The Future of Ice

Novelist Gretel Ehrlich spent a year travelling the world’s coldest places, meditating on the experience of winter and exploring the polar regions.

Gretel Ehrlich
1 January 2004
Photo by Jared Erondu.

Weather is all mixed up with movements of mind: a gust can shove one impulse into another; a blizzard erases a line of action; a sandstorm permeates inspiration; rain comes in the form of sleep; lightning can make scratch-marks on the brain; hail gouges out a nesting place, melts and waters the seed of an idea that can germinate into idiocy, a joke, or genius. How could it be otherwise?

A year ago I went out into the world to live in the cold and snow and to look at ice, since climate change may threaten to make the season of winter “extinct.” There can be no question about global warming. We have 420,000 years of climate history at our fingertips, covering the last four glacial and interglacial cycles. Ice cores are time machines. As snow becomes firm and then compresses into ice, oxygen bubbles are trapped in the glacier, providing samples of ancient atmosphere; using these, we can compare levels of methane and carbon dioxide before and after industrialization.

In the last ten years, as industrial pollution and greenhouse gases have increased rapidly, the weather has made precipitous jumps. Our sky is now another kind of tent: not one that shelters, but kills. The biological health of our planet is in jeopardy because we manage the world only for production and profit, not for quality of life. Too few remember how to care for the planet, to be heartbroken about anything but themselves. But a broken heart is an open heart. Since we are all one, land, plants, animals, oceans, rivers, glaciers and all sentient beings share equal rights.

With that in mind, I traipsed from pole to pole and wintered in a snowbound cabin in between. My first trip took me to Tierra del Fuego and the tip of Patagonia, where a young friend and I backpacked a seventy-mile circuit around the orange, pillar-like granite peaks of the southern Andes.

Emerson said the first circle is the human eye, but so is the planet. They are linked: the one is always beholding the other. I went searching for what the poet Muso Soseki called, “This view of the world without end”, the one where there is “nowhere to hide.”

El Seron

Wild daisies and lenga trees and the winding, milk-green rivers that walk down to the ocean from glaciers. We too are walking. Glaciers have shaped roughly a third of the terrestrial planet. I came of age on John Muir’s trail, climbing sharp arêtes, domed cliffs and the U-shaped valleys between, the floury rivers and string lakes held tight in steep canyons. Our backpacks are heavy and the wind is against us as we head up a steep rise. In my Spanish dictionary the word senda means not only “a path,” but also, “a ways and means,” while the masculine sendero is only a footpath, nothing more. Yet the verb sendear means “to conduct along a path,” and also “to attain by tortuous means.”

Perfect. We follow the Paine circuit counterclockwise, and as the days go on, I refer to it as a path that passes with no end in itself and as a circuit of pain. Not just by bodily pain, which at times is considerable, but also the one implied by any circular route consciously taken. Perhaps “circle” is the wrong word. A wheel with broken spokes might be a better description, just a body following its feet around.

We walk from Hosteria Las Torres, along the Rio Paine, to El Seron. Sun gives itself over to unraveling storms. The river goes dark then brightens to a dull celadon. Storm shadows tint tree shadows. Rain shatters and stutters; guanacos graze. Patchworks of ice—the remains of hanging glaciers—rot away before our eyes. Snow squalls fall flat like bedsheets. As we walk through them, they erase both the sendero and the senda – the path as well as the ways and means. Later, going over a pass, an 80-mph wind tips us over. Laughing, we get to our feet and look up: a pair of Andean condors jump off a cliff—a jutting arête—and float effortlessly.

At the end of the day sleep comes easily. I’m tired from traveling and a recent bout of the flu. In the morning I roll the condor feather Gary brought to me inside my sleeping pad, hoist my backpack and hit the trail. Oh, for feathers and wings! Effortless is not how I’d describe myself in the days that follow. Gary and I walk at such different speeds that I see little of him, and for the first time, the age difference between us seems appalling.

I trudge and saunter, wipe sweat from my face, and laugh at the poorly working parts of my body, while he’s all grace and exuberance. Usually an hour ahead, he comes back for me at the end of the day and carries my backpack the last half-mile because he’s a fair-minded man and is always looking for ways to make our differences equal. At the end of each day we pitch camp, eat soup, drink tea, share chocolate and happily compare notes: who saw what flower, grass, plant, waterfall, bee or bird, and how speed or slowness brought these gifts to our eyes.


