Ghosts of Rainier:
Glaciers, and bodies buried in them, are slowly sliding down the mountain
It might seem like magic if the remains of two mountain climbers who vanished atop Mount Rainier almost a century ago were to reappear at the base of one of its glaciers a decade from now. But to glaciologists, the phenomenon would be pure science.
"I think that hypothetically, they could come out," hydrologist Carolyn Driedger says of climbers Joseph W. Stevens and T.Y. Callaghan.
Driedger, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, is an expert on the history of Rainier's 25 glaciers. She has spent a career studying the seemingly unchanging structures that have dominated the Puget Sound landscape for thousands of years.
Like the thousands of glaciers sprinkled around the world, Rainier's glaciers are flowing, organic entities.
Their movements are the reason Stevens and Callaghan, last seen Aug. 14, 1909, as they approached the summit from the 12,660-foot Gibraltar Rock, could eventually re-emerge thousands of feet lower.
"Glaciers creep downward like cold molasses moving downhill," Driedger said from her office inside the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.
Gravity is the main reason for the movement. So are the vast amounts of snow that fall on the higher slopes of Rainier each year. As new snowfall covers previously fallen snow and ice, gravity drags the snow downward along the slope.
When a body or a piece of climbing equipment falls into a crack in the glacier's surface, known as a crevasse, it becomes part of the flowing motion, explained Terri Mathews, an instructor in geology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
"Anything that falls into the glacier will be carried along until it reaches the end of the glacier," Mathews said. "This may take years."
Glaciologists have developed mathematical formulas to find out when an object left on the summit surface would emerge near the terminus, or snout, of a glacier. Based on the surface slope, thickness of ice and the pressure the ice exerts on rockbed, the formulas offer an estimate not unlike the one rangers made in 1909, when Stevens and Callaghan disappeared.
Callaghan, an experienced woodsman from Oregon, and Stevens, a vacationing contractor from Trenton, N.J., vanished during a blizzard as they made their way without a guide to Camp Misery, at the foot of Gibraltar.
When the weather cleared, searchers discovered the pair's alpenstocks and packs. Not far away, they found tracks leading over shale rock near the crater and down the edge of a stomach-churning ice cliff at the head of the White River Glacier, now known as Ingraham Glacier. Park rangers surmised the two fell off the cliff, possibly into a deep crevasse.
Using a formula that predicted 10 inches of daily movement along the six-mile-long glacier, rangers predicted the climbers' ice-encased bodies would remain frozen until they arrived at the snout 102 years later.
Stevens' family so strongly believed the prediction that they posted a $500 reward for the eventual recovery of the bodies.
Carolyn Driedger called the 90-year-old estimate "pretty reasonable."
"I did the math and it is quite possible they're in the lower part of the terminus now, still in the ice or thawed. Seventy to 100 years is a real good estimate without having measured the velocity of the glacier."
Rangers could have been expected to recover some of the remains in the 1980s if the men had fallen onto the glacier's surface and been covered with snow.
But bodies of climbers who tumble into crevasses take much longer to emerge from the solid ice that makes up much of a glacier's structure, Driedger said.
"Inside a crevasse is a really drippy place. There's a lot of water there. An object there is going to be subject to more ice, more freezing and melting, than an object on the surface. And it won't move downward at the same velocity," she said.
The bodies of 11 climbers killed in an icefall in 1981 may illustrate the different velocities of glacial movement. Some of those who were plowed under by truck-sized chunks of ice beneath the Ingraham Falls landed inside a deep crevasse that filled with rushing snow and ice. Others killed in the ice avalanche remained on the surface of the slope.
The personal effects and remains of the latter group could resurface sooner than the former group, and more quickly than the climbers lost in 1909, Driedger said.
"They fell in just above the equilibrium line, or the level on the glacier to which the annual snowfall melts, so they're going to come out to the surface before someone who went into the summit," she explained. "But the actual 'when' isn't clear."
Glacial movement, while imperceptible to the naked eye, has been charted at Rainier for nearly 70 years.
Tacoma City Light Co. first began recording the movement of Rainier's southern-facing Nisqually Glacier, now one of the most studied glaciers in the world, in 1931. The power company's goal was rooted in an interest in hydroelectric power, but its data has helped scientists measure how the glacier has moved through the years.
During May 1970, the glacier was measured moving as fast as 29 inches per day.
"Nobody has gone out and measured the velocity of other glaciers, so they apply the lessons of Nisqually and use an average of 10 inches a day," Driedger said. "That's what they did in 1909."
P-I reporter Kimberly A.C. Wilson can be reached at 206-615-1246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, March 29, 2000
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