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  • Writer's pictureEd Sherline

Harrower Glacier

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Harrower Glacier, Wind River Range, WY, 8/1/2020, Ed Sherline

Last updated: 6/23/22

The light is quickly closing in on golden hour, while I am more slowly closing in on the last lake and meadow before Indian Pass, at the head of Indian Basin, in the north central Wind River Mountains, just west of the geographic center of Wyoming. My camp, at 11,400 feet, will be well above the mosquito line, a necessity on this hot August evening. After speed walking through the first half of the day to get through an onslaught of pandemic escaping backpackers[1], my legs stiffen up, I lose my bounce, and resort to shuffling like the old man I’m trying to avoid becoming.

Sunset, Lake 11400, Indian Basin, Wind River Range, WY, 7/31/2020, Ed Sherline, HDR image

Indian Pass, Orrin and Lorraine Bonney tell us in their guidebook, was so named because the “Indians had built a wall of rocks to drag their pole travois over the Divide, but it was swept away by avalanches, and at the time of the 1906 survey it neither existed nor was shown E of the Divide.”[2] The pass, even without the rock wall, turns out to be a gentle path over the Divide and into glacier country.

My aim tomorrow morning is to begin the project of rephotographing the major glaciers of the Wind River Range, starting with the glacier whose best view is from the top of Indian pass. Rephotography, or repeat photography, is just what the names connote, the attempt to take another photograph of the same subject later, holding as many other variables constant as you choose. It is a game whose rules vary, depending on the re-photographer. For some it involves the highest degree of precision and exactitude, using the same type of camera and film as the original, being there in the same time of year and time of day, with the camera at the same position and pointed in the same direction. My game, using a camera to bear witness to the devastation of the Wind River glaciers due to human caused global warming, is neither scientific nor an attempt to make an artistic point, so I have looser rules. I just need to get photos that are close enough to the ones that the glaciologist Mark F. Meier took in 1950 so that viewers can unimpededly see the changes in the glaciers when the two photographs are placed side by side.

This is a glacier with many different names. I wish I could begin with what the Shoshone and Crow called it, or called the pass it is next to, or the basin it is located within, when this area was part of their historic territories, but the sources available to the layperson are not nearly that specific. For example, the Apsáalooke Place Names Database (of Crow place names), available online, has no results for "Harrower Glacier" or "Indian Pass" in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. This is not surprising, since these are names given by settler-colonialists and there are at least three "Indian" passes in the Winds. The Eastern Shoshone Working Dictionary, compiled by David L. Shaul, and available online, also yields no results. This dictionary does include the important Washakie Pass, which is Doyawiyap, and literally means "mountain pass." Their word reserved for any mountain pass is wiyar. Their word for 'Indian,' (also 'person' and 'we') is neme. A transliteration of "Indian Pass" is neme wiyar. The Eastern Shoshone word for glacier is baka garer, which literally means "ice sitting." So, this is the baka garer on the neme wiyar. Clearly the only way for an outsider to learn the Crow and Eastern Shoshone place names and reassert their prominence in the outsider's geography would be to talk with tribal members fluent in their historical languages and who know the area, map in hand.

Meier, the glaciologist whose 1950 photograph I’m attempting to re-photograph, unimaginatively though sensibly following USGS protocol baptized the glacier as “F-3 Glacier,” “since this small ice mass is located between Knife Point Mountain and F-3 Peak” and the name “Knife Point Glacier” was already taken (p. 90). Unbeknownst to Meier, F-3 was already called Ellingwood Peak by climbers, after the great alpinist Albert Ellingwood made its first ascent in 1926, and so this glacier shared that name. And then, with the USGS publication of the Fremont Peak South topographic map in 1968, the peak and its glacier were officially renamed after James K. Harrower, a ranger, game warden, and Pinedale mayor who died the year before. According to Summit, many climbers, in an act of nomenclatural disobedience, continue to call the peak by its climber’s namesake. In the field, I’m clueless to almost all of this backstory, including the complete erasure of the Indian names, except for the F-3/Harrower discrepancy, since I need to locate the glacier, whatever its name, on my digital map.

