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‘Force of nature’: As annual Wedgemount Glacier survey marks 50 years, Karl Ricker is passing the torch

This year’s Wedgemount and Overlord glacier monitoring documented continued recession

When Rob Tupper crested the ridge above Wedgemount Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park on Saturday, Sept. 2, he and the rest of his six-person crew were greeted by a noticeably smaller glacier than they were last Labour Day weekend.

Specifically, Tupper and his group found a two-and-a-half-metre thinner Wedgemount Glacier that has receded 20 m in the 12 months since volunteers last made the steep trek up Wedge Mountain for an annual glacier survey. That’s more than double the eight-m recession recorded last year, but not quite as drastic as the 30 m of ice lost between 2019 and 2020.

“You know you’re going to see a change … but it’s still shocking when you’re there,” Tupper said.

Half a century ago, the same glacier extended 700 m further down the mountain, stretching across the surface of Wedgemount Lake. That was in 1973, the year Whistler geologist Karl Ricker convinced his mountaineering buddy, the late Bill Tupper—Rob’s dad, a photogrammetrist who taught in BCIT’s survey department—to head uphill and measure Wedgemount Glacier for the first time. It sparked a yearly tradition.

“We stuck it out year by year by year for 50 years,” Ricker said. “In other parts of the province and Alberta, they’ve been looking at some glaciers for longer periods of time, but erratically.”

As Whistler’s grassroots glacier monitoring program celebrates the milestone anniversary, Ricker is stepping down from its helm. He wrote up one final annual report this September before officially passing the torch to the next generation of surveyors.

Ricker is “a force of nature,” Rob said. “Few people know more about the Coast Mountains.”

Ricker served as lead Wedgemount Glacier monitor since his friend Bill retired in the 1980s, hiking the rugged, challenging trail up Wedge Mountain every year until he turned 80, and joining the annual volunteer effort via helicopter each year since. Ricker wasn’t able to make it to Wedgemount Glacier earlier this month, but joined a crew flying to Overlord Glacier to continue the monitoring efforts the following day, on Sept. 3.

Now, at 87, “I’m in my last decade of my life, so it’s time to shut things down,” he said.

The monitoring program spearheaded by Ricker and Bill Tupper, alongside friend Don Lyon, involved its fair share of students over the years, but eventually grew to include a second generation. Alongside Don’s son Dave, Rob now leads the charge with the help of a third cohort—Dave’s son Graeme and daughter Rebecca, and Rob’s daughters Brooklyn and Ellie, plus Kristina Swerhun of the Whistler Naturalists “to crack the whip and organize,” said Ricker.

Ricker leaves the program in capable hands. Rob works as a land surveyor based in Vernon, armed with a geomatics engineering degree from the University of Calgary, while his eldest daughter is in her fourth year of studying earth sciences at the University of Victoria. This year, glacio-hydrologist and Simon Fraser University professor Gwenn Flowers and one of her graduate students also joined the volunteers.

The crew celebrated the 50th anniversary with a party at Ricker’s on Sept. 2. “We had a grand time on Saturday night, discussing what happened over 50 years, cutting the cake and passing out the T-shirts for the event and drinking the beer that was in my fridge,” Ricker said with a laugh.

It all began in 1965, when Ricker summited Wedge Mountain for the first time. “I noticed this glacier floating in a lake. I was totally unaware that there was even a lake there,” he recalled, “so that’s what triggered it.”

The fact the glacier was floating made it obvious the ice was receding, but at the time, did the group expect ice loss to continue? “Probably,” said Ricker, even though “there were some minor oscillations in glaciers throughout Western Canada, where they would advance a little, maybe for one or two years, and then start receding again.”

Still, Wedgemount Glacier never did advance. Over the last five decades, volunteers charted an average recession of 14 m per year. The trend was interrupted only slightly in 1983 to 1984, when the glacier “stalled,” said Ricker.

Ricker said the biggest surprise he encountered in his half-century of surveying Wedgemount was the emergence of a new lake basin the melting glacier revealed just over a decade ago, named Tupper Lake. More recently, as Ricker explained in the report he co-wrote this month with Swerhun, a 57-m collapse above that new lake between 2020 and 2021 accelerated recession.

Beyond those sobering measurements, Wedgemount Glacier’s steady ice loss is illustrated in the “continuous photographic record” compiled over 50 years of monitoring, said Rob.

The landscape on Wedge Mountain is “becoming more and more stark, so I think that’s why it resonates with people,” he said. “Just the change over the last three years is dramatic, and then when you [compare it] from the 1970s, through to the late ’90s, the mid 2000s, to 2020 and then 2023, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is real. This is happening.’

