Last year, pro ice climber Will Gadd joined Jason Gulley, a glaciologist at the University of South Florida for a unique climb in Greenland. Gulley wanted to study how moulins, those circular drains on the surfaces of glaciers that are almost like frozen whirlpools, form and how they may contribute to glacial melting in an age of global warming. The two settled on a huge moulin in Greenland’s Paakitsoq region and planned to climb down into the cave then dive beneath whatever meltwater they found at the bottom. It was a seriously ambitious plan that didn’t go wrong, exactly, but the diving proved impossible when they discovered the cave was far larger and more dangerous than they’d imagined.
The two made an exploratory mission in August, then returned in October when the ice had firmed and the glacial cave was a bit safer. Though they didn’t succeed in diving, they learned that the traditional idea of moulins being essentially uncomplicated shafts plunging straight down to bedrock would need a major rethink. We spoke with Gadd by phone from his home in Canmore, Alberta, Canada about the planning of what sounds, frankly, like an insane voyage—a trip to the frozen center of a glacier.
AJ: So how’d you get yourself involved in climbing down into a glacial cave like this in the first place?
WG: Since I also work as a guide, a few years back I was able to guide a researcher into a glacier in Canada. We ended up finding these things called biofilms in there, which hadn’t been found in Canadian glacier caves before, and were possibly a new thing globally. When I saw ’em I thought somebody just peed on the wall. There’s this gross yellow stain on the ice and I was thinking, dude, people shouldn’t have peed on the wall there, but that’s the biofilm. I ended up helping a bunch of his grad students go back in there and sample them. Next thing you know there’s DNA sequencing going on and people are trying to figure out how these biofilms are surviving there. I always thought glaciers were basically dead chunks of ice. It turns out they’re hollow and full of life. So anyhow that was how I get interested in the glacial caving thing.
Then a professor I’d been working with at the University of Alberta said I should talk to this professor named Jason Gulley. Said he is the badass at understanding glacial hydrology. I contacted Jason and he said, “Hey I’ve got this cool project in Greenland, would you be interested in going on that, I could use some help moving around in these systems, it’s not something I’m all that familiar with.”
I told him I wasn’t all that familiar with glacial caves either, but then between the two of us we had the knowledge of a lot of the world’s knowledge of glacial systems in our heads, so off we went. I just thought what he was doing was cool. He’s trying to figure out how meltwater affects the rate of glacial mass within the ice cap, so more meltwater theoretically more glacial advance, more sea level rise, more climate change. It’s pretty linear. He’d been doing a ton of really cool work up there. I thought if nothing else, I’d get to hang out on the Greenland ice cap a bit, which would be cool. That’s gotta be cool, right? Let’s go check that out.
I’ve done enough of these projects now and talked with different researchers in climatology and glaciology, and if you put a few drinks in them, you’ll find their personal views are that things are changing a hell of a lot faster than we’re remotely ready for. That worries me.
Is glacial cave climbing a normal part of the ice climbing scene?
It’s definitely a new thing for me. I think people have played with them some. More as a thing you can climb in the summer, or if you don’t have a lot of ice climbing in your area this is something you could do. Not really as an end unto itself, like, let’s go explore these really cool caves underneath glaciers. I’ve got a couple friends here in Canada who are just rabid for it now. People are starting to understand that these glaciers are not just solid chunks of dead ice. There’s a lot going on in there.
I’d done some top roping and ice climbing in glacial crevasses before. That’s another thing we’re kind of working out with the science. I don’t think it’s super settled yet, but I think a lot of the moulin formations happen in old crevasses. Jason might strenuously disagree with this, but it’s been fun to challenge each other’s models and play with it. But I do think a lot of the moulin formation relates to crevasse formation and the systems may follow the relative weaknesses that are left over from old crevasses inside the glacier. But that’s pretty heretical in the glaciology world so…everybody’s just figuring it out, I don’t think anybody really knows. That’s one of the things that just fires me up. At its most basic, science and exploration are the same things. What’s down there? What’s over the horizon? Nobody really knows how [the moulins] work, and that’s pretty cool.
Was this similar to crevasse climbing? Or is the makeup of a glacial cave totally foreign?
When you climb in a crevasse in a glacier, that’s basically a split in the glacier’s surface that’s formed semi-traumatically from the glacier peeling itself apart. That ice often tends to be flaky. The ice has been torn as the glacier goes over a roll, and so it tends to form jagged features, relatively speaking. These melt holes, these moulins, are formed by water, so if you’ve been in the slot canyons in the Southwest or wherever, just imagine that but made out of ice. It’s exactly the same process in a much faster timescale. I really feel like I’m canyoneering in the Southwestern US a lot more than I am caving when I’m in these things. It forms exactly the same way, you get these plunge pools and it just, yeah, it feels very much like slot canyoneering in ice than ice climbing. And then in Greenland, the actual Greenland ice cap is very, very cold, it’s minus 20 Celsius, but it’s been warmed up by the air and the water that’s been going into there. And you get a huge stresses in the ice, so you can hit it and big chunks can blow up in exciting new ways.
I like that you think that’s exciting (laughing). I’m not sure that’s how I’d experience it.
Yeah. I guarantee you wouldn’t be bored down there, you know? Your heart rate’s going up in a hurry. So yeah, it’s—terrifying is another synonym that would work there.
