The Ice Caverns of Mt. Rainier: Bill Lokey Dives Deep

Most adventurers struggle mightily to reach a summit peak or a distant destination in some wild and forbidding place. Once there, they can enjoy the view, snap some photos, snack on some granola bars, and revel in the satisfaction of a job well done. Then, after a short interlude, it’s time to head on back from whence you came.

…Unless you happen to be a research scientist. In that case, getting to the summit is just the beginning. Now it’s time to break out the test equipment and bivouac gear. You are in it for the long haul. There is Science to be done and one cannot let abysmal conditions or the desire for a warm bath override the practical need to observe scientific rigor and take the measurements that will advance humanity a wee bit farther than it was before.

Lokey's team in Antarctica. Photo by Bill Lokey
Lokey’s team in Antarctica. Photo by Bill Lokey

Field scientists need to haul enormous amounts of gear (and themselves) into the wild. They may have prepared themselves at university with a deep understanding of their chosen discipline, but they may not be expert at mountain climbing, pathfinding and logistics. That’s where Bill Lokey comes in.

Since the early 1970’s Lokey has been guiding scientific expeditions in the world’s most challenging environments. When he and his team reach the volcanic lip of Mount Rainier, it’s time to begin work. They set up camp and prepare for extensive exploration and study. Sometimes this means being holed up in a wind-whipped tent for days. Sometimes it means hauling bundles of scientific gear up a steep glacier and then rappelling down into a massive cavern of searing blue and white. And oftentimes it means switching between your Scientist Hat and your Explorer Hat at a moment’s notice.

Total Commitment

In Antarctica. Photo by Bill Lokey
In Antarctica. Photo by Bill Lokey

A young art school graduate, Lokey looked at his options to work in the wild and decided to go to the Big Chill: Antarctica. He served four tours (three of them “winter-overs”) on the ice, supporting the scientific teams and learning to deal with truly extreme weather and unfriendly field conditions. The intense cold and months of darkness made him a tougher nut and solidified his resolve to assist important research under difficult conditions.

“It was 20 below zero when we landed and I was greeted with 24-hour daylight and the Ross Ice Shelf that stretched to the horizon with flat white snow and ice. I was really excited to be there.

It was a time I called the ‘Late Heroic Age’. It was very much a ‘Men’s Club’: we still had plastic bag toilets, took one shower a week, lived in small quarters in small huts, and if the conditions were good, you could get a phone patch home on the amateur radio about once a week.

“My dad had been to Antarctica as a guest of the Navy in 1962. It had been a dream of mine to get there and I was excited that the dream had come true.”

Trepidation set in however, as the realities of a year spent in this frozen world began to hit home. Eight months of 24-hour darkness. No fresh food. No mail. No way out. The commitment was total.

It was here that Lokey learned how to make do with what he had. Logistics were a matter of life and death. If you needed something and you didn’t have it, you improvised. In that frozen cauldron, he became expert at outfitting scientific teams with everything they needed and making sure they got out and back safely.

At Mt. Hubbard. Photo by Bill Lokey
At Mt. Hubbard. Photo by Bill Lokey

Back in North America, Lokey joined a team of climbers to ascend peaks in the St. Elias range, on the Alaska-Yukon border. He wanted to learn more and prepare himself for even grander expeditions, including a planned ascent of a particularly challenging route on Denali.

“The climbing was challenging and for my two expeditions in the St. Elias range I was on teams of good climbers who got along. Despite challenges with weather, a few close calls and varying conditions, we successfully climbed the Southwest Ridge of Mt. Hubbard and what we called the East Rib of Mt. Vancouver.

“Climbing is just problem solving. You gain certain experience and expertise with equipment, and then you challenge yourself and go, solving one roadblock after another, whether it be a cornice ridge, an avalanche zone, a crevasse system, a steep face or whatever.”