I'm a big fan of linguistic relativity and its promise that there are as many ways of seeing as there are languages, and its encouragement to seek understanding rather than truth.[3] Since I have no historical or ethnographic information, I can only speculate, using gross stereotypes, at how the Mountain Shoshone saw this glacier when they built the stone trail over the pass. Out of an unwillingness to give my uninformed stereotypes any weight, I won't pursue this line of thought. Meier, who called it “F-3,” probably perceived it in purely physical categories (size, shape, area, dynamics). It is easy to surmise how rebellious climbers who call it “Ellingwood” perceive it, as an avoidable snow field that sits east of a highly-recommended classic of rock climbing. And for me, I think of “Harrower” as "let it not be harrowing." It is the first of many glaciers I will view and photograph, thank and mourn.

At the top of the pass, now engaged in finding the exact position from which Meier photographed the glacier, I discover that this is hard. Maybe a harder problem than I have the time, energy or technology to solve. Hard to compare what is in front of me to the low-resolution image on paper I have in hand. Even harder to compare the image in hand to the small display image on the back of my camera. But with enough trial and error, finding correspondences from Meier's image to what I’m seeing through the viewfinder, I hope I can come close.[4]

Once back home and working in the digital darkroom I see that one of my photos is close enough to Meier's original so that it is painfully clear that Harrower glacier has not fared well over the last seventy years. Notice the amount of rock poking through the snow in the right photo that is snow covered in the left photo. And looking at the bottom of the continuous snow, it has receded significantly upward in the right photo.

Harrower Glacier, Mark F. Meier's 1950 photograph is L, Sherline's 2020 photograph is R.

But I want to go deeper into what these two photos show, and so I request the assistance of Neil Humphrey, professor of glaciology and geomorphology in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He provided this initial assessment: “The glacier was just hanging on in Mark’s pic, with lots of signs of previous advances and retreats, but probably on the verge of major retreating.

Harrower Glacier, Mark F. Meier, 1950 (digitally enhanced to bring out detail)

Humphrey continues: "In your pic, the glacier has retreated to the last of its quasi-stable positions.. it may survive for a while, or may completely disappear. . that would need more work, although from your pic it looks like it will last for quite awhile.” The language of “hanging on,” “retreat,” “survive,” suggests a battle, a glacier fighting against a climate we've made too warm. The glacier retreats in the face of the overwhelming energy of the enemy, moves to ground more easily defended, is overwhelmed, retreats again to still more defensible ground, but eventually it has no more ground to defend, and it turns into a disorganized route, or in the case of a glacier, patches of snow and ice that no longer flow together.

When queried about whether this retreat is due to human caused climate change, Humphrey added a follow-up comment. It wasn't what I expected. Instead, as a non-glaciologist, it completely confused me, and completely upended my thinking about not only Harrower but about the impact of our climate change: “the retreat of this glacier is ‘probably’ only slightly due to the current round of climate change. . . because this glacier “was basically dead even in Mark’s pic.” A dead glacier, he later clarified, is one that has lost so much ice that it no longer has glacier motion. It no longer slides over its base, no longer flows. A dead glacier has become what it was before, a “snow field.” A snow field is simply a permanent wide expanse of snow, where "permanent" means last more than a few years. What makes a snow field permanent is that the input of new snow is in equilibrium with the output of lost snow. Not all snow fields are dead glaciers, but all dead glaciers are snow fields. In this case, the snow field is the corpse of the once living glacier.

Upon first reading Humphrey's follow-up email it shocks me. It contradicts the assumption animating my entire project, that anthropogenic climate change is killing these glaciers, and that I'm a grunt in the war to get our society to respond to climate change with the urgency it demands, in my case by trying to turn these vanishing glaciers into a poster child. Because of the enormity of the challenge the glaciology poses to my thinking and project, it worth stepping back to further develop and reflect on the science behind Harrower's recession.

