Are the Alps falling down?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 12/09/2019
The Matterhorn in July 2019, two days after a rockfall killed climbers on the Hornli Ridge. The rockfall site can be seen bottom left. Photo: Andy Perkins

Are the Alps falling down? IFMGA Mountain Guide Andy Perkins has a stark warning about the impact of climate change on the Alps: “I don’t have children but if I did I wouldn’t persuade them to be mountain guides. I’d be saying ‘Get your yacht sailing ticket...'" Katy Dartford interviews Andy to find out more.

It’s been a year since Chamonix saw two major rock falls. The first happened on Cosmiques Arete, one of the most popular climbs in the Mont Blanc range and - until then - considered one of the most stable, on August 22. A month later a huge portion of the south face of Trident du Tacul rained down onto the glacier. A number of classic rock climbs like the Lépiney and Les Intouchables were destroyed.

Scientists believe the reason for things ‘going big' is a rapid increase in the melting of the permafrost: the year-round ice found at high altitude that holds together giant slabs of rock. The effects of this were recently revealed in the study, Rockfalls in the Grand Couloir du Goûter (Mont-Blanc massif): an interdisciplinary monitoring system, by Jacques Mourey, a doctoral student at the EDYTEM laboratory at the University of Savoie Mont Blanc. 

Mourey and a team of researchers analysed 95 routes in Gaston Rebuffat’s classic book, Mont Blanc Massif: The Hundred Finest Routes. They found that 93