Every summer, I feel an urge to connect with Montana’s glaciers

Essay by Becky Lomax

Though it was twenty years ago, the memory remains crisp in my mind. After a long day of hiking in Glacier National Park, a girlfriend and I pitched our tent high on the saddle between Almost-a-Dog and Mount Logan overlooking the sweeping glacial basin below. I’d often viewed Jackson and Blackfoot glaciers in this basin from other angles—from Gunsight Pass Trail, from the summit of Mt. Jackson or Jackson Glacier moraine—but our off-trail perch offered a fresh vantage. From here the glaciers looked foreign, yet still familiar.

That night a full moon illuminated Jackson and Blackfoot until they glowed, almost emitting light themselves. Once connected a century ago, the pair now huddled in their individual cirques, separated by more than half a mile of moraines, ledges, and cliffs. Every year as their ice wanes, that rocky expanse between them grows larger. Since that night of glowing glaciers, I’ve returned to visit them again and again, marking their decline in my mind.

The story of Glacier’s glaciers is almost finished. They will melt before the glaciers of the Cascade Mountains. They will disappear before the icefields that stretch up the slopes of the Canadian Rockies. They will expire before their cousins in Alaska, South America, and Nepal.

Maybe that is why every summer, I feel an urgency to connect with these glaciers. Weasel Collar, Old Sun, Vulture, Piegan, and Sexton feel like old friends I’ve kept in touch with over the years, and I want to thank them for sculpting the landscape with their raw, powerful beauty. I want to visit each of them one last time, to bid a formal farewell.

I recall a trip years ago, when I skied over Sperry Glacier on a late spring traverse through Floral Park. Compared with photos I’d studied from the early 1900s, the glacier had receded substantially from the basin’s edges, leaving a new broad bowl of moraines, scoured bedrock, and melt ponds. Scanning the icy perimeter of the glacier, I noted more exposed rocks—massive ones that appeared just in the past two decades since I spent my summers working in one of the park lodges as an excuse to hike. But even in its reduced size, Sperry seemed to retain some heft of health that day. My friends and I skinned up a huge hump in the middle, a swale of thick ice sliced through with several crevasses still filled with winter’s snow. Zig-zagging in between these chasms, we ascended the icy mound that fattened like a muscular belly to reach Comeau Pass, our exit from the basin.

Since that ski trip, I have been back to Sperry Glacier many times. But two summers ago, I noticed just how much the glacier had visibly morphed in recent years. Up top, big winter cornices still hung, draping like a protective housecoat over boney shoulders, but down lower on the glacier, where the hump we once climbed used to be, the ice faded into a thin pancake. It reminded me of how an elderly person’s once robust muscles eventually languish and hang limp in old age. A series of longer, drier, and hotter summers had robbed far more ice from the glacier’s belly than even heavy winter snows could add. Now, below the housecoat, the gaunt ribs of crevasses stretched across withered ice that may not last until I can return again.

I recently trekked up to Grinnell Glacier in early fall to see its own particular changes. For years, I have noted the position of a certain red-layered boulder the size of a delivery truck, perched on the ice. Wedged off the mountainside by freeze-thaw cycles, it plunged from the wall of Mt. Gould above, landing on Grinnell, where the ice slowly carted it downhill along with other scattered debris the size of ovens, teapots, and baseballs. Even four years earlier, that big red boulder was still on ice. Now it sat like a gravestone on bare rock.

Although that boulder’s glacial ride is over, Grinnell itself still moves inches forward each year. Even while summer melts its ice into water and its edges shrink back in retreat, the force of the compressed ice crawling downhill still makes Grinnell live up to its name as a glacier. At some point, when the glacier’s mass shrinks too small, it will halt all movement. No staggering death throes, no final closing of eyes, no exhaling of a last breath. In stillness the glacier will no longer possess the power to transport pebbles, much less boulders. And without movement, 7,000-year-old Grinnell will no longer be a glacier at all.

Until then, I will continue to hike to witness these glaciers’ final days. As if in bedside vigil, I want to honor their role in the world, in my world. To let them know I am sad to see them go.

Editor’s Note: This essay appears in Whitefish Review’s issue #23 called “Our Living Planet.” Issue #24, “Awakenings & Our Teachers,” will be published in November.