30. Ceiling, Snow Cave, near Verlot, Washington.jpg

Ceiling, Snow Cave, near Verlot, Washington

Accumulations of deep snow coating Four Mountain – located in western Washington State – cascade down its steep slopes, amassing on a slanted plain at the Mountain's base. This buildup formed a permanent snowfield under which meltwater streams have carved icy, banquet hall-sized caves.

The hike to the caves traverses a terrain littered with the remains of winter's avalanche-downed Pacific Silver Firs (usually found at higher elevations but growing here due to their proximity to the perpetually chilly snow fields). The trail presents hazards throughout the year, with boulders and stones flying down the mountainside to a large and active scree slope surrounding the snowfield.

The wet variegated ceilings of these caves continuously drip in the warmer months. This photograph reveals a brown streak of dense sediment, likely marking the dividing line between winters or possibly the ash residue of a wildfire. This luminous ceiling is also characterized by spots and indentations of captured debris and sediment-stained ice glowing yellow, blue-grey, and cyan. Each passing year adds and subtracts colors to the ceiling's palette.

The Forest Service has restricted entrance to the caves, but despite their warning signs, this underground world has tempted many to inspect its wonders. Lying down to view this ceiling's panorama would be a serene and mesmerizing experience if not for the frigid air and dripping melt. There is also the constant danger of ice falls, which have taken the lives of at least four adventurers, especially during summers when visitation is frequent and the cave's ceiling is most unstable.

- James Baker