Low snow cover and glaciers melting at an alarming rate amid Europe’s sweltering heatwaves have closed some of the most classic alpine hiking routes.
Tourists usually flock to the Alps in midsummer, seeking off the beaten track to some of Europe’s most iconic peaks.
But with warmer temperatures accelerating melting glaciers and thawing permafrost – which scientists say is being driven by climate change – routes that are normally safe at this time of year are now faced with dangers like rockfalls released by the ice.
“There are currently warnings for around a dozen peaks in the Alps, including iconic ones like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc,” Pierre Mathey, chairman of the Swiss Mountain Guides Association, told AFP.
This happens much earlier in the season than normal, he said.
“We usually see closures like this in August, but now they started in late June and are continuing through July.”
– ‘Move’ –
Mountain guides, who normally lead thousands of hikers to Europe’s highest peak, announced earlier this week that they would suspend ascents on the most classic routes up Mont Blanc, which straddles France, Italy and Switzerland.
The Guide Alpine Italiane announced on its Facebook page that the “particularly delicate conditions” caused by the peak in temperature had made it necessary to “postpone the ascents”.
Mountain guides have also – reportedly for the first time in a century – refrained from offering tours on the classic route to the Jungfrau summit in Switzerland.
And they have advised against touring routes on both the Italian and Swiss sides of the towering pyramidal Matterhorn summit.
Ezio Marlier, President of the Aosta Valley Guides Association, said having to avoid the routes most coveted by tourists was a blow after the Covid slowdown.
“It’s not easy … deciding to stop work after two near-empty seasons,” he told AFP.
He stressed that the Italian Alpine region has only closed two and that there are many other stunning and safe routes to take.
But he lamented that many people simply canceled their trips when they heard their preferred route was closed.
“There are many other things to do, but when people want Mont Blanc, they usually want Mont Blanc.”
– Dangerous Glaciers –
Climbing some of the thousands of glaciers that crisscross Europe’s largest mountain range also proves more difficult.
“The glaciers are in a state where they are usually at the end of summer or even later,” says Andreas Linsbauer, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich.
“It is certain that we will break the record for negative melts,” he told AFP.
He said a combination of factors are contributing to a “really extreme” summer, starting with exceptionally little snowfall last winter, meaning there was less to protect the glaciers.
Sand from the Sahara has also been kicked up early in the year and has darkened the snow, causing it to melt faster.
And then the first heat wave hit Europe in May, followed by others in June and July, pushing up temperatures even at high altitudes.
Rapid melting can make glaciers more dangerous, as demonstrated by the sudden collapse of Italy’s previously seemingly benign Marmolada glacier earlier this month, killing 11 as ice and rock tumbled down the mountain.
While scientists are yet to draw any firm conclusions about the cause of the disaster, one theory is that the meltwater may have reached the point where the glacier was frozen to the rock and loosening its grip.
– “Invisible Threat” –
Mylene Jacquemart, a glacier and mountain hazards researcher at ETH Zurich, told AFP there were many unknowns about the disaster.
“But the general theme is definitely that more meltwater … makes things complicated and potentially more dangerous.”
Mathey, who said warmer temperatures have put mountain guides on high alert, also expressed concerns that meltwater filtering under a glacier poses an “additional and unseen threat”.
But despite the challenges, he expressed confidence that mountain guides would find solutions and look for alternative routes to continue showing the splendor of the Alps.
“Resilience is really in the DNA of mountain guides,” as is adaptability, he said.
“People have to adapt to nature and the mountains, not the other way around.”
#Mountain #melt #completes #classic #alpine #routes