Every day is a circle walked within the big one of the Paine circuit, its outline as unsteady and meandering as our minds and gaits. Once a Chinese master asked his head monk where he was going. Fa-yen answered: “I’m rambling aimlessly around.” The teacher asked what good it did, and Fa-yen answered: “I don’t know.” The teacher smiled. “That’s good.”

Further into the mountains the river winds in and out of valleys gone white with romero chilco de magellanes—wild daisies. At the center are the ceros—the towers of granite whose red shoulders spin like fresh-minted interior suns pulsing squalls of rain and wind, and lobbing heavy-bodied clouds through the sunset like torpedoes.

The tenth-century Chinese weather predictor Pu-tai wandered through the towns of Chekiang. When asked how old he was he answered, “As old as space.” When he slept outside during winter storms, no snow fell on him at all.


It is a fresh wound, a whole shoulder torn, with a watery ooze and a hole that’s getting bigger. I’m walking through a hanging bog, one that is cupped by the upper reaches of a mountain. Stunted tress bend sideways like dislocated hands. As I walk I see how the wound has grown, seen where backpackers have climbed further up to avoid the mud, but in so doing, tear the earth’s skin more.

How fragile we are. “We” being the humans and this mountain. My Inuit friends in Greenland use the word sila to describe weather: the power of nature, landscape and human consciousness as one and the same. Every scar on the landscape is also a perturbation of mind. The trees thin. Gary is so far ahead I can’t see which trail he’s taken, so I choose one and enter the wound, trying not to get my feet wet because there are snowclouds gathering and surely it will freeze by evening.

My foot is a knife, tormenting the mountain’s body. I continue up alone. Es muy borrascoso—it is very stormy. Am I lost? I step on a path. It leads me out of the bog onto dry ground.

The Pass

The way is rock-strewn and bare, with tarns the size of footbaths. I wipe daubs of mud from my face, grinning because I’m above the tree line, in wide open country. Here, the only inflorescence is rock, the way it turns in a stream and flicks light. Rock walls carry the signatures of moving ice: I see how glaciers have shaped this place. During ice ages, birds, fish, plants, trees and animals were pushed toward the equator. What’s left behind are new surfaces: kettle moraines, outwash plains, pingos, scoured barren grounds. Ice scrapes the earth as if it had claws. Look closely: this is all that is left of the world’s body after ice has picked the bones clean.

The mountain pass we are supposed to cross looks close but is a few hours’ walk straight up. On the way, a serac falls and the waist of a glacier —a series of accumulation crevasses— crumbles. The deep rhythm of glaciers is not something we can always hear. It is an ancient memory of sound carved in long grooves and nervous chattermarks, thundering erratics bouncing on the under-melody of shushing streams of ice. Glaciers represent what is bold, inscrutable, exposed, quiet and glinting in us, as well as what is delicate, dynamic and precise. Perhaps if we walk among them long enough, we can learn from them.

We walk on rubble. Ice spires are wind-sharpened. We look up at glaciers while walking on the dents and scuffmarks that ice has left behind; we walk on its walking.

Traversing the spine we re-enter a womb made by ice and climb into the cranium where mist pivots. The sky borrows its radiance from ice, its adamantine clarity, and we spend lifetimes tracking down those elements within ourselves.


Below is a meltwater lake strewn with small icebergs. “I’ve got to go see them,” Gary says, and glissades down a steep-sided bowl to the water. At the bottom he slides, then jumps a patch of water onto a berg. Crouching, he’s pensive, studying the half-hidden explosions of turquoise of the ice. He wipes meltwater on his face and gauges a glacier’s brightness by holding a piece of ice to his eye. He’s looking at time and impermanence, how each snowflake, trapped for hundreds of years and compressed as ice, can be put into service to a glacier before being released at the terminus; he sees how a glacier grows by giving away almost as much as it has received. Accumulation and ablation, to get and to give: these are the balancing acts of any human or body of ice.

A waterfall peels out of a cave, rounding the granite lip over which it has traveled for thousands of years. Everything we need to know about beauty, justice, time, movement, subtlety and surrender is here. We climb and climb. Hoarse-throated streams rush past. No scent of humans or horses here, only the tang of snow. A single flower sheltered by an overhanging rock shivers.

