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Vanishing Uplands

This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 60 , which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.

Edward LaChapelle and Austin Post in 1995. Glacier Ice continues to influence current photographers' efforts to document climate change. [Photo] Courtesy Ananda Foley

Edward LaChapelle and Austin Post in 1995. Their book Glacier Ice continues to influence current photographers’ efforts to document climate change. [Photo] Courtesy Ananda Foley

DURING THE 1960s, Austin Post flew amid a wildness of wind and light, capturing thousands of photos of remote glaciers. At times, the American photographer and glaciologist crouched near an open door as he searched for perfect compositions of ice and snow. Other times, his pilot might angle the plane through a tumult of winds between sharp peaks–or rise to higher altitudes, where, unable to afford oxygen, they shivered in the cold thin air. To his friend John Scurlock, who wrote about him in the Northwest Mountaineering Journal, Post explained that he mounted five sixty-three-pound survey cameras on different parts of a twin-engine aircraft. Once, enfolded by clouds, a pilot accidently steered the aircraft between the masts of a ship. Another time, an engine failed, and they made an emergency landing on an unfinished road near the Wind River Range.

Although Post was a mountaineer, visions of unclimbed summits didn’t draw him to take such risks. In 2011, when I’d emailed him to ask about his famous photographs of the Kichatna Spires, he wrote back: “I take mountain photos? Glaciers, ma’am; mountains only incidentally, but it’s hard to photograph glaciers in Alaska and not include a fine peak now and then.” With the legendary avalanche researcher and geophysics professor Edward LaChapelle, Post compiled images from around the world into the now classic Glacier Ice. First published in 1971, the book is an atlas of marvels: bird’s-eye views of glaciers so dynamic they appear like living creatures; gleaming patterns of black, grey and silver that emerge through the curves of turbulent moraines, the ash of erupted volcanoes and the shadows of innumerable crevasses.

“Glacier ice, like rock, preserves in its layering the history of weather influences that went into its making,” the authors explained. It’s been five years since Post has died, and a decade since LaChapelle passed away. The pages still seem aglow with countless strata of things both visible and invisible, forces that shaped the creation and the subsequent meanings of the book.

Bullied during childhood, Post had dropped out of school and found a sense of freedom and vocation “wandering and wondering” in cold, wild places, as his colleague Carolyn Driedger says. As a teenager, recovering from polio, LaChapelle had watched a murk of clouds draw back from Mt. Rainier, and the dusk light up the snows. To his future wife, Dolores, he later wrote, “I can still remember to this day as clear and simple as the note of a bell…when in a single blinding moment, I knew what I must do…with my life.”

The book is haunted, also, by images of absences, from glacier-carved ranges where rock spires remain as “the only remnant of a long-vanished upland” to dark streams of rubble where the ice had retreated–and unspeakable, private grief. The authors dedicated their work to the pilot Bill Fairchild, who flew many aerial photography missions before he was lost in a plane crash, and to the scientist Richard Hubley, who once hiked out from the Juneau Icefield to obtain antibiotics while Post lay ill with severe pneumonia. At the time of Hubley’s death by suicide on the McCall Glacier in 1957, he was researching connections between the recession of ice and fluctuations in global temperatures. In the conclusion of their book, Post and LaChapelle warned: “Much of modern civilization exists by virtue of a delicate balance between this climate and present snow and ice masses.” And they urged ongoing studies for clues to possible futures of the world: “The answers to this question are hidden somewhere in the glacier ice.”

When Glacier Ice first appeared, the American scientific community was still on the brink of understanding the severity of climate change, an awareness that sharpened by the 1980s. Over time, as glaciers continued to retreat, the book became a powerful catalogue of evidence of loss. Its artistic quality also took on–I’ve come to believe–an ethical meaning of its own, reflecting a heightened, diligent attentiveness to ephemeral worlds. “Both men bore uncanny abilities to think new thoughts unfiltered by others’ expectations; to see beyond the obvious to the real meanings of things,” Driedger recalls. LaChapelle once affixed a tape recorder to his skis so he could listen to otherwise imperceptible notes created by minutely different shapes of snow. To him, the sounds seemed part of a ceaseless flow of urgent sensory data beyond ordinary measurement or description. Against dark backgrounds, he and Post placed luminous images of singular crystals–varieties of which LaChapelle had described with sharp poetry in his 1969 Field Guide to Snow Crystals, including “individual snow crystals which have collided and remained fastened…during their fall through the atmosphere” joined by their “intricately branching arms.” Dolores LaChapelle and their son, David, would transform similar visions of confluence into metaphors of deep ecology; to them, a shimmer of interlocking rays of snow evoked connections between individual lives and all elements of earth and atmosphere.

In a 1999 book On Beauty and Being Just, professor Elaine Scarry argued that beauty is not simply an illusion that distracts its viewers from reality: instead, absorbed in contemplation, “we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.” Climbers often write about efforts to claim new routes. Among the questions Glacier Ice now raises, I wonder: What if more of us learned to cede our ground in awe? Perhaps we might then try to act more swiftly to preserve what we can of these frozen realms that affect all people and living things, falling together, now, like crystals through the warming air.

This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 60 , which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.