Point of View

Kluane ice cave provides quite a show as it nears the end of its life

The Kluane ice cave is becoming popular just as it readies for collapse. Emergency services say they can't prevent people from visiting, but CBC's Philippe Morin saw up close how dangerous it can be.

Scenic ice cave isn't just melting, but at times it's breaking and dropping chunks of ice

Geologist Jeff Bond says the cave is a piece of glacier at the end of its life. He says melting will include large pieces falling. It certainly was enough to startle Philippe Morin. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

It was absolutely perfect timing. After an hour-and-a-half of hiking, I stood outside the Kluane ice cave to record myself for CBC's Northbeat.

I set up my camera, set up my microphone and gestured to the cave.  

'Today we're just outside the cave. No one is going to go inside because there have been concerns about chunks of ice falling.

"Everyone knows that sooner or later this cave will collapse. As word gets around and this becomes more of a tourist attraction in Yukon, more people will come to see it — while they still can. Philippe Morin, CBC News, at the Kluane ice cave." 

And then  — a large piece broke off with a thunderous crash.

I don't know how big it was but it sprayed me with mineral-water mist, as though I was standing on a pier hit by an ocean wave. 

And yes, the camera was rolling.

Warning: the video below contains swearing.

I was delighted. A one-in-a-million shot. Then of course, I checked and saw the sound was bad. Somewhere along the hike I had bent a wire for my sound recorder causing an electric fuzz that ruined the dialogue.

Oh well — at least it was an unforgettable visual. 

The good news of course is that our group of hikers had heard the warnings and stood outside the cave. 

Hikers appear tiny compared to the landscape below the north face of Mount Archibald in the Kluane area. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Piece of glacier near the 'end of its life'

It's ironic the ice cave is becoming popular just as it nears the end of its life.

Jeff Bond with the Yukon Geological Survey describes the Kluane ice cave as a leftover piece of glacier.

'It's no longer part of the active glacier that's up in the valley," he said. "This is a piece that has been left behind that is slowly melting out.  It's slowly deteriorating and part of that melting process isn't just ice turning to water and running off, it can also be structural failure where you're seeing slabs peeling off." 

I visited on Feb. 28 by following a group of hikers who had self-organized through Facebook. 

Everyone had seen pictures of the cave but wanted to see it up close while they still had the chance. 

"It's amazing, it's beautiful," said Cindy Birnie who travelled from Whitehorse. "There are lots of warnings now that it's collapsing. I have noticed a change in the pictures over the last few years. So I am really grateful to be out here. I thought I should really come out here before it's a thing of the past."

Corinna Cook, originally from Juneau Alaska, had a poetic turn of phrase. 

"The earth makes its own cathedrals," she said. 

There are other signs of change near the ice caves: These holes were beside the trail showing a glimpse into some rushing water under the snow and ice. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Search and Rescue asks people to stay out

The route to the cave used to be known only by a few but today "it's no longer a well-kept secret," said hiker Karla Scott. "You can see how that the trail is well-travelled with footprints and snowmobile prints."

That concerns Mike Fancie, who represents Yukon Search and Rescue. He says they can't prevent people from visiting the cave but says there have already been close calls. 

"I can't emphasize enough how unsafe it would be to go inside the cave right now. Several tourists were almost struck by debris at the mouth of the cave," he said. 

A hard hat isn't enough.

I can tell you, by the clapping sound alone of that sheet of ice shattering, I wasn't going to stick around for a second take. 

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