Late in the day we make camp a few hundred yards below the pass. We tie the tent to krumholtz—stunted trees that hardly move in the stiff wind. I gather twigs and make a fire. We finish our nightly meal of soup in spitting snow that quickly becomes a blizzard. Night comes as a white monstrosity. Shadow asks body, are you there?

We sleep on a barren womb that was once filled with ice. I have no children and I’m with a man who wants them. Is this beauty enough? I ask. When I go out to pee, I step on snowflakes, each one a singular geometry, what Frank Lloyd Wright called, “the grammar and spell-power of form.”

Wet snow slaps at the tent. A zipped door flutters. We slide into a pulsing darkness—not a fearful place, but a room of winter where we are quiet, lost inside each other for a long time. Later I peek out: there’s been a break in the storm. Across the valley I see a scooped-out shelf where there was once a hanging glacier. Now it’s an empty bowl. Lit by moonlight, it chimes.


“Be your own lamp, your refuge,” the Buddha said as he was dying. Same thing Trungpa Rinpoche told me the last time I saw him. But I’m lost, I’m dropping straight down into a thick forest. For a moment I see a glacier’s six-mile-wide roof, its blue-blasted crevasses and fluted channels, its white flank flashing. Then it disappears. I’ve entered a tangled labyrinth on a near vertical slope with a footing of greasy mud that does not hold me. Sometimes the trees are marked with orange paint but there is no trail. I bend under contorted branches and let myself down by dropping two or three feet to the next foothold. The weight of the backpack punishes my knees. It takes eight hours to go 3.5 miles.

The Bath, The River, The Wall

A half moon hangs in the sky at midday. For the first time the wind is pushing us from behind. We climb out of forest gloom and treachery onto a rocky ridge and make camp overlooking the crumbling terminus of an immense glacier. Later, Gary goes into the trees to bathe. I find him crouched behind two enormous logs. A stream trickles down a staircase of rock and feeds into a shadowy pool. Leaves drip onto him. His hair is wet. He stands in a wide plié, then shifts his weight to one knee. I take off my clothes and squat at water’s edge. Moss is our only washcloth. We are hidden and naked; we lower our bodies into cold leaf-broth. A soft rain comes down.

In the morning we climb a vertical wall of rock on a rickety ladder made of cut tree limbs and cable. Facing the wall I meet a dull mirror of basalt. Who’s there? An impostor. The walls have fallen from around my body. Everything about my life seems fraudulent.

Wind kicks me in the ass. Near the top the backpack shifts sideways. Hope I don’t fall. There are things I’d like to do before I die: live for a year with binocular vision, speak only animals’ languages, start sleep-walking again, and do away with all automobiles. I grab rung after rung and pull myself up. In Japan I met Yamabushi—ascetic mountain monks who climb ladders made of knives and are hung upside down by their heels in frigid waterfalls. Mountains invite us to humiliate ourselves. They offer danger and difficulty and drive beauty to the bone.

The Bumblebee

Raindrops, sun, a single cloud wheeling between two condors. Why do we walk in circles? We take a side route up to interior peaks. It rains again and we make camp quickly in a narrow gorge beside a river. Water sounds push Gary into sleep and I listen to sila—how the mind-litter rolls with chaotic weather. We are made of weather and our thoughts stream from the braidwork of stillness and storms. For years, Nietzsche searched for what he called “true climate” for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the “inner climate” of the thinker. He might as well have gone searching for the ever-shifting North Pole.

Rio Frances roars by. Upstream there’s a glacier tucked in a cirque and its edges are ragged. The trimline of lenga trees is clearly visible: leggy tree roots hang over the cliff carved away by ice as if amputations had just been performed.

A collar of ice encircles the glacier’s top edge, not white, but eggshell blue. Twenty thousand years ago temperatures plummeted and ice grew down from the top of the world. Glaciers sprouted and surged, covering ten million square miles—more than thirteen times what they cover now. In the southern Andes, ice sheets fingered their way between high peaks all the way south to the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.

All along the circuit we’ve encountered glaciers, but worldwide they’re on the wane. As a result, the albedo effect—the ability of ice and snow to deflect heat back into space—is quickly diminishing as glaciers melt and less and less snow covers the ground each winter. Snow and ice are the world’s air conditioners. They are crucial to the health of the planet. Without winter’s white mantle, earth will become a heat sponge and only smoke from a volcano will shield us from incoming UV rays. As heat escalates, all our sources of fresh water—already in danger of being depleted—will disappear.

