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Sep

17

2011

Nisqually Glacier Rock Fall Stumps Scientists, Guides

“I’m not religious,” an incoming guide said as she described the rock fall on Mount Rainier. “But the only word that does it justice is biblical.” Sprawled out on couches chugging cowboy coffee for our pre-trip guide meeting, we all sat up a little bit. “Be careful,” she said.

Later that day, June 26, I saw it for myself: The rock and ice wall that makes up the Nisqually Cleaver was breaking off in chunks the size of apartment buildings. In 36 hours, the entire shape of the drainage—one of the largest glaciers on Mount Rainier—had changed. Rock and ice streamed over cliffs, raising dust plumes that blew grit into our teeth three miles away.

Rock falls are typically isolated affairs: an unstable chunk releases and then the mountain calms down. But the Nisqually kept puking rock and ice for weeks and then months. After one of our guides spent a night listening to the rock crash in 90-second bursts, she used a satellite phone to call the University of Washington’s seismology labs. A scientist there told her that the activity wasn’t volcanic in origin—although Rainier is overdue to blow—and that it occurs every 10 to 15 years due to mechanical weathering or climate change.

But that response didn’t quite jibe with what long-time guides have seen. “If that happened every 10 years, there would be no mountain,” said one 30-year veteran. The guides would know: The Nisqually is clearly visible from the Paradise Visitor Center, and from the ridge that climbers hike to reach Camp Muir—the staging ground for most summit attempts.

“In over 500 summits of Mount Rainier,” said George Dunn, owner of International Mountain Guides, “I’ve never seen anything of this scope. There have been other events over the years, but absolutely nothing of this magnitude.”

Today, as the summer climbing season turns to fall, the Nisqually is still crumbling. It’s now common to feel a low roar, then watch the water in a Nalgene quiver from the impact.

It might be a 10-year event. But what if it isn’t? —Charlotte Austin

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