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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Melting Mountains

Mountaineering in the Alps enjoyed its golden age, when most of the major summits first were climbed, during the 19th century. Ironically, the mid-19th century also marked the end of Europe’s Little Ice Age, during which Alpine glaciers reached their maximum length and depth in historical times. In other words, the glaciers on which the craft of mountaineering was born and nurtured have been retreating ever since climbers first kicked steps up them. And during the last few decades, the melt-off has accelerated dramatically.

During our second day in Grindelwald, our group planned a short hike between the upper and lower Grindelwald glaciers. A few hundred yards from the road where we were dropped off, we stood at a bridge across a milky glacial stream, just below a cliff that rose nearly vertically for several hundred feet. A wooden catwalk snaked up the cliff to a café on top. The Upper Grindelwald Glacier was barely visible far behind the cliff, but our guide, Yeti (aka Beat Hutmacher), told us that just 20 years ago the place where we were standing would have been buried under grinding glacial ice. This is where old-time Grindelwald entrepreneurs used to cut ice blocks to ship in sawdust to the cities of France and Belgium. Less than a generation ago, Yeti taught ice climbing to beginners right here, where no ice can be seen today.

We switchbacked up a trail through the woods, and then Yeti led us about 50 feet down a side path to a small platform in the wet earth. “Right here there was an ice cave you could climb into.” A few minutes farther up the trail we reached a café with a broad deck. Yeti introduced us to the proprietor, Peter Bohren, the third generation of Bohrens to run this restaurant, which was built on one of the lateral moraines from the now-vanished Upper Grindelwald Glacier. He showed us a photograph from the 1970s of patrons on the deck, enjoying a view of the churning ice nearby. “How’s business, now that the ice is gone?” I asked him. “Not so good,” he said.

We hiked along a bench above Grindelwald’s gorgeous emerald valley, and then, turning to the south, climbed steeply above the outlet from the Lower Grindelwald Glacier. The broad, icy north face of the Fiescherhorn rose above us, fluted like a peak in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Pale-blue seracs and white fields of snow gleamed in the sun. But the seeming abundance of glacial ice is an illusion. As we admired the view and ate a lunch of Käseschnitte (cheese on bread) at the Bäregg restaurant, we were surprised to learn that this hut was only two years old. The previous restaurant had slid into the abyss nearby as the glacier beside it retreated, loosening the rocks and earth under the restaurant’s foundation.

Walking down the trail again, Yeti stopped above a narrowing in the deep gorge and pointed to an enormous block of limestone that had detached from the opposite wall and slid forward into the canyon, leaving a broad gap between it and the cliff behind. This was the remnant from the famous “collapse” of the east face of the Eiger in the summer of 2006, when hysterical news reports declared that the Eiger was falling down as a result of global warming. News helicopters and thousands of hikers staged a vigil after a widening crack in the wall appeared, waiting for the big collapse. When it came, a cloud of dust briefly covered Grindelwald below, but the feared damming of the glacial stream in the canyon (and possible subsequent flooding) did not occur. The Eiger still stands, and, especially in light of the frenzied news reports, the “collapse” of the east face seems monumentally anticlimactic, though it did create a lovely pinnacle in the gorge, clearly visible from our hotel.

Still, I came away from the day’s hike with a new appreciation for the speed and extent of the changes under way in the Alps. Many experts in Switzerland predict that glaciers below 4,000 meters in elevation will be almost entirely gone by the end of this century—perhaps much sooner. Lives and businesses are being altered by the glacial retreat, but mostly there is a sense of sadness and loss: The snowy, ice-draped Alps we have known all of our lives, and through the stories, photos, and 19th century illustrations of the pioneers, are rapidly being denuded of their icy mantle. The peaks will still stand when our grandchildren visit, but they won’t look the same. The climbing difficulties will all be on rock (much of it loose, newly exposed, and unpleasant) instead of ice. The stories written on and about these mountains will be different from the ones we’ve known in the past. Will they measure up?

This summer, my wife urged me to visit Africa, a destination I’d planned to save for the less vigorous adventures of my old age. She argued that we needed to see the rare animals before they disappear forever. I feel the same way about the Alps, and the other alpine environments around the world—I want to visit them right now. Future generations undoubtedly will love the Alps in a new way, but to see these mountains and to climb among them the way we have since mountaineering was born—to witness and share the collective experience of more than 200 years of mountaineers—you have to go now. You simply can’t wait.

Next up: The Eiger Indirect. Click here to go to the first of these dispatches from the Swiss Alps.


Nonkel V said...

Hi Dougald,
I used to go hiking and climbing near Grindelwald quite regularly about 10 years ago. I have not been there for some time now, but I plan to go back later this year. So you can imagine I read your articles with plain interest!
To add 2 more cents: in august I have visited the Morteratsch glacier near Pontresina, where they are keeping track of the ice retreat for more than 100 years, and indicicating it with signs. I have been there as a kid in the early 1980's. How much farther I had to walk from the 1980 sign to where the ice reaches today!

Kind regards from Belgium,
Jo Dotremont

April's Place said...

interesting website!