There is something about a mountain range that holds a special fascination for me. As a student in the 1980s I started to learn about the 19th century scientists who pioneered the study of ice flows and glaciers. They began to investigate the movement of glaciers and the accumulation of snow and ice in the Alps. Later this field of investigation became known as glaciology.
Farmers in Switzerland or the Scottish Highlands, spent many hours walking in the mountains, herding their sheep or perhaps collecting firewood. There was time to examine the rocks and snow-capped peaks and to consider what forces may have shaped and changed the landscape over thousands of years. Often their observations were made during walks close to where they lived. The idea that the Earth had previously been covered in ice sheets and glaciers, to a much greater extent than today, was both compelling and exciting.
One particular character, Louis Agassiz dazzled and impressed his fellow scientists. He was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland and regularly took walks in the hills and mountains of his region, examining the rocks and considering their origins. He was fascinated by the striations or grooves that he saw carved into the rock face and speculated on their origin. His enthusiasm was so great that he built an ‘Observation Hut’ on the Aar Glacier. This hut enabled him to spend time on the glacier, during the summer months. Agassiz used sticks as markers to attempt to record movement and rate of flow of the ice. Curiously the Aar Glacier had already caught my attention on several occasions as a result of reading WG Sebald’s ‘The Emigrants’. Sebald writes of a young man who spent weeks in the Alps in the summer, walking, butterfly hunting and appreciating the air. He talks of a mountain guide who went missing on the Aar Glacier in 1914. It was assumed that the guide fell into a crevasse, his body was never found. Years later, in 1986 to be precise, on a train journey to Geneva, the not-so-young man picked up a discarded newspaper and read the incredible news that a walking stick and hiking boots had been discovered adjacent to the Aar Glacier. On investigation it was found that the boots belonged to the same mountain guide, a certain Johannes Naegeli who’d been entombed in the ice decades earlier.
On a recent trip to Switzerland I spent a couple of days in Wengen with the intention of doing some walking. My goal was to walk to the snout of the Eiger Glacier – an easy trot from Kleine Scheidegg up to the base of the snow line. On a sunny day spectacular views of the Jungfrau and Eiger peaks are guaranteed. On the way there is a beautiful pond with seats strategically positioned in the water so that tired walkers can remove their socks and boots and soothe their tired feet in the crystal clear waters, whilst enjoying the majestic views. From the pond it is a short easy walk up-hill towards the glacier. The path is well marked, and apart from a huge scree slope as you near the glacier, it’s a leisurely walk. As I got higher the weather closed in, with light drizzle turning to leaden rain, and cloud appearing from nowhere to shroud the summit of the Eiger. I pressed on undeterred. Rapidly changing weather conditions are standard in mountain areas. I passed a couple progressing painfully slowly up the hill, the woman told me that she suffers from vertigo and is terrified of heights. She’s accompanying her husband because he loves the mountains. She had forced herself to accompany him because he is so passionate about the Alps and she wanted to share his enthusiasm. I admired her fortitude – she was clearly struggling.
I continued onto the scree slope, which was probably the lateral moraine of the glacier. Wobbling from left to right my feet slithered and slipped on the loose, uneven surface. I got into a rhythm, step, slide, step, slide. I was moving forward and upwards – slowly. Visibility wasn’t great but I persisted. The weather improved momentarily I was able to glimpse the glacier through the swirling mist and cloud. It is possible to see from the photos that the glacier is a tongue of ice and snow compressed over centuries to create a slow-moving flow of rock-like density, carving, scratching and scrapping its way downhill under gravity.
In the last twenty odd years the general pattern of climate warming has resulted in many glaciers melting and therefore receding in the summer months. It is this retreat that has revealed archaeological treasures in glacial areas. For example the mountain guide’s boots and walking stick. An unexpected consequence of global warming has been the development of ‘glacial archaeology’ as the snow and ice melts the glaciers disgorge hidden, long-lost treasures. Just a day or two ago an article appeared in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper about a Swiss couple lost in the mountains close to the village of Les Diablerets in 1942. The summer melting of the Tsanfleuron Glacier decanted their bodies from their tomb of ice, 75 years after their disappearance. The couple had gone to milk their cows, on the high pastures, in August 1942. They disappeared leaving seven children behind.
As I descended from the base of the Eiger Glacier the mist swirled around me. Visibility became poorer and poorer and on several occasions I had to walk downhill blindly, hoping that I was going in the right direction. Weather at high altitudes is extremely fickle, bright sunshine one minute, mist and fog the next. The mountains are truly humbling. The strength and might of the glaciers can be overwhelming. I think of Johannes Naegeli and the Swiss couple for whom the ice provided a frozen final resting place. I think too of WG Sebald for writing about the Aar Glacier and and inspiring me to visit this spectacular and rugged corner of Switzerland.
- WG Sebald’s book ‘The Emigrants’ is a series of vignettes about four different characters surviving life in post war Germany, a country that they may leave but one which they can never forget.
- For the full ‘Guardian’ article about the Swiss couple lost in the Alps in 1942. Tues, 18 July, 2017: Swiss couple missing for 75 years
- Each summer the Alpine glaciers melt around the edges. Torrents and streams pour from the ice. As a result of climate change and global warming many of the glaciers in the Swiss Alps are receding. A mountain guide near Les Diablerets, where the Swiss couple were found told me yesterday (30th July) that the glaciers are also losing mass (volume) and becoming less deep. This is more worrying than the melting of the edges – which is expected every summer.
- A local Swiss newspaper Le Matin estimates that almost 300 people in this part of Switzerland have been lost in the ice over the years – their bodies never found. Although melting ice in the summer over the last 30 years does occasionally reveal remains – often in a remarkable state of preservation – as in the case of the Swiss couple.
- I’ve also written about other high Alpine points in Europe including the Grimsel Pass, one of the most inhospitable of the Alpine Passes. It is both fascinating and inhospitable: The Grimsel Pass
- Also the Brenner Pass linking Austria to Italy and how important it is to respect the mountains at all times: The Brenner Pass in May!
- Updated: 31-07-2017