Low snow cover and melting glaciers at an alarming rate during Europe’s heat waves have banned some classic alpine hiking routes.
Usually, in the height of summer, tourists flock to the Alps and seek off the beaten path to some of its peaks. But with warmer temperatures – which scientists say are driven by climate change – accelerating the melting of glaciers and the thawing of permafrost, routes that are generally safe at this time of year now face dangers. such as falling rocks freed from ice.
“Currently in the Alps, there are warnings for a dozen peaks, including emblematic peaks like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc,” said Pierre Mathey, the president of the Swiss association of high mountain guides.
He said it was happening much earlier in the season than normal. “Usually we see such shutdowns in August, but now they started at the end of June and continue into July.”
Representatives of the alpine guides who usually lead thousands of hikers to Europe’s highest peak announced last week that they would suspend ascents on the most classic routes of Mont Blanc, straddling France, Italy and Switzerland.
The Guide Alpine Italiane said on its Facebook page that the “particularly delicate conditions” caused by the high temperatures had made it necessary to postpone the climbs.
Mountain guides have also refrained – apparently for the first time in a century – from offering tours on the classic route to the top of the Jungfrau in Switzerland. And they advised against tours along the routes on the Italian and Swiss sides of the pyramid-shaped Matterhorn summit.
Ezio Marlier, president of the Valle d’Aosta guides association, said having to avoid the routes most coveted by tourists was a blow after the Covid downturns. “It’s not easy…after two almost empty seasons to decide to stop working,” he said.
He pointed out that Italy’s Alpine region had only closed two and that there were plenty of other breathtaking and safe routes to take. But he lamented that many people canceled their trips when they learned their preferred route was off limits.
“There are a lot of other things to do, but usually when people want Mont Blanc, they want Mont Blanc,” Marlier said.
Climbing some of the thousands of glaciers that dot Europe’s largest mountain range is also trickier.
“The glaciers are in a state they usually are in late summer or even later,” said Andreas Linsbauer, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “It is certain that we are going to break the record for negative melts.”
He said a combination of factors were contributing to a “really extreme” summer, starting with unusually low snowfall last winter, which meant there was less to protect the glaciers.
Sand blew in from the Sahara earlier this year, darkening the snow, causing it to melt faster. And heat waves hit Europe in May, June and July, sending temperatures soaring even at high altitudes.
Rapid melting can make glaciers more dangerous, as seen with the sudden collapse of the seemingly harmless Marmolada glacier in Italy this month, in which 11 people were killed as ice and rock rolled down the mountain.
Although scientists have yet to come to any clear conclusions about what caused the disaster, one theory is that the meltwater may have reached the point where the glacier froze to bedrock, loosening its grip.
Mylène Jacquemart, a glacier and mountain risk researcher at the Swiss university ETH Zurich, said the disaster had many unknowns. “But the general theme is definitely that more meltwater…makes things complicated and potentially more dangerous.”
Mathey also expressed concern that meltwater filtering under a glacier was an “additional, invisible threat”. But despite the challenges, he said he was confident the guides would find solutions, seeking alternative routes to continue showing the Alpine splendours.
“Resilience is really in the DNA of mountain guides,” as is adaptability, he says. “Man must adapt to nature and the mountains, and not the other way around.”