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Feature - A day in the life of a glacier

A recreation resource and a source of life, our glaciers are changing – rapidly



If you were as patient as a Zen monk, a time-lapse camera operator, you could defy convention and watch a kettle boil, witness sunflower heads follow the arc of the sun. You could even watch glaciers move.

A glacier is a field of moving ice. Under the weight of masses of accumulated snow, snowflakes "compact" into ice. Once the snowfield morphs into a thick ice field, it begins to slowly move, like thick molasses. It creeps. Moving under its own weight, or inching on its own meltwater.

The coastal precipitation that sustains us, as skiers and riders, also sustains the glaciers in the Coast Range. In a climate that sees an average of five metres of snowfall each winter, the ice-fields are given the kiss of life every six months.

It takes patience to make sense of the glacial dance, to have a cryptic conversation with a glacier. Glaciers keep their secrets deep, but ice core drilling enables us to take samples and puzzle out climates gone before us. From ice that is a remnant of the Ice Age, between 1 to 2 million and 10,000-years-old. A human life, a human day, feels incredibly short. No matter how patient we are, we can only imagine the glacier’s life span. And what of our human lives does the glacier witness?

John Baldwin writes in Mountains of the Coast : "Roughly three times the size of the Sierra Nevada or the European Alps, the Coast Mountains sees fewer climbers in an entire year than the Alps or the Sierras do in a busy weekend."

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is a different story. Accessible by chairlift for $42 a pass, it sees more human traffic in a summer than large tracts of the province. Perhaps the word the glacier would attach to us, if it were observing, would be defiant .

We start at the surface, defying the natural topography of things, in grooming cats on revolving treads. At the beginning of each summer season, the cats are out in force, hired out by the summer camps to create terrain parks and fantasy lands of hits and berms, pipes and moguls. Installing rails. Pushing the 20 feet of winter surface snow that covers the glacier into super-sized piles from which to sculpt jumps. Forty-five acres of playground. For 18 camps and an indefinite number of public recreationalists who can’t wait until next winter for their fix. Defying the season, the golfing imperative, by strapping on board/s in the middle of July.

The camps run the entire gamut of summer alpine fantasies – alpine ski racing, skiercross, freestyle, moguls, snowboard, freeride, new school. Like everyone else in the business of selling fantasy, the summer camps have been hit by the Sept. 11, 2001 ripple effect. The ripples become rogue waves, tsunamis. Insurance costs have tripled and camps are joining forces, merging, amalgamating under parent entities. Bookings, despite initial interest, were hammered by SARS, Iraq II, the increasing muscle of the Canadian dollar.

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