Walking below the ice

Toronto Star Nov 12, 2016 PEMBERTON ICECAP, B.C.: We walk into the ice cave — fingers skimming the frozen wall, boots and hiking pole picking over boulders and a little river rushing alongside. Before we go too far into the cavern of blue, we pause, take off our gloves and turn on our headlamps.

We’re walking underneath part of the Pemberton Icecap, the southernmost of five giant icefields in B.C., about 1,300 metres up and a 20-minute helicopter ride from Whistler.

The caves, tunnels really, are formed every year by water melting along the bed of the glacier. As we walk through the ice, drops of water fall on your face and little chunks of ice — just enough for a gin and tonic — bounce off your shoulder.

“I like to hang out in the blue,” says Doug Washer with a grin as bright as the headlamp on his helmet. “It’s my happy place.”

As head of Head-Line Mountain Holidays, Washer helps bring hundreds of visitors to the icecap every year to hike the caves, go snowmobiling or, in some cases, hold a wedding.

We pick our way over the slippery rocks and Washer points out a moulin, a skylight in the tunnel that lets the sun stream in, showing off fantastical frozen shapes and about a million shades of blue in the ice.

He warns us not to touch a giant sculpture of ice that descends from the top of the tunnel, technically an icicle, but he encourages us to get up close to the walls of the cave to see air bubbles and bits of sand trapped in the ice.

The ice-cave tour caters to Whistler’s high-end visitors. The resort town and home to the 2010 Winter Olympics has long been considered a top North American luxury destination.

Washer has been leading backcountry tours for about 30 years and he clearly delights in showing the wonders waiting in the caves. “I love it,” he says. “I find it interesting and intriguing. It spawns so many questions. I get more joy taking people on this trip than any other thing I’ve ever done.”

Eager to learn more about the ice, Washer is working with glaciologist Gwenn Flowers from Simon Fraser University to better understand how the icecap is changing.

“Ice itself flows, it turns over with time,” Flowers says from her office in Vancouver. “The ice starts as snow and becomes incorporated into the glacier, flows through and eventually melts out somewhere else.”

The ice cave we’re in came from somewhere upstream and she estimates it’s likely been around for decades, maybe centuries.

We emerge from the cave and walk up through rocks artfully arranged by ice and time. We turn off our headlamps and head back to the helicopters that are parked on top of the ice caves.

Washer leads the way, probing the ice with a pole to ensure we aren’t walking over a crevasse. We snake our way back single file, smelling the barbecue and, when we get there, we strip off a few layers to enjoy grilled skewers of meat and shrimp in the sun.

As we eat, Washer tells us about the worms that live in the ice and the upside-down necklace shape of the arches we walked through. “It’s the strongest shape in the world,” he says.

As we sit atop a retreating icecap, the talk turns, inevitably, to climate change.

“We are part of the problem but I like to ask the question, ‘How do I be part of the solution,’ ” says Washer of the research project with Flowers. “Literally, each and every time we are flying out here, we are photographing, we are measuring, we are assessing, we are recording what’s going on,” he says.

Engrossed in conversation, we don’t notice the clouds coming in. But the pilots do. It’s time to go.

The crew calmly packs up the food, folds the blue patterned tablecloth and packs away the lawn (and snow) chairs. We pop the last of our Nanaimo bars into our mouths, grab our gear and climb into the helicopters.

As we take off, looking down at the deep lines of blue that run through the ice, we can’t help but wonder about the rivers flowing, ice sculptures forming and worms that are moving underneath.


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