded by shower-curtain-like ice walls, calving a few Volkswagen-sized blocks in the searing heat.

Back at high camp, we scampered to the safety of the tent as the first few raindrops began to fall and the wind began to howl. Zoe made miso soup and instant mashers, while I battened down for the storm. Fanny had camped here as well, but it was also unrecognizable from the photos. As I battled a migraine descending on my head like a tidal wave, I couldn’t help but think if the next generation would be able to ski this peak at all.

About the Author

Patagonia ambassador Alison Gannett is a world champion, extreme big-mountain freeskier and competitive endurance mountain biker. She has also dedicated her life to solutions for global warming. Alison founded her first business to combat climate change in 1991 and founded her first of many “global cooling” nonprofits in 2004.