Rising temperatures, melting glaciers and thawing permafrost: the Swiss Alps are hard hit by the changing climate. A fact of life for the people who work there, mountain guides are doing what they can to adapt to the evolving environment.
When mountain guide Walter von Ballmoos led a small group south of the Swiss border via the Maloja Pass to reach a hut in Bergell, Italy, everything went according to plan. It was on the way back that he experienced the shock of his career.
In Italy, he picked up a new group to lead back along the same route - or so he thought. Just one week later, it had drastically changed.
“A 100-metre long section of ice that I had just walked across was practically gone. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if we had been on that slab when it started to slide. There are some things you just can’t prepare for,” he said.
Before a mountain guide takes on a tour, he gets as much information as he can on the ice, snow and rock conditions. However, as melting glaciers are rapidly changing alpine terrain and thawing permafrost is weakening rock-solid mountain faces, climate change is making the environment harder to navigate and increasingly dangerous.
Bruno Hasler, director of training at the Swiss Alpine Club, has been a mountain guide for the past 20 years. He says that the effects of climate change can be seen everywhere in the alps. One example that he finds particularly impressive is along the Biancograt, a famous ridge on the Piz Bernina in the eastern Alps.
“My father used to take me there when I was a kid. Back then, it was completely snow-covered and we would just walk across. Now, there is this huge peak that you have to traverse across the side. It’s at least 20 or 30 metres over and definitely only accessible for experienced climbers,” Hasler told swissinfo.ch.
A number of accidents have been recorded along this famous ridge. Nonetheless, it remains a highly sought-after route. In order to improve accessibility, a short section of “via ferrata” was installed to help climbers make it across.
These man-made installations of cables, ladders and bridges are becoming commonplace in the Swiss Alps to conserve popular mountain routes as the changing terrain makes access increasingly difficult.
Another example can be seen at Konkordiaplatz, the source of the Aletsch glacier, the largest in the Alps. In 1877, a mountain hut was built just above the glacier to lodge traversing alpinists. In order to get to the hut today, people have to climb 467 steps (and counting). About one metre of steps has to be added to the massive steel staircase every year to account for the shrinking glacier.
According to Andreas Bauder, senior researcher in the section of glaciology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ), there’s no end in sight to this changing alpine environment. “By the end of this century, mountaineers will most likely have to reach at least 3,000 metres before they will encounter a glacier,” he said.
“It’s a dramatic change as there are many glaciers below this altitude in the Swiss Alps today,” he explained. The Upper Grindelwald glacier, one of Switzerland’s lowest, reaches down 1,600 metres above sea level.
Bauder is part of a team of researchers who measure the length of about 100 of the country’s glaciers every autumn. According to the measurements over the past ten years, all of them are retreating.
The annual rate of retreat for some glaciers can be quite significant. Located in canton Graubünden, Morteratsch is the most massive glacier in the eastern Alps. Although it has been shrinking in size for over a century, the annual rate of its retreat has increased substantially in recent years. From 1878 to 1998, the annual rate was about 17 metres per year. Since 2005, it has about doubled.
Thawing permafrost is another consequence of climate change impacting mountain guides. Under the surface, year-round frozen temperatures keep the ground rock-solid. When it thaws, the ground becomes less stable, erosion can start and the chance of rockfall increases.
In the Swiss Alps, permafrost can be found dozens of metres below the ground surface. As glaciers retreat, the ground loses its insulation and becomes more vulnerable to the climate. This is especially true for steep north faces completely exposed to the elements.
The Eiger north face is one such example. The already challenging 3,000-metre rock wall, located in the Bernese Alps, has become even more so. Over recent years, rockfalls have become increasingly frequent.
More and more climbers are turning their backs on the challenge during the traditional summer season in July and August. Rather, they prefer to take it on in the winter or spring when loose rocks are held in place by ice.
For many mountain guides, adapting to climate change is just part of a day’s work. According to Hasler, the profession remains the same: “One thing you always have to do is thoroughly investigate local conditions and respond to them before setting out on a tour. The profession remains the same, but maybe in 100 years, there will be fewer places left to exercise it.”