Do you know, had that moulin been there for decades? Do those show up and disappear really quickly? Do you have any idea what the longevity of something like that is?
That’s a really good question, that’s the kind of question they’re trying to answer. There are different schools of thought on how these things appear and then what happens to them after the water stops running down into them. In general, they seem to appear in the same rough geographic location, but the Greenland ice is always moving, right? So, the whole ice cap is kinda following the terrain underneath the glacier and if you think about it, the area on top of the glacier where the water’s gonna collect and make a moulin, or a sinkhole, seems to be related year after year. The short answer is: Most of them that I’ve seen seem to appear to, as the glacier moves, the moulin moves with the glacier. Visually, it appears to move back up the glacier. That’s a lot of what Jason’s research is about, he’s got these GPS sensors on the surface at these moulins. He comes back the next year and tries to figure out how the ice sheet has moved in response to the meltwater that’s vertically trickling down the base and acting as a bookend.
Did you guys know how deep the moulin was when you first started climbing? Can you look at that with lasers or some kind of sensor before you get into it?
You can, but the best thing to do is to go into it and have a look. One of the things that was interesting was the model that describes how this stuff works on the Greenland ice cap. It’s just assumed a moulin is a straight shaft that isn’t very big, that goes right to the bedrock. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Well, it didn’t work that way. That was really a cool thing to be part of because, okay the model’s not all that good, it needs revising. But as far as measuring, you can’t really laser it in the summer because there’s a ton of water flowing in there, and nobody wants to go back in the winter because it’s really cold and miserable to try and work on the Greenland ice cap in winter—it’s heinous. Nobody really knew. You’re asking all the same questions that Jason is: How does this all work?
So the plan was to climb down into the glacial cave, then dive into the meltwater at the bottom. But you’re on the Greenland ice cap, and it’s freezing. How were you planning to climb out of the cave without getting hypothermia?
Jason is one of the top cave divers in the world. He’s a badass. And he’s certainly one of the top scientific cave divers in the world. He wanted to be sure that if we got a couple hundred feet down and there was water there, we could dive it. Take a look around. I’ve been a diver for 30 years, but there’s a hell of a lot of difference between swimming around looking at colored fish in the Bahamas and trying to do that in Greenland. I had to re-learn. In diving, normally you maintain your buoyancy both with your lungs and with this airbag. When you add a dry suit to dive in, you’re controlling the buoyancy in the dry suit. You pull air, compressed air, into your dry suit to make it so the water pressure doesn’t turn it into an iron lung, and you have to control for that buoyancy. Or else you get rocketed to the surface, and then you get the bends and it’s not good. I had to learn how to do all of that, plus the cave diving component, plus about six other certs in a week that were…It was full on, dude. While figuring out all that in an environment that the added joy and bonus of being super, super cold.
You get back out of the water after doing that, it’s minus 20 or so in the hole, so you gotta get your dive gear off really fast before it freezes solid onto you. And maybe actually take it off in the water, and just let it freeze. There’s no way we were going to be able to get out of our dry suits in that temperature, so we’d have to basically jumar or climb out with the ropes back to the surface where we’ve got a tent that’s a few degrees above freezing because we’ve got the world’s shittiest heater system because we’re idiots. We bought the heater system at the local hardware store for 50 bucks, it was pretty ridiculous. Anyhow, we’re crack scientists who did everything according to plan. That was the plan to do that.
What was the biggest scientific takeaway from that trip?
The biggest one is the model of the moulins need changing. Here’s a little moulin, and it’s a small, straight shaft to the bottom, and there’s water going down it, and now the glacier’s moving faster right here, so it must be the water from the moulin that’s causing this. This blew that hypothesis right there. The reality is that this moulin was massive in size, and after dropping for hundreds of feet, went sideways for hundreds more. It was really big; if you were really aggressive as a base jumper, you could have hopped into there and popped your canopy open. It was that big. It would be aggressive, but it would be doable. I hope somebody doesn’t try, actually.
If they did, they’d be a Red Bull athlete, probably.
Oh God, don’t do it! Don’t.
Is the melting of the ice sheets something that you already spend time worrying about as a professional ice climber?
It’s something I’ve been witnessing for a long time. I’m criminal for the amount I fly, no matter how many carbon offsets I buy, let’s just face that fact and own it right now. I get to see how glaciers are working from the Andes to the Himalaya to the Canadian Rockies to the Chugach in Alaska, and in every range I go into all over the world, the glaciers are retreating really fast. This is dead obvious, it’s not a theory, it’s not some scientific conspiracy theory bullshit. Obviously, the glaciers are retreating really fast and I’ve been interested in that as a personal climber. As a guide, our routes in the mountains have changed. You don’t need a degree in climatology to see that something is going on here. It’s in your face dead obvious. So I’ve been curious about that—personally curious and professionally curious. The permafrost in the Rockies is melting, so we’re getting bigger rock fall incidents all the time here. This is something that as guides, we’re aware of. We’re like, well, this area is now all fucked up. We have to watch out for changes if we’re guiding in that area.
This is direct, in your face evidence. I think when you’re out in the natural world enough, you start to notice when things just look weird.
Clearly something is going on that’s really dramatic and really fast. I’m curious about it. I’ve done enough of these projects now and talked with different researchers in climatology and glaciology, and if you put a few drinks in them, you’ll find their personal views are that things are changing a hell of a lot faster than we’re remotely ready for. That worries me.