Don’t Go In ‘Incredibly Dangerous’ Mount Rainier Ice Caves Despite Viral Posts, National Park Service Warns

by Jon D. B.
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One photographer’s viral photo has Mount Rainier National Park (MORA) worried to the point they’ve released an official statement on the matter.

That statement is a warning. “Officials strongly discourage visitors from approaching or entering ice caves or melt water channels as they are prone to spontaneous collapse due to melting, which is accelerated this time of year. Collapse, or ice and rock fall could be fatal or cause serious injuries to those who venture inside or near the entrance,” MORA officials cite in their media release.

The warning comes after a photo taken by a nature photographer went viral on his Instagram, then other social media platforms. His photo, which you’ll see below, shows a remarkable rainbow-like phenomenon within a Mount Rainier National Park ice cave.

“When the sun hits the outside of these ice caves at Mt Rainier just right, they turn into rainbow ice caves,” Nichols raves in his post. “I could not believe my eyes! I went up to Mt Rainier specifically to explore the ice caves and never imagined they would be SO COLORFUL,” he continues.

This, however, is exactly what prompted the park’s official statement; the hope being they can discourage others from seeking out these “incredibly dangerous” caves.

When (admittedly striking) images like this go viral, they lead to others seeking out the same photo ops. But when such an op requires entering an ice cave that’s likely to collapse, this sort of encouragement becomes a public safety hazard.

The hazard is even higher when the responsible party – alongside uneducated media outlets – actively encourage others to seek out these potentially deadly areas.

Mount Rainier National Park’s Safety Advisory Comes in Direct Response to Photographer’s Viral Photo

“This advisory is in response to recent posts created and shared through social and other media, of the inside of an ice cave taken at Mount Rainier National Park. This information has been aired on a few networks along with a video by the photographer sharing information that now is a good time to “check out Mount Rainier’s ice caves,” the national park begins its statement, declining to name visitors or media outlets by name.

Choosing instead to educate, NPS clarifies that the photographer’s photo is of “a melt-water channel running underneath a perennial snowfield (snow that persists through the summer).”

Regardless, “Officials strongly discourage visitors from approaching or entering ice caves or melt water channels as they are prone to spontaneous collapse due to melting, which is accelerated this time of year.”

And as previously stated, “Collapse, or ice and rock fall could be fatal or cause serious injuries to those who venture inside or near the entrance.”

In addition, entering these channels and caves puts visitors in danger of hypothermia. The combination of frigid air temperatures alongside equally-frigid melt water flowing from the snowfield, the conditions for hypothermia become much more severe. “Melt water volumes inside will increase throughout the day (just as stream crossing hazards are greater in the afternoon),” the park adds.

Changing Climate Means These Ice Caves & Channels are Disappearing

Yet visitors to Mount Rainier National Park may not be able to find these ice formations for much longer.

The Washington park held a few well-developed ice caves in the past. “But with the warming climate, those have disappeared, replaced only by transitory and unstable channels/caves,” their media release explains.

Once open to the public, Mount Rainier would close their historic ice caves around 1980 due to unsafe conditions for visitors. At the time, ice chunks and flakes, some the size of a small car, were breaking loose and falling from the cave ceiling. This still happens today in the caves that remain.

“Alpine areas accumulate effects from erosion and misuse much faster than lower elevations,” the park cites. For the areas that remain, concentrated travel by visitors also causes “decades of resource damage in a matter of days.”

So when visiting Mount Rainier’s meadows and alpine areas, the park asks that hikers adhere to Leave No Trace guidelines by traveling on durable surfaces.

For much more on these practices and how you can be a steward of Leave No Trace, see our ‘Leave No Trace’ in U.S. National Parks: Breaking Down the Seven Principles next.

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