“That’s what makes it unique, that this was started in 1973 for no other reason than ‘[The glacier] is there, so let’s photograph it and measure it and see what comes of it.’”

Over to Overlord

Eventually, in 1986, Ricker and co. expanded the scope of their monitoring to include Overlord Glacier, accessible via the Singing Pass trail on the opposite side of Fitzsimmons Creek.

They determined Overlord wasn’t experiencing the same relentless recession as Wedgemount: aerial photos captured between 1951 and 1983 showed Overlord Glacier instead advanced 174 m, or an average of 5.4 m per year.

But that trend didn’t last. Ricker eventually noted the appearance of a small pond at the edge of the glacier, revealed as the glacier began melting. The new “Investigator Lake”  was especially obvious during volunteers’ last visit to Overlord in 2017. According to Ricker, satellite photos captured over the last six years display “a rapidly enlarging” basin. With Overlord serving as the watershed to Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs through Whistler Village, another visit was deemed necessary to assess any potential flooding risk.

Ricker joined Flowers, Rob, Brooklyn, and Doug Wiley, a former head engineer at the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and current Whistler Museum and Archives Society board member, in an RMOW-funded helicopter flight headed for Overlord Glacier on a rainy Sunday, Sept. 3. Dave and Graeme Lyon hiked into the site alongside RMOW staffers James Hallisey and Andrew Tucker.

Within the short 45-minute weather window the helicopter crew had to conduct measurements at the toe of Overlord Glacier, Rob determined the glacier has receded approximately 118 m since 2017, or an average of 19.6 m per year. Based on Ricker’s research, Overlord Glacier receded 385 m, or an average of 10.4 m per year since 1986.

“I was surprised at how confined it was when we got there,” said Ricker. “I always remembered a very broad, expansive floodplain outwash. Then we landed in the chopper, and everything was narrow and deep. That was a six-year change.”

The experts did not identify any hazards associated with the lake basin, but will continue to assess the site’s stability. In a statement, the RMOW confirmed the helicopter flight was “part of a larger project to investigate flood protection options in the upper Fitzsimmons watershed,” and said consultants will review information gathered during the Sept. 3 trip.

‘Appreciate what we have’

How long will Wedgemount and Overlord glaciers continue to hang on? There are two possible scenarios, according to Ricker: “One is that within 50 years, glaciers will start advancing again, and start filling in the holes they left in the recession,” he said. “The other scenario is they’re going to disappear altogether. And that happened between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago—all of our glaciers around here disappeared.”

Some local glaciers, like Blackcomb Mountain’s Horstman, are already close to disappearing, said Ricker.

Pro skier and filmmaker Mike Douglas recently posted a pair of side-by-side photos illustrating the ice loss that have since earned the internet’s attention. One shows a summer ski camp on Blackcomb’s expansive, snow-covered Horstman Glacier in July 2006. A second image, shot from the same vantage point in August 2023, depicts the rocky, exposed terrain and razor-thin, grey-streaked remnants of a glacier now in its place.

Rob, a former ski racer, recalled his own summers spent training on Blackcomb’s glacier. “From 2007 until now, it’s gone,” he said. “You can do some summer training until the snow melts, but you’re not skiing on a glacier. That ship’s sailed. It’s unfortunate.”

Maybe fond memories associated with Whistler’s glaciers are partly why photos or statistics chronicling the substantial and seemingly irrevocable ice loss elicit such an emotional response from so many.

Ricker doesn’t share their sentimentality.

“I’m a hard-nosed scientist. Glaciers come and glaciers go—that’s what’s been going on for millions of years,” he said. “If people have attachment to a glacier, well, they can have it, and that’s their prerogative, I’m not going to interfere. But as far as I’m concerned, glaciers have been fluctuating back and forth for millennia and it’s not about to stop.”

It’s clear Ricker’s attachment lies more with the monitoring project and people involved in it.

Ricker, Lyons and Tupper “were pioneers in the mountaineering community in the late ’50s and early ’60s. They were doing stuff that hadn’t been done before,” Rob explained. “Karl’s our connection. He’s of pure scientific mind, he wants to know about our environment and our world, and wants to write it down and wants to share it with people.

“There’s no ulterior motive with Karl, it’s just about documenting and sharing,” he said.

There are a few lessons Rob is taking away from the last half-century of glacier monitoring on Wedge Mountain. First, “you don’t know what little insignificant project you may be taking on your life now that may be of interest to someone 50 years from now,” he said, “so don’t lose sight of what might seem like a kind of a geeky sort of trivial weekend expedition once a year.”

But as glaciers continue to melt at an accelerating rate, the project is just as much an annual reminder to, “appreciate what we have,” Rob added, “because you don’t know what we may not have in the future.”

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