High atop Cascade peaks, where mountaineering and science meet on some of the most unique, remote terrain on the planet, the Glacier Cave Explorers have found their niche.
Since 2011, Bend’s Eddy Cartaya has led the group on expeditions to Oregon’s Mount Hood and Washington’s Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, exploring and gathering information from the glacier caves located near the mountain summits.
Mountaineers, several of them from Bend, use their skills in cave surveying, ice climbing, rope rigging, wilderness survival and expedition logistics to help scientists gather valuable data in the fields of climatology, geomorphology, geochemistry, microbiology and astrobiology.
Reaching the summit of these mountains is a feat itself. But camping near the summit for several days, hauling hundreds of pounds of gear up and down the mountain, then returning with valuable information, is even more impressive.
The expeditions offer an up-close look at climate change and ice-pack loss, and they also provide cave maps for use by search and rescue teams as well as by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, Cartaya said.
The glacier caves provide a rare opportunity to study glaciers from the inside and to examine the layers of ice that can serve as a history lesson.
But Cartaya and his team of mountaineers and scientists are in a race against time.
“The stripes on the walls are like tree rings,” Cartaya said of the inside of glacier caves. “They’re climate recorders. It’s climate history. As those melt away, it’s like losing pages out of a history book.”
Glacier Cave Explorers is part of the Oregon High Desert Grotto, a nonprofit chapter of the National Speleological Society, an organization dedicated to the exploration, study and protection of caves.
The 47-year-old Cartaya, a renowned cave expert whose day job is as a law enforcement officer with the forest service in Bend, is leading the Glacier Cave Explorers on expeditions to Mount Hood in June and Mount Rainier in August.
The group has been studying the rapidly receding Sandy Glacier on 11,250-foot Mount Hood for the past five years and will return to the cave system there, though much of it has collapsed in recent years, Cartaya said.
Glacier caves are rare features carved into glaciers by water, airflow, heat and movement of the ice, according to the Glacier Cave Explorers website. Most glaciers have crevasses — deep cracks in the ice — but few have cave systems. The ones on Hood, St. Helens and Rainier offer a glimpse into the internal workings of a glacier.
One of the goals of the Glacier Cave Explorers is to learn how glacier caves channel the effects of climate change and geothermal activity, Cartaya said.
Unlike rock caves, the glacier caves are different each time the team visits. By surveying and measuring the caves year after year, the group seeks to relate the caves’ changes to the rate of recession or growth in the glaciers.
“We’re working on a landscape that moves,” Cartaya explained. “Same mountain, but completely different landscape (from the year before). Because it’s ice, and glaciers flow.”
Cartaya has recruited a team of 75 for this year’s expeditions to Hood and Rainier. Among the personnel are lead-ascent porters, such as Bend’s Matt Romero, who helps the scientists lug all their gear to the summit of these peaks and into the glacier caves.
“Without porters, none of this happens,” Romero said. “It’s tough work, even going up Rainier on a normal route for fun. It’s not an easy thing, let alone carrying 60 or 70 pounds of gear that costs more than everything I own. It’s a tough load, but I don’t mind doing it. I feel I’m contributing to some pretty amazing work that’s getting done.”
Bend’s Craig McClure is the logistics section chief for the Glacier Cave Explorers. Cartaya, Romero and McClure all knew each other as volunteers for Deschutes County Search and Rescue when Cartaya recruited them to join the glacier caving group.
McClure, the owner of Crackerjack First Response Specialists, volunteers his time on the expeditions to staff a rescue team and manage any altitude sickness and wilderness trauma. The dangers of glacial cave exploration include avalanches, underground ice collapse, falling rocks, toxic volcanic gases and glacial flooding, McClure said.
“It is not a small project,” he said. “There was 800 or 900 pounds of gear on the last trip that had to go up in waves. I kind of plan for the moon. We have an ER physician and paramedic. You’re moving people who may not be mountaineers. It’s not a mountaineering trip. It’s a science trip that needs mountaineering to get people up safely and get them back.”
The Glacier Cave Explorers have received grants from National Geographic, the Mazamas mountaineering club and the Mountain Rescue Association, but they still require significant funding for their expeditions. They started a crowd-sourcing campaign website (www.indiegogo.com/projects/glacier-cave-explorers--3#/) where anybody can donate to their projects.
Cartaya said he and his team feel a sense of urgency to capture as much information as they can before the caves on Mount Hood collapse entirely. They try to survey the caves once a year to track their recession, conduct climatology studies and collect water and microbial samples.
Mount Rainier is the most ambitious project for the group, Cartaya noted. The team will explore cave systems in both the east and west crater ice caps on the 14,409-foot mountain near Seattle.
“We’re living (on the summit) for a week,” Cartaya said. “The caves are in the summit ice plug, and some of the entrances are just a few feet below the summit.”
In the caves scientists have found and studied extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme environments under high pressure and temperature. They live in dark, low-oxygen interfaces where ice is meeting volcanic rock and steam, Cartaya said.
“This is the only place they live,” he said. “We’re losing the time to study these unique organisms in their natural habitats. As these ice packs disappear, that’s permanently gone. We’ll never have that chance to see those things in that context again.”
Two years ago, Cartaya said, his team discovered Lake Adelie, a small melt-water lake within a summit crater cave on Mount Rainier. He said it is the highest known lake in North America.
“People say the last frontiers are other planets, but they’re not … they’re right here under our feet,” Cartaya said. “These caves change. New passages form, a waterfall moves from one place to another. We come back every year and compare the changes. It’s tracking the trends. I think discovery is one of the driving forces for caving, for sure, but also science. It’s discovery from many different aspects.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,