Switzerland – life in the mountains as the ice melts and glaciers retreat…


About 12,000 years ago, the last ice age came to an end. Temperatures increased and rivers swollen with melt water cascaded down from the mountains to the plains of Europe.  Ice sheets receded revealing fertile soil beneath. At the same time, groups of early settlers moved from Africa and the Middle East northwards and westwards towards the plains of Hungary, Italy and Germany. Tribes like the Veneti settled in the top, north-east corner of Italy where the Tagliamento and Po Rivers flowed into the Adriatic Sea. Other groups, moved due north from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea, which was much smaller than it is today, into the Rhone Valley of France.

These groups were hunter-gatherers, looking for food, fertile land and opportunity for their family groups. A source of water was essential to life, settlers would make camp close to a river, stream or water supply. Over time villages were established, animals grazed, crops were planted and settlements became permanent. At the end of each growing season, the harvest of wheat, barley, rice or maize had to be stored over the winter months. Granaries were built and walls were constructed to protect crops and animals. Conditions were favourable for these new arrivals. There was fertile land, an abundant water supply, populations grew and prospered. As time passed community sizes increased. There was pressure to produce more food. From time to time floods, cold weather or natural disasters would damage crops and leave people hungry and in need of further resources. When conditions became difficult intrepid group members would leave the village in search of new hunting grounds. These pioneers would follow the rivers and streams looking, quite literally, for pastures new.

If you look at a relief map of Central Europe the crescent-shaped curve of mountains that runs from France to Austria creates a natural physical barrier between Poland, Germany and Scandinavia to the north and Italy, Greece and the Balkans to the south. The map shows clearly the fertile plains of Northern Italy, effectively a huge river basin, running from Milan and Turin in the west to Venice and Trieste in the east. This was an ideal area for early settlers. The Veneti, Romans, Barbarians and Goths all knew that the pastures and plains adjacent to the Alps were productive, sheltered and ideal for settlements.

Relief Map of the Alps - 1905
Geo. Philip and Sons, Relief Map of the Alps – original map 1905


As people became more numerous and adventurous they penetrated further into the hills, mountains and upland areas in search of new territory to farm. The snow-capped peaks and rugged mountain areas of the Alps were inhospitable and sparsely populated. A land of snow and ice, jagged rocky mountain peaks, rushing torrents and extreme temperatures. However to the determined pioneers the mountains provided an opportunity. Abundant supplies of water. Green, lush meadows in the summer months ideal for farming and grazing animals. Extensive forests providing timber to build houses. Wood was also used as a fuel to provide heat in the winter and to cook food.  A risky environment but one that humans could adapt to quickly. As long as the settlers collected or grew enough food during the summer months they could survive the snow and ice of winter, tucked up in their timber and stone dwellings. In fact timber houses typically accommodated the animals downstairs in stalls, then a raised area above, with straw mattresses, provided the sleeping area for the people. A central fireplace heated the building and was a heat source for cooking.

Over the centuries intrepid travellers crossed the Alps, Romans, Barbarians, Medieval traders all struggled across the mighty peaks. All in search of new territory, new pastures. When I’m thinking about snow-capped peaks and emerald green valleys I always think of Switzerland. The land of Heidi, where summer holidays were spent in the mountains with ‘grandfather’. Living on the hillside, eating cheese and drinking milk from the family cows. This idealised version of life in the countryside, whilst based on truth, was massively romanticised. In reality, by the 19th century, life in the mountains of Switzerland was so tough that people were moving to the cities and overseas in search of an easier way to make a living.  Curiously there was a migration stream from Switzerland to Brazil, where the Swiss, in a spirit of colonial fervour had established several ‘colonial towns’. One of which still exists, the town of Helvecia in Bahia Province. Although little if any of the Swiss influence remains.

In the mountains the Alpine climate encouraged the style of farming known as ‘transhumance’ where people moved up the mountains with their cattle in the summer months to benefit from the lush green meadows of the higher slopes. Meadows that were covered in snow during the winter burst into life in the spring and were carpeted with grass, herbs and Alpine flowers from June to September. The local people grew up in harmony with their mountainous surroundings. Walking in the high pastures whilst supervising goats and cows was a daily activity. Milk and cheese were important local products. In fact they still are in the mountains. A local ‘fromagerie’ cheese-maker is still active at La Chaux above the Alpine ski resort of Verbier.

