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Researchers shed light on accident 88 years ago

Thanks to simulations, the Aletsch Glacier yields some of its secrets Keystone

Four hikers who disappeared 88 years ago on the largest glacier in the Alps froze to death after becoming disoriented, according to glacier simulations conducted by a mathematician from Germany and a glaciologist at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ).

On March 4, 1926, four young men failed to return from their ski tour on the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Alps. According to eyewitness accounts the group – three of whom were brothers – set off in the afternoon to Konkordiaplatz where three smaller glaciers converge to compose the Aletsch Glacier.

This was the last time anybody saw them alive. Two British mountaineers found the remains of the three brothers 86 years later. There is still no trace of the body of the fourth man.

Mathematician Guillaume Jouvet from the Freie Universität in Berlin and glaciologist Martin Funk from the ETHZ worked on the basis of where the bones were found. They used a computer model to reproduce the glacier’s three-dimensional flow characteristics and retrace the location where the men must have lost their lives and been absorbed by the glacier.

Their findings have been published in the latest edition of the International Glaciology Society’s Journal of Glaciology.

The site they identified is in the area of the Grosser Aletschfirn, in the valley north of the Hollandiahütte.

Records suggest that during the afternoon of March 4, a snow storm set in that lasted three days. The scientists suggest that this heavy snowfall had complicated the search for the four men. According to measurements, the snow that fell following the day of disappearance had not melted by the time the following winter set in.

Solving riddles

The model developed by Jouvet and Funk and presented for the first time in 2011 provides details on the speed of the glacier and its growth and shrinkage over time. The researchers have now used the model to reconstruct the path taken by the remains of the brothers as they were carried along by the ice mass.

The ice-flow model used by the researchers calculated that the bodies must have been transported in the ice over a total distance of about 10.5 kilometres at an average speed of 122 metres a year. The reconstructed line of movement reveals that they were buried some 250 metres below the surface of the glacier in 1980.

At around 20 bar, the pressure exerted on the bodies was 20 times greater than atmospheric pressure, the deformed bones indicate. The scientists concluded that the bodies must have reached Concordia sometime after 1980.

Had the bodies been found at the time they were released by the glacier, they would have been discovered in a mummified state, as was the case with the discovery of Ötzi in 1991, the researchers said. A forensic examination of the bones was unable to provide precise details on how long the bodies had already been at the surface before being found.

Funk and Jouvet suggest that their model may help solve other cases, like the disappearance of a Dakota C-53 US military aircraft that crash-landed on the Gauligletscher in the Bernese Alps on November 19, 1946. The researchers said they may be able to forecast when the military aircraft will be released from the glacier.

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