In August 2015 I assisted photographer Francois Xavier De Ruydts on a 10-day National Geographic sponsored expedition to Mt Rainier in Washington State, led by world-renowned cave explorer Eddy Cartaya and a team of scientists. One goal of the expedition was to map the ice caves that surround Mt Rainier's crater rim so that when climbers get lost, rescuers have a better idea how to conduct a rescue. Another focus was to research life inside the caves. The caves resemble what conditions might be like on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, or other ice bodies in the solar system. Lastly, German cave climatologist Prof. Dr Andreas Pflitsch would study the glacier and the atmosphere inside the cave.
This was not an easy expedition to coordinate. The team consisted of dozens of volunteer porters, cave mappers, scientists, and medics. Having been denied helicopter support, we were forced to carry hundreds of pounds of gear (food, fuel, tents, climbing gear, research equipment, etc) on our backs. After several days of intense climbing, including battling a snowstorm, we reached the summit.
Sleeping in the crater of an episodically active volcano at 14,200' was exhilarating. Being completely exposed to the forces of Mother Nature, you have to accept whatever is thrown at you.
The first few days living at high altitude are pretty rough. With an elevated heart rate, shortness of breath and a pounding headache, the last thing you want to do is get out of bed, let alone climb out into -10C (14F) and put your freezing climbing boots on. But the expedition must continue. After choking back some freeze-dried eggs and a cup of coffee, we were ready to descend into the darkness. The only light in these caves is what you bring in, so being equipped with several headlamps is key.
The cave entrances varied from large caverns to tight squeezes, but they all had one thing in common - it got steep and unstable immediately. One wrong step and you could find yourself falling 50-150' into piles of sharp volcanic rock and toxic gases, where certain death awaits. In reality, humans are not supposed to be here. Toxic gases are emitted by the active volcano below, so we had to carry gas monitors with us at all times.
Once inside the cave, it begins to open up. Large icy pathways lead around the perimeter of the cave and smaller passages lead into networks of other grottos. The floor of the cave is volcanic rock, mud, and ice. The walls and ceiling are made of glacier ice, carved out by the steam fumaroles emitted by the active volcano.
Deep inside the cave is the highest-known lake in North America, Lake Adelie, measuring at 100 meters x 4 meters. The microbiologists spent a lot of time here collecting samples, looking for life. Nothing was obvious right away and would have to be taken back to the lab for further analysis.
Spending 10 days in extreme conditions on top of a mountain with such a talented team made for a sad farewell, although I’m sure we were all excited to get home and finally shower. The good news is that there are plans for the project to continue, with the goal of returning to the research site in Summer 2016. To contribute to this important effort visit http://igg.me/at/glacier-cave-explorers