Awe and Wonder

Photo by Bill Lokey

Closer to home, Lokey assisted on a scientific exploration of the fabled caverns located beneath Mount Rainier’s summit, an expedition dubbed “Project Crater”. It was 1971, and Lokey provided both logistics and climbing expertise to the team. These unusual formations – sculpted ice and rubble formed by volcanic vents – were considered unique on Earth and had never been properly mapped or explored. The team hoped to study the caverns and their geological structure, as well as search for any life holding fast in that inhospitable environment.

On July 28 of that year, Lokey entered the caves and encountered alarming levels of volcanic gases. The team pressed on, mapping the labyrinthine passages and gazing in wonder at the underground cathedrals. Squeezing through an icy passage, he popped out the other side and discovered an enormous underground lake of silver and blue, a stalactite ceiling of frozen ice high above. Astonished, he decided to name the lake after his mother, Muriel.

“The cave network at the summit of Rainier was an incredible natural marvel. I have described it in many presentations as one of the most unique natural wonders I have personally ever seen. Though I get older and visit less often, I still get feelings of awe and wonder.”

On the summit of Rainier. Photo by Francois-Xavier "Fix" De Ruydts
On the summit of Rainier. Photo by Francois-Xavier “Fix” De Ruydts

In the intervening years, Lokey returned to Mount Rainier’s concealed underground cave system many times. Each trip revealed changes and new passages, all of which were carefully mapped and measured. The scientific teams tested for life forms in the caves, life forms that may one day help us understand how life can exist in hellish places like deep sea vents and the outer atmosphere. These studies may even help us understand how life initially formed on our Big Ball of Water.

Last year, a 67-year-old Bill Lokey returned once more to Rainier’s ice caves, this time armed with more modern tools and equipment. Along for the 14,411 foot climb and deep descent were a biologist, a geologist, a journalist, a photographer, and several experienced spelunkers. They were hoping to find hardy new microbes and new methods of providing early warnings of volcanic activity.

No summit attempt on Mount Rainier is routine. It’s a dangerous mountain that has claimed over 100 lives. This trip was no exception, with extreme weather and difficult terrain causing numerous setbacks and hazards. But they eventually reached the crater and Lokey’s logistics skills proved valuable as they made camp and assembled their scientific tools and instruments.

Lokey joined the team in the caverns, visiting his familiar underground world with fresh eyes and weary limbs.

“From the time I had on the summit this past summer, I was not able to locate the lake in the Western Crater that I named after my mother. I had heard rumors from climbing friends that it was no longer there…

“…I was then extremely excited when Eddie Cartaya, a Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer who was with the 2014 expedition, said that they had discovered a lake deep in the Eastern, or Main Crater. I was amazed when I first saw this one. It was larger, further below the surface, and clearer.”

 Photo by Francois-Xavier "Fix" De Ruydts
Photo by Francois-Xavier “Fix” De Ruydts

In the years between his initial climbs in the St. Elias and his return to Rainier in 2014, Lokey became a respected emergency services manager. Seems like a good career for a guy who knows more than most about earth science, volcanoes, glacial runoff, extreme weather and plate tectonics. He trained trainers and gave untold talks on the subject.

There has always been an undeniable link between science and aesthetics. Few scientists view their work with dispassion. Any scientist worth their salt is a creature of wonder. From gawping at distant constellations to marveling at tiny fossil fragments, the work of understanding the Universe cannot be done without a deep appreciation for its beauty.

Looking back on his years of exploration and discovery, Lokey feels privileged to have experienced some of the planet’s most amazing places, including the remarkable ice caverns beneath the summit of Rainier.

The thrill of discovery does not fade with time. “…It was exciting to me to be around such smart people who were finding out interesting things about our planet… in some of the most remote and most beautiful places on Earth…”

ted_rosenAfter 21 years in Bellingham, New Jersey native Ted Rosen has learned a few things about the region and its locals. He can now properly barbecue a salmon and name the major peaks of the North Cascades. As a member of the Greenways Advisory Committee, he is always looking for new ways to get around without a car.

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