Warmer temperatures are causing meltwater to stream into oceans, changing salinity; sea ice and permafrost are thawing, pulsing methane into the air; seawater is expanding, causing floods and intrusions; islands are disappearing; and vast human populations in places like Bangladesh are in grave danger. The high mountain peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, who depend on meltwater from the snowpack for irrigation, are at risk of being lost. The Ice Age culture of the Greenland Inuit, who depend on ice for transportation and live on a subsistence diet of marine mammals, will disappear. And the early onset of spring and the late arrival of winter is creating ecosystem pandemonium in temperate climates everywhere.

No place looks as pristine as the Arctic. But some of the deadliest contaminants have congregated there. Ironically, the Arctic and its ecosystem is most vulnerable to global warming. Whereas sea ice between Ellesmere Island and Greenland was 14 to 24 inches thick in 1991, when I first went there, it is now only four.

Thirteen years ago I traveled to the high Arctic with a seal biologist who has spent twenty years of fieldwork on the ice. Recently he said, “Climate is what we talk about now because both glacier ice and sea ice are going fast and whatever oscillation we impose on the computer models, the same linear signal shows up. That signal is the one made by industry and automobiles— human-caused pollution—and it’s very strong. This warming trend is a frightening thing. As the albedo effect decreases, things will get warmer. More solar heat is absorbed and the increase in temperatures grows exponentially. Which means we lose more and more ice.

“The history of climate is cyclic and fluctuating. But there has been no other time in the history of the world when greenhouse gases, airborne methane and mercury, desertification, and deforestation have been around. The anthropogenic signal is nonfluctuating. It just goes up and up in warmth. The ironic thing is that none of these ills of so-called “civilization” originated in the Arctic. The polar winds bring pollution from the entire northern hemisphere, including the U.S., Canada, Russia, China and Europe, to the north; precipitation rains the pollutants down; ice stores them; and when “break-up” starts, we have toxic spring in the high latitudes.”

I lie in a boulder pile looking upstream at the hanging glacier, which, if it crumbled, would take me out. Clouds slide over, banking up, one on top of the other as if trying to make the small glacier grow. But like so many others, this one is receding. Already its forehead has been torn open and is poised to fall.

It is not unreasonable to think that a whole season can become extinct, at least for a time. Winter might last only one day’a minor punctuation in a long sentence of heat. Mirages rising from shimmering heat waves would be the only storms.

We have already destroyed so much natural vegetation on the planet that the increased heat, due to bare ground, deforestation, ineffectual rainfall and city pavement, will have particularly dire effects with nothing to modify them. Hot and toxic: those are the words that will describe where we once lived. Land-ocean-atmosphere-solar-galactic cycles are inextricably linked. One flap of the butterfly and we all fry.

Gary returns from a six-hour walkabout. We argue about how long our “short-term” relationship can possibly last. A snow squall migrates down the narrow canyon toward our tent. I grab the shirts and underwear I’ve washed and pull them in. The wrathful and peaceful deities at the center of the mountain complex are still spinning storms around with their hundred flailing arms, still telling us what, in Sanskrit, is called a pariplava, a circular story. Things between us will end when they end. Just as the fate of human life on the planet. But not yet. Storms pulse by. Behind clouds, sun strobes. If the path is whatever passes, no end in itself, why are we walking in circles? Why don’t we just stand?

For a minute the clouds clear and the orange peaks burst through. A single bumblebee flies by our tent headed into the storm. In the Arctic, at Latitude 80 degrees North, the Arctic bumblebee —bombus polaris—shivers to keep warm. The worker bees die at the end of summer and the impregnated queen starts a new colony when warm weather returns. I don’t know this southern hemisphere bee, but it must be cold-adapted in ways that we humans are not. I wonder if it will be able to adapt to heat. Gary and I hold each other; we shiver with cold. The bee is bright orange and looks like a piece of fire.

Adapted by the author from The Future of Ice. © 2004 by Gretel Ehrlich. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House Inc.

Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich is an world renowned nature writer. After being struck by lightning, Ehrlich wrote “A Match to the Heart” about the experience. It was published in 1994.