Highlighted against a brilliant blue sky, the white-cloaked flanks of Mount Hood provide a dazzling spectacle.
A Clark County mountaineer recently saw that ice from an even more spectacular perspective: underneath the glacier.
Jared Smith helped out when a public broadcasting crew recently documented a team of climbers who are exploring glacier caves.
“It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life,” said Smith, a member of the Yacolt-based Volcano Rescue Team.
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“It’s definitely one of the most beautiful and dangerous places in North America,” Smith said. “They go together.”
That’s because the ice caves are created by the gradual deterioration of the Sandy Glacier, on the northwest face of Mount Hood.
“There was continuous ice fall and rock fall through the day,” Smith said.
The caves, and the people who are exploring them, were the focus when “Oregon Field Guide” opened the 25th season of its weekly outdoors TV show earlier this month.
Cave explorers Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya have been mapping and exploring the Snow Dragon glacier cave system since 2011, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), the show’s producer.
Cracks and openings called moulins can carry melted water down into the ice. When glacial ice thins, the cracks can become year-round tunnels.
Witnessing the erosion
In addition to mapping more than a mile of the cave system, McGregor and Cartaya have been documenting the gradual erosion of the glacier’s interior. Another member of the team is Kara Mickaelson; she is Smith’s aunt, and was just one of his links to the project.
“Brent McGregor is a friend of mine,” Smith said. “When they first went into the cave, they had been talking about it with me.”
When OPB went to work on the episode, there was a place for Smith in the production.
“I’ve been mountaineering for 20 years; I’ve ice-climbed all over the United States,” the 35-year-old Woodland High School graduate said. “I’m a mountaineering guide on Mount St. Helens.”
And as a member of the Volcano Rescue Team, a volunteer group affiliated with the North Country Emergency Medical Service, Smith has plenty of rescue experience.
“They had filming coming up and asked if I could do ropes and anchors, and be there in case of an emergency,” Smith said.
Smith said he made three trips to the glacier in July for the production. He got a chance to see some new chambers in the system, which features three distinct caves: Snow Dragon, Pure Imagination and Frozen Minotaur.
Under 150 feet of ice
At some points, the explorers were 150 feet below the glacier’s surface — not Smith’s usual outdoor setting.
“It’s intimidating being under a glacier, as a mountaineer. You can feel the weight. If anything were to collapse, it would be catastrophic,” Smith said.
Although the filming is done, Smith said he will continue to help his friends on their project.
“I’ll continue to help measure the caves until they are gone,” Smith said.