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Our Members: Alan Kearney Documents Our Changing Glaciers

Posted on: March 19th, 2013 by edemarco

by Alan Kearney, AAC

In 2005 while sorting through my photographs from over three decades of climbing in the Cascades, I realized I had some exceptionally high quality photographs of Cascade glaciers from as early as 1982. I decided I wanted to return to the glaciers, to photograph them today, and thought that comparing the images would be an interesting way to document the disappearance of our local ice due to climate change. This turned into a one-man project of glacial proportions, so to speak. 

Occasionally accompanied by a partner, I hiked or climbed into remote locations and obtained some startling photographs. Like my very best climbs in Alaska, Patagonia and the Cascades, this project was done in the tradition of alpine style; minimal equipment, human-powered, no camps, and no support.

That being said, to obtain the larger picture of what is occurring on our planet, different tactics are required. Much can be achieved by one person who is experienced and knows his or her environment, and the history of alpinism has shown us time and again what one climber is capable of.

My photo project is ongoing, and I have many more glaciers to photograph in the Cascades, and some in Patagonia. I plan to share my photo project with the science community. I believe that the work I have done will be a useful addition to the growing body of research on climate change and in turn give us more insight as to how these places we play are being affected by it. 

Below is an account of my 2012 climb of Forbidden’s West Ridge to capture comparison shots of Inspiration Glacier for my photo project. To read more stories like this, visit my blog. You may even learn a thing or two about glaciology. [Ed. The AAC intern did.]


In 1982, I took a photo of Inspiration Glacier from the summit of Forbidden Peak, and in late September 2012 I planned a return climb to capture comparison shots of the glacier for my photo project. The weather was supposed to be perfect except for possible smoke from recent forest fires. However, if the wind direction changed, and the smoke drifted over Forbidden Peak and my target glaciers, any chance of completing my photo record would be thwarted.

Forest Fire in the Cascades

Forest fire in the distance

My partner and I picked a Tuesday and Wednesday for our West Ridge climb, got a permit from NPS in Marblemount, and stomped up the steep, dusty path into Boston Basin. We got a dawn start the next morning from the high bivvies in the basin, weaved up the wet rock slabs, and then cramponed up the shattered Taboo Glacier. Ditching boots, axe and crampons a short ways above the glacier, we climbed rapidly up the dry gully adjacent the couloir (the couloir is broken up badly in late season), and onto the West Ridge.

Forbidden is comprised of Eldorado Orthogneiss, and by Cascade standards is quite solid. Climbing up the exposed ridge was super fun; the day was clear (the smoke seemed to be lingering on the other side of Cascade Pass) and wind was not a factor. We shared the rocky spine with four lads from a Mount Rainier guide service on their days off.

Climbing the West Ridge

Climbing the West Ridge

Once on the summit, I shot my buddy traversing the very same spot that my previous partner had in 1982 after climbing the Northwest Face. With my print in hand I directed my friend to nearly the same location, and then blasted away with my Nikon D90 using a 16 to 85mm VR stabilizing lens. This is my current favorite zoom for use in the high alpine. It covers a range equal to a 24mm to 127mm lens, and is compact and lightweight. The following photos reveal significant recession of the Inspiration Glacier:

Inspiration Glacier Recession 1982-2012

Inspiration Glacier recession 1982-2012

 With cropped images one can get a closer look at the ablation zone:

Close up of Inspiration Glacier in 1982

Close up of Inspiration Glacier in 1982


Close up of Inspiration Glacier in 2012

Close up of Inspiration Glacier in 2012

We down climbed and rapped the ridge, grabbed our boots and ice axes, and just made it back to camp at sunset. With headlamps twinkling, we plodded down the dark trail to our car, ending a perfect day in the high alpine.


Alan Kearney, climber and long time AAC member

Bio: Alan Kearney grew up in the Northwest and began hiking, skiing and climbing mountains at the age of seven. During college he gained further skill on big mountains and walls in Alaska and Yosemite. In 1981, he and Bobby Knight made the fourth ascent of the Central Tower Of Paine, in Chilean Patagonia via a new route. Three years later, he and Knight made the first alpine-style ascent of Fitz Roy’s 5,500-foot North Pillar in Argentine Patagonia.

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