Receding glaciers, unbearable desert heat and ice climbing routes that are all but a memory — for years, mountain guides watched as a warming climate forever changed the landscapes they work in.
As longtime RMI Expeditions guide Mike Haugen puts it, the evidence he’s seen for climate change is “beyond circumstantial.”
“Take the glaciers in the Himalayas as an example,” said Haugen, whose 20-year guiding resumé includes iconic mountains like Everest, Denali and even Antarctica’s Vinson Massif. “It’s a fact that those glaciers are disappearing, and they’re not coming back anytime soon.”
Based in Washington state, RMI Expeditions leads trips from the volcanoes in Mexico to Denali National Park in Alaska. One of the places climate change is most evident, Haugen says, is in RMI’s backyard — Mount Rainier, the most glaciated peak in the continental U.S.
“When I started 20 years ago, we didn’t see 17,000-foot freezing levels,” Haugen said. “That just wasn’t in the weather report. And now it’s relatively common in the middle of the season ... we used to ice climb in certain areas where you would never ice climb now.”
Haugen is no outlier. According to a recent survey conducted by the guiding company 57hours, 98% of mountain guides say they have seen the effects of climate change during their career.
It’s shortened their seasons, eliminated classic routes and approaches, impacted decision-making and elevated risk. Consider the study’s findings:
- Roughly 73% said climate change has forced them to alter their mountaineering routes or avoid certain areas because of snowmelt, rockfalls and receding glaciers.
- An additional 63% said these effects have made their job more dangerous.
- About 81% said their seasons are changing, and climate change has changed the time of year they can guide in certain places.
The survey gathered responses from 59 mountain guides around the world, most of them based in the U.S. and Europe. At least 40% of the guides surveyed have been in the industry for over 10 years, 34% for more than 20 years.
“It’s a small sample size to be certain,” said Cody Bradford. “But I think all of us can say, no matter how small, we see climate change happening. So many aspects of our operations are changing because of less predictable conditions.”
Bradford, an AMGA-certified rock guide who’s working his way through the alpine and ski guiding program, was on a personal trip to Mount Baker’s Easton Glacier last summer as the heat dome settled over the Pacific Northwest, resulting in unprecedented temperatures. Portland, Oregon, saw a record high 112 degrees.
Bradford witnessed the surreal phenomenon of widespread sublimation, where it’s so arid that snow evaporates, without melting into water. The glacier turned into a disorienting, steamy moonscape.
“There was this sheen of snow, because it evaporated so quickly that you couldn’t really see where the crevasses were,” he said. “I know at least one person that fell in because they thought they were on a snowfield when they were still on the glacier, it just wasn’t apparent where the glacier ended.”
Academic studies suggest these bizarre weather patterns could happen with more frequency, even eventually resulting in a snowless winter.
Across the West, snow water equivalent — essentially the water that comes in a snowpack — is expected to decline about 25% by 2050, 35% by 2075 and 50% by 2100, according to a study published in October.
The forecast is more dire for the maritime mountains like the Cascades, home to Mount Rainier, where researchers say there could be a 45% loss of snowpack by 2050.
That’s a daunting outlook for first-year guides like Joey Manship, who in early April took a client up Little Cottonwood’s Grizzly Gulch against the backdrop of a near-snowless southern facing ridge.
“I doubt I will be ski guiding the Wasatch in 30, 35 years. It’s interesting getting into this industry knowing that it’s probably not permanent, at least in this location,” said Manship, who finished his first season at Inspired Summit Adventures in April, and is moving to Washington this summer to guide for RMI Expeditions.
Utah closed out its winter with a snowpack sitting at 74% of normal. And while that’s not “as bad as it could be,” says Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey, the winter of 2021-22 saw a historically long dry spell in January, followed by the earliest 80-degree day on record for Salt Lake City.
Now, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District is enacting strict water restrictions heading into the summer.
For ski guides like Manship, an underwhelming winter translates to underwhelming objectives for his clients. In Utah, warm, spring temperatures typically stabilize the snowpack. But this winter, a combination of unusual avalanche risk and meager snow coverage made it difficult to bring clients into the alpine.
“When people think of spring skiing, they think of skiing steeper, iconic lines. And that didn’t really happen this year,” said Manship, who also takes clients out on snowmobiles.
That too, was hindered this winter — “we couldn’t get into certain places because there just wasn’t enough snow on the roads,” he said.
The potential impacts climate change could have on the guiding industry are not all the same. Mountain biking guides, for instance, could see a prolonged season with less snow in alpine regions. Bradford leads climbing trips in the Moab and Las Vegas areas, and says his season starts earlier now.
“I was in Red Rocks in March and it was 90 degrees every day — it was the end of March, and those temperatures are sustained. You would expect those temperatures in late April, early May,” he said.
Correction: In an earlier version photo captions indicated Grizzly Gulch is located in Big Cottonwood Canyon. It is located in Little Cottonwood Canyon.