Fire and Ice

An Expedition to the Glacier Ice Caves of Mount St. Helens

There are currently around 1500 active volcanoes worldwide. One of them is Mount St. Helens in the south of the American state of Washington. It belongs to the Cascade Range, which stretches along the west coast of North America and is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The volcano achieved notoriety with its spectacular eruption on May 18th, 1980, which resulted in 57 casualties. As a result, the entire northern peak of the mountain slid downslope. Its peak, which today measures 2539 meters, lost some 400 meters in height at the time. A slowly growing glacier has formed in the volcanic crater since the eruption.

glacier camp

Together with the German cave climatologist Dr. Andreas Pflitsch, we went on a one-week expedition to the glacier ice caves of Mt. St. Helens.

It was an expedition to a land of fire and ice – an expedition of extremes.

glacier helicopter

We sit somewhat cramped in a small helicopter and are carrying only essential cargo in case of an emergency landing, as all of our equipment was already flown to the base camp in large transport nets a few hours earlier. At the control stick is a former Air Force pilot, almost two meters tall and chewing gum. And like out of a bad Vietnam War film, it seems as if he enjoys flying as up-close as possible to the barren bush terrain. Yet, this presents us with the advantage of being able to observe the landscape very well and even catch sight of white mountain goats. Otherwise, one sees a natural environment that is slowly recovering. Most conspicuous are the tree trunks knocked over like match sticks by the initial pressure wave from the eruption. Some are still lying around in the vast periphery, while others are floating in Spirit Lake. At the time, a glowing cloud of ash destroyed all flora and fauna over an area of approximately 600 square kilometers. With some effort, the helicopter winds its way up the glacier towards the crater. After briefly passing through a wall of fog, we view the location for our base camp at an elevation of almost 2000 meters. Here, on the edge of the lava dome, we set up “Camp Rembrandt.”

group glacier

The glacier caves are formed by fumaroles (volcanic steam vents), and they conduct heat upwards through rising steam, creating huge cave passages in the glacier. It is a fairly recent environment that is still active and dynamic and, as such, an excellent location to research cave climatology.

Our team consists of 20 people, including the experienced expedition leader Eddy Cartaya, speleologists (cavers) from Canada, who are responsible for the digital survey of the caves, microbiologists, who will search for microbial life here, volcanologists, an expedition doctor, mountain rescue experts, and researchers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who plan to test an ice robot under extreme conditions. German glacier cave expert, Dr. Andreas Pflitsch from the Ruhr University in Bochum, heads up the international scientific team.

For Dr. Andreas Pflitsch, conducting climate research in the glacier ice caves of a volcano is an ultimate lifelong dream come true.

work station eric guth

To conduct his research, Andreas regularly climbs snow-capped volcanoes worldwide to study the climate dynamics of glacial and lava caves. Not only has he already climbed Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, but he has also ascended the longest and largest lava cave in the world, located in Hawaii.

We are now in the crater of Mt. St. Helens one year after a previous expedition. The glacier caves need to be explored again, the data loggers must be read, and new measurement data must be obtained. From up here, everything looks so surreal and dreamlike, yet also unreal. It is an exclusive world, as only scientists have permission to step foot inside the volcano crater. 

Andreas is particularly fascinated by rappelling, a controlled descent by rope, into newly discovered glacier ice caves. We hear the murmuring sound of the streams of water melting from the cave walls. Blocks of lava are embedded in the roof and can fall out at any moment, and they often do. The whole glacier moves up to 1.5 meters a day towards the valley. Lava rock falls from the high walls of the crater rim at frequent intervals, making it necessary to be very careful or to move quickly whenever crossing these places beneath the crater wall. It’s referred to as the “shooting gallery,” and the name says it all. There are many crevasses as well. It is an indescribably beautiful but dangerous world.

cloud smoke

Andreas gladly accepts the hardships and dangers of such a challenging expedition because he finds it extremely exciting to venture into areas where no previous climatological research has ever been conducted. He confesses that his expeditions to Mt. St. Helens are the most extraordinary experiences he has ever had. Somehow, he also feels at home here, as conducting research on a volcano and in ice caves has been a lifelong dream.

The fact that we are the very first people to enter these newly discovered caves is more than just fascinating. And because everything is in motion up here and changes from year to year, it means that perhaps we are the last ever to experience this cave world.

The Godzilla cave and a NASA robot

cave exploring

More snow accumulates inside the horseshoe-shaped crater during the cold months than melts away in the summer. As a result, a glacier has been gradually able to form here since the eruption. Today, the glacier is around 1.2 square kilometers in size and 180 meters thick, and it is constantly growing. The newly created landscape is riddled with unique and glittering ice caves. We climb up the glacier to the Godzilla cave, which was discovered in 2013. Because of the many crevasses in the glacier, we are secured by ropes and equipped with avalanche beacons. Due to hazardous gases, we also always carry special monitoring devices to analyze the air warn us of any danger.

cave roping

Once at the top, we climb down into a kind of sinkhole. The cave here has broken through to the ice surface. On one side, we continue into the darkness. With the light of our helmet lamps, we initially recognize only fragments of the ice cave. There are moments when we are entirely surrounded by fog from the steam and see practically nothing. Just as suddenly it can clear up, and you realize the enormous dimension of the cave. We take a moment to apprehend this unimagined vastness. The ground of the cave is made up of large, mostly loose blocks of lava. The walls and roof are of glacial ice and, apart from more lava blocks embedded in the ice, one can observe intricately patterned walls that were created by air currents and hot vapors.

exploring inside of volcano

While Andreas looks for his data logger from the previous expedition, sets up his climate measuring equipment, and continues to conduct smoke tests to see where the orange-colored fumes escape, the others move heavy crates with parts of a NASA robot to a wall of ice. The odd-looking metallic robot is called IceWorm and perhaps will someday explore the surfaces of comets or the ice moon Europa. The scientists are testing only the foot of the future robot. The robot is supposed to climb up an ice wall on its own, but first, it has to be secured with a rope because its artificial intelligence has not yet learned all the steps involved. At present, the robot keeps falling off the wall. We had unsuccessfully tested the strange device in a small ice cave directly under our base camp two days earlier. This time, however, it should succeed. And after a few hours, it does climb slowly up the ice wall. We can hardly believe our eyes. The JPL experts break into cheers. After all the days of testing, we finally achieved the desired goal of independent climbing on the last day of the expedition.

measuring device

Andreas finds last year’s measuring device again, but it is pretty far away from its last known location. He is radiant, as this is the world’s first climate data from an ice cave inside a volcanic crater.

On the final evening, we sit together around a table made of snow in our large tent and celebrate the successful expedition. We built a long ice wall around the tent to protect it from the high-altitude storms. Someone carved a dragon into the wall, and it has become our protector. We only had to endure a single night with fierce storm winds.

exploring ice cave

We enjoy this night, but some of us don’t sleep well. Throughout the evening, someone told a story of how, years ago, NASA lost a robot with artificial intelligence up here and that it eventually became autonomous. The robot was just waiting for us all to go to our tents for the night, and then it would pop up from a hole and start to drill into us with its ice screw. But, seriously, we have experienced an absolutely fascinating and beautiful, although dangerous, world. We have all been lucky to be part of such an extraordinary research team.

cave entry

All photo credits: and Eric Guth