The Story of John Muir and His Beloved Glaciers

by Matt Renda

Before There Was Alex Honnold

We here at NEMO take enormous inspiration from John Muir, the great naturalist, writer and mountaineer, founder of the Sierra Club, and a pioneer of the conservationist movement. The man free soloed Cathedral Peak in Yosemite before it was even considered cool.

And equal to his advocacy and athleticism is the remarkable combination of Muir’s passion for nature with his eloquence in describing the beauty of the outdoor world.

It continues to inspire us to get out, explore and pay attention.

The Lesser Known Muir

But while Muir is well known as the adventurer, writer, environmentalist and naturalist, it remains lesser known that he pioneered the scientific study of glaciers — or glaciology — particularly in alpine settings.

John Muir spent five summers, beginning in 1870, relentlessly and meticulously cataloging the the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada mountain range that runs north to south along California’s eastern flank.

This monumental effort required him to undertake several strenuous adventures into the formidable granite peaks of the jagged mountain range that encompasses some of the tallest and most rugged mountains of the North American continent. Muir wrote this of one of his adventures in an article called “Living Glaciers of California,” published in Harper’s Monthly in 1875:

“After a long fireside rest and a glance at my field-notes, I cut a few pine tassels for a bed and fell into the clear death-like sleep that always comes to the tired mountaineer.”


John of the Mountains

John of the Mountains, as he was called by his contemporaries, dedicated years of his life to living in the alpine environment because he loved it, was moved by it, but also because he was driven by a burning curiosity and an innate need to discover scientific truths behind the mountainous features he loved so ardently.

With scant formal training as a scientist or geologist, Muir nevertheless intuitively believed that the dramatic and prodigious features of the Sierra Nevada — Yosemite Valley in particular — were created by glacial activity over the course of centuries.

“The Sierra Nevada of California may be regarded as one grand wrinkled sheet of glacial records,” Muir wrote in 1875. “For the scripture of the ancient glaciers cover every rock, mountain and valley of the range.”

Yosemite Valley

19th Century Trash Talk

Muir’s formulation of the mountain landscape as sculpted by ice remains geologic gospel in the present age, but in the late 19th century Muir’s hypothesis was almost universally greeted with scorn by the contemporary scientific community.

No single person was more contemptuous than Josiah Whitney.

Whitney, whose name crowns the tallest summit in the contiguous United States, was appointed to the much coveted position as California’s first state geologist in 1860 and was tasked with taking a survey of the state.

Whitney believed Yosemite’s distinctive steep smooth grey granitic walls were caused by a sudden and cataclysmic dropping of the valley floor due to faulting. He remained convinced there were no glaciers in the Sierra Nevada and derided Muir as an amatuer, calling him an “ignoramus” and a “mere sheepherder.”

“Ignoramus.” “Mere Sheepherder.” Josiah Whitney

But Muir had a distinctive advantage over his scientific rival in the form of his willingness and athletic capacity to adventure to the remote and barely accessible regions of the Sierra Nevada, where the glaciers lay hidden.

“The main cause that has prevented the earlier discovery of Sierra Nevada glaciers is simply the want of explorations in the regions where they occur.” John Muir

Muir discovered the Maclure Glacier in the summer of 1872 and began conducting rigorous scientific experiments that included the placement of stakes to measure the movement of the glacier. Muir and his partner, Galen Clark, discovered that the Maclure Glacier was moving at an inch per day. For Muir, the movement of glaciers represented a key indicator of their status as what he called “living glaciers”, as detractors like Whitney routinely argued that Muir was confusing the presence of unmelted snowfields leftover from the winter for glaciers.

All in all, Muir documented 65 such living glaciers over the course of five summers in the high country.


The Mile Wide Glacier

The largest and most distinctive of glaciers he discovered was Lyell Glacier, located on the northern slopes of Mount Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite National Park.

“The Lyell Glacier is about a mile wide and less than a mile long,” Muir wrote in 1890.

Muir’s meticulous record-keeping along with photographs taken by geologist Grove Karl Gilbert have provided present day geologists with a baseline with which to compare the present state of the Sierra’s glaciers.

Those photographs reveal a drastic reduction in the size of Sierra’s glaciers in the past few years, with a pronounced acceleration in the past few decades.

Glaciers across the Sierra Nevada saw their surface area decrease by anywhere from 31 to 78 percent from 1900 to 2004, according to a recent study published by Hasan Basagic, a research assistant at Portland State University.

Lyell glacier shrinking
Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.


140 Years Later

In 2012, exactly 140 years after Muir conducted his experiments, Yosemite National Park Geologist Greg Stock and his team repeated those experiments at Maclure Glacier, with some striking findings.

The Maclure glacier still moves at the rate of an inch per day, according to the experiment, an odd finding given that it has receded so notably.

The Lyell Glacier no longer moves, meaning it is stagnant and essentially dead.

Scientists believe it may be a matter of a few decades before the glacier is gone forever. If it does recede completely, the summer flows of streams that feed the Tuolumne River may dry up.

“In this day and age the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada are shrinking rapidly,” says Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock in a 2012 interview for the Oakland Museum of California.

“They’re melting very quickly as the climate warms.”

While Muir counted 65 glaciers, there are presently more than 100 glaciers in the Sierra Nevada and all of them are receding, according to Stock, with some losing more than half their surface area. The first glacier Muir ever discovered in October of 1871 near Red Mountain south of Yosemite has vanished.

“These glaciers are shrinking before our very eyes because of climate change,” – Geologist Greg Stock.

More Than Muir Envisioned

And as we know, this glacial recession is not restricted to the mountains of California.

Glacier National Park, straddling the border of Montana and Canada, and named after the distinctive and numerous bodies of dense ice that dot the mountain landscape, is losing those features at an increasingly alarming rate.

All of the 37 remaining glaciers in the park are receding dramatically, with the average formation losing 39 percent of its surface area and some losing as much as 87 percent, according to a recent study conducted by the United States Geological Survey and Portland State University.

“While the shrinkage in Montana is more severe than some other places in the U.S., it is in line with trends that have been happening on a global scale,” said lead Portland State geologist Andrew G. Fountain.

Indeed,  several ice caps, glaciers and ice shelves have vanished in this century with several more retreating so rapidly they may vanish within a matter of decades.

John Muir

Muir, ever the student of nature, had no illusion about nature’s preference for constant dynamic change. In 1875 he wrote:

“How much longer this little glacier will live will, of course, depend upon climate and the changes slowly effected.”

The accelerated changes we are witnessing, where a likelihood that all of Sierra Nevada’s glaciers will vanish in a generation, is not something he envisioned when he wrote “slowly effected.”

The very real and present effects of a changing climate have prompted us at NEMO to take sustainability seriously and incorporate it into our business practices. If each of us don’t act to protect the places we love to adventure, who will? We’re committed to doing our part to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable business practices. To learn more, read about our commitment to sustainable business here.