Here are major clarifications and explanations. First, Humphrey is NOT denying human caused global warming. He is recognizing that there has been natural warming after the Little Ice Age, as well as human caused warming.[5] The post Little Ice Age warming was operating before human caused warming became pronounced. Second, glaciers, even relatively small glaciers such as those in the Winds, are huge masses of ice, enough so that there is a time lag of many decades between the time a change in climate begins and the time this changes the glacier. (When I was a kid and fascinated with all things WWII, I learned that it takes an aircraft carrier or battleship about a mile to come to a full stop, because these ships weigh hundreds of thousands of tons, and so they have a significant response time.) So, what Meier was seeing in 1950 was Harrower's delayed response to the warming after the Little Ice Age. The glacier's response to human caused warming, a disruption in the natural climate dynamic which became significant perhaps a century later, shows up later, though not 100 years later, since, as Harrower shrinks in mass, its response time decreases as well. Third, whether it is natural or human warming that is the primary agent causing Harrower's loss of mass up to this point makes little difference to its future prognosis. Harrower has died as a glacier and turned into a snowfield and eventually even that will disappear. Natural climate change brought Harrower to the brink of death, and human caused climate change will insure that it disappears from the face of the planet rather than reviving (as Meier predicted). Fourth, it is too late for us to address climate change in a way that will preserve either the life or the corpse of Harrower Glacier.

I wonder if Meier, as a master’s student realized that Harrower was ill, nearly a snowfield, when he studied it. He noticed that the glacier’s area (in 1950) “is only 84 percent of the recent maximum” since the Little Ice Age (Meier, p. 90). And that in only five years, “the terminus receded perhaps by as much as 50 feet.” (Ibid, p. 92). Maybe not dead, but he saw that it was heading in that direction.

Humphrey's observations and diagnosis of Harrower tells me that I must be careful which glaciers I use to illustrate the truth of climate change. I will have to look elsewhere, to glaciers that were clearly alive in 1950 when Meier photographed them, and that are clearly not doing well in the 2020's, for my poster children.


[1]This is the summer of 2020, the first summer of the Covid Pandemic, and people are looking for ways to safely vacation and experience the freedom of not worrying about the transmission of Covid. I too am one of these pandemic escaping backpackers. I'm always of mixed feelings in seeing others, especially large number of others, in the Winds. On the one hand, it is wonderful seeing people out in the wilderness, doing what I love doing. I feel a sense of solidarity, and hope for the future of wilderness preservation. I gauge my friendliness with those I encounter reactively, on how friendly they are with me, and in most cases, there are smiles and enthusiastic wishes for a great trip. On the other hand, I go into the wilderness seeking solitude, and am always discomfited when I realize first-hand that there is nothing unique to my passion, that so many others are doing the same thing, that I am intruding on their pursuit of solitude as much as they are intruding on mine, that all of us in the wilderness will inevitably have a harmful impact on the place, and that there is something embarrassing about how we, enmeshed in a high-tech consumer world, pursue backpacking. These feelings make me want to quickly reach a place with no people in eyesight, so I can regain my false but comforting sense that I am unique, that the Winds is all mine. [2]Bonney, p. 420. A very informative blog post that explores the Native American origins of Indian Pass is by Forest McCarthy, “Wind River Range: Indian Pass”, accessed 9.27.20. McCarthy notes that although the stone trail work at the top of the pass no longer exists, it can be found at other points along this ancient trail. Probably the stone trail was constructed and in major use during the time of the Upper Green River Rendezvous (1825-1840), when the Shoshone of the Wind River basin would have needed a passage through the mountains that was horse friendly. [3]Roughly, the view that people’s perceptions are relative to their native language. [4]Nerd note: Comparing the two images magnified on a computer monitor, I can see that Meier stood lower and to the right of my location. In his image, the edge of Knife Point peak on the upper left side is steeper than in mine, suggesting that he was looking up at it to a greater degree, and from a different angle. And in his image, the large boulder in the bottom center is closer to the image bottom than mine, suggesting that his camera was closer to this boulder. Another published rephotograph of Meier's original, by Stacy Wells, comes closer than mine:

[5]The Little Ice Age was an epoch/period/interval (though NOT an ice age) of regional cooling pronounced in the north Atlantic area (including the Wind River Mountains) from the 14th through the mid-19th century, which caused expansion of many mountain glaciers.

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