Swiss Alps, Verbier
Swiss Alps, Verbier
A mountain stream tumbles enthusiastically downwards
A profusion of Alpine flowers, La Chaux, Verbier


As more and more people headed north over the Alps, so the occupation of pastures and plains in Germany and Austria extended. A few summers ago the remains of a medieval tinker, were revealed, by melting ice. He was perfectly preserved in the Austria Alps. The summer ice melt revealed the leather garments and belongings of a traveller, caught in action as he moved across the Alps at high altitude. Perhaps he fell into a crevasse or stepped on some ice that appeared solid but in fact gave way under his feet. It is sad to think of the unfortunate pedlar making his way through the treacherous mountains to make his living selling trinkets and bits and pieces. One wrong step and that was it for him. Incredibly, the tinker’s remains had been preserved in the ice for about 700 years.

In the last two or three decades summer temperatures have increased in the Alps and the summer ice melt has increased. Glaciers are retreating during the summer months, they are also losing volume, so they are becoming less thick. The consequence of this summer ice melt is that glaciers all over the Alps are revealing or disgorging their hidden treasures each year. In the 1980s WG Sebald, one of my favourite writers, published an article from a Swiss newspaper discussing the discovery of some hiking boots and a walking stick that belonged to Johannes Naegeli, a mountain guide who’d disappear whilst in the high mountains near the Aar Glacier in 1914.

As a mountain guide told me, only last week, ‘it’s not the retreat of the glaciers in the summer months that is the problem, it is the reduction in mass of the glaciers each summer that is causing the problem’.  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 week or so ago an article appeared in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper about a Swiss couple lost in the mountains close to the village of Les Diablerets during the Second World War. The summer melting of the Tsanfleuron Glacier decanted their bodies from their tomb of ice, 75 years after their disappearance. Boots, clothing and personal effects were also found. The couple had gone to milk their cows, on the high pastures, it was August 1942. They disappeared leaving seven children behind. Their ice tomb preserved their bodies for more than seven decades. As happens in Alpine areas, everybody knows everybody, the Diablerets couple are still being discussed in every cafe and bar in the area. Missing for all those years – but never forgotten. This recent discovery also highlights the risks of living in mountainous areas.

Here in the mountains there is a vast alpine area of jagged barren peaks and treacherous mountain passes. Many passes, even today, are only passable in the summer from June until late September. These mountains provide an abundant water supply, fertile soils and a brief, vibrant growing season in the summer months. On the other hand there are numerous challenges to endure; snow and ice, steep slopes, high rainfall and landslides. Yet humans are adaptable and creative. The Swiss became masters of milk and cheese production. This led to a world famous chocolate industry too. In the winter they were forced to stay indoors and they developed wood-carving skills, including the famous cuckoo clocks. It is said that these skills of dexterity and precision in carving then led to the growth of the watch industry in Switzerland. Yet another world famous activity focused on the Alps of Switzerland.

It is fascinating to consider that the Alps are a huge physical barrier restricting movement between northern and southern Europe. They were a challenge in Roman times and they remain a challenge today almost 2000 years later. And yet the Alps have magnetically attracted humans for generations. From the earliest settlers to today, people love the mountains. Clean air, sparkling alpine streams, flower meadows and butterflies. Now as ice melt increases in the summer months a new science of glacial archaeology is emerging as the artefacts, bodies and clothing of our ancestors are decanted from the ice. New chapters are being revealed in the Alps of Switzerland, Austria and France as the glaciers disclose their secrets, one season at a time.


  • 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
  • For photos and maps of ‘Swiss Couple’ lost in the mountains – see below.
  • My friend Bob Mazarei recently wrote ‘Life and Death in the Alps’ about a recent conversation regarding the ‘lost Swiss couple’ it’s well worth a read. Life and Death in the Alps

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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.

  • The 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 reveal remains from time to time – often in a remarkable state of preservation.
  • Associated Press (AP) have this news clip in their archive – July 1986 about the discovery of mountain guide Johannes Naegeli’s body Boots and ice axe discovered
  • I’ve also written about other high Alpine points in Europe including the Grimsel Pass, one of the most impressive and ominous 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!
  • Why is ice melt so critical? As the surface area of a glacier reduces so the amount of heat being radiated back into the atmosphere around the glacier reduces. Sunshine (heat) is radiated from a glacier or ice sheet back into the atmosphere because the light-coloured ice reflects most of the sunshine that hits it directly back into the atmosphere. As the glacier melts the ‘cold cell of air’ around the glacier becomes smaller. Just as a cooling of temperature by a few degrees can lead to increased accumulation of ice and snow, so the reverse is also true. An increase in temperatures leads to a melting of snow and ice, especially in the summer months and a reduction in snow cover. As snow cover reduces so more heat is absorbed by the surrounding land, making the area around the glacier warmer. This in turn speeds up the melting of the glacier.
The Swiss Alps - towards the Jungfrau
Magnificent Swiss Alps – Jungfrau Mountain

As always comments and observations are welcomed.


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