Exploring Toxic Ice Caves in an Active Volcano

Researchers explore the ice caves that have been formed by volcanic fumes melting the crater glacier.

“The caves themselves are very complex with hazards deep inside. The recipe is set for a cave rescue with a lot of dire consequences,” says Eduardo Cartaya, a National Geographic grantee who is leading an expedition into the ice caves inside one of Mount Rainier’s craters.

Carataya’s expedition team includes 75 people, and with good reason—they are collecting a wealth of information from caves atop the active volcano. “We’re going into this cave to make a three-dimensional map of the cave system, so if someone gets lost or hurt it’s easier to find them and conduct a search-and-rescue operation,” Cartaya explains. “The map is also considered like a canvas upon which a lot of other information is painted or applied to. The geochemistry, geo-microbiology and the climatology—all those interest points—are placed on the map and the changes can be plotted and watched year after year after year.”

With a background in search and rescue, Cartaya hopes that his team’s data will help protect the thousands of people who attempt to climb Mount Rainier every year. Climbing any mountain presents inherent risks, but Rainier’s caves are especially dangerous since they have pockets of poisonous gases like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide, as Cartaya knows all too well. “We descended down a very steep, scrambly room to follow a water stream passage and before we knew it the gas monitor was screaming at us and I saw very high levels of CO2 registering on it. We scrambled as fast as we could but hadn’t realized it was such a long climb out and we really couldn’t get any grasp on the ground,” Cartaya recalls. “We made it, but it was a very nerve-wracking experience. Had we not had the gas monitor, we might have gone too far down to get back out.” —> Read More