I have spent the majority of my career thus far travelling around the world, experiencing cultures, landscapes and remote locations.
But the more I travel, the more seemingly difficult it becomes to find a place that still holds a sense of mystery. That is until I discovered photographs from some of my favourite photographers displaying images of ice caves. To me, these places have a lure and a need for discovery that I find difficult to ignore.
And so I started dreaming of finding my own ice caves here at home in the Canadian Rockies.
Risks vs Reward
I'd like to tell you the story behind this visual board as what we experienced in the heart of the rockies was nothing short of amazing. But first an important disclosure.
Preparedness. Research. These important components of exploration only take you so far. You have to accept that you are taking risks when entering the backcountry and that these risks increase exponentially when entering an ice cave. I along with the people I explored these caves with took full responsibility in knowing these risks and adventured independently according to our own comfort level.
When we first started planning our adventure, risks were our first and foremost topic. What is a glacier after all? Fallen snow, that over many years, compresses into large, thickened masses of ice. Naturally the first hazard that comes to mind is ice falling in on top of you. This unfortunately has happened in the big 4 ice caves in Washington, and is a real threat.
What else is unique about glaciers? Their ability to flow. Glaciers are always moving and the scariest aspect of this, to me, is the likelihood of snow covered crevasses.
After discussing these risks in depth we all came to the conclusion that the reward of discovering something new, and the opportunity to document our findings was enough to push us forward. And so the prep began.
My partner's foot fell through a crack in the ice at the foot of the glacier situated over top of a river system. Her entire foot, and leg below the knee was submerged in freezing cold water for several minutes. I used my bare hands to dig out the ice and snow accumulating in slush like consistency on top of her submerged snow shoe, making it extremely difficult to get out. The whole section we sat on was becoming more unstable as we worked. I have to admit I was scared, we all were, but somehow we managed to stay calm enabling us to keep a clear head and work our way through the problem quickly.
Once we were able to free her leg, we immediately removed her snow shoe and boot and wrapped her foot in a spare sweater.
I could do nothing but put my freezing hands in my armpits to keep them warm.
Luckily the temperature wasn't that extreme and someone had an extra pair of socks and a zip lock bag. Without an extra pair of shoes, my partner was forced to put her wet boot back on. The zip lock bag helped to keep the new sock dry as we made our way back to the car, which thankfully was less than an hour trek away. After all was said and done, the most frightening part of the whole ordeal, was knowing that things could have been worse.
Later that evening I saw my friend Matt stuffing a couple zip lock bags in his backpack. It's useful to always think of ways you can be better prepared. Know yourself and how you might react in similar situations and make a mental checklist for every adventure, big or small.
We spoke of forecasts as the weather in the rockies is always changing and simple whiteouts can make it difficult to find your way back to the car, not to mention the importance of assessing avalanche danger in the region we chose to explore. We made sure to have backup navigation systems in place, and to carry extra battery chargers, warm layers, probes, helmets, and a couple days worth supply of food and water.
We spoke of being honest about our skill levels. Some of the caves are extremely far from the road and require a fair amount of physical effort to get to. If a rescue became necessary, the remoteness of these locations could very well make this difficult. I felt secure about my own ability and confident that the friends I chose to adventure with had the skills and experience necessary to make it safely in and back.
We felt ready. We didn't necessarily know what we would find, but we were hopeful, curious and as prepared as we possibly could be. But aside from the obvious risks and pre-trip planning are the unknown events you can't always prepare for. Such as injury. Injury, not only to oneself, but the potential of injury to others. We learned some important lessons on this trip.
It has been said that due to their sheer mass, glaciers flow like slow rivers. They are in constant motion as are their shapes meaning that the caves we explored will potentially be different in one week, in one month and perhaps in the next year not even exist at all.
Some of these changes are due to natural recession but I can't help but think of how this is accelerated by climate change. We may not see the immediate consequences of the recession of glaciers in our world, but I think it gives a pulse on the Earths health.
It's difficult to visit these places and not be impacted by their beauty and their mystery and furthermore their uncertainty.
As a photographer focusing in outdoor adventure, I feel a strong sense of connection and purpose in showcasing the beauty of these environments. I want nothing more than our future generation to be as inspired and awestruck by the world as I am today.
It feels like we have explored a lot this winter in the Canadian Rockies, yet at the same time I feel like we have barely scratched the surface. I'm forever thankful that such unbelievable places exist in our own backyard, and I can't wait to see what we find next.
Thanks to Jenna Dixon for editing this article. Those that are close to me know that I am better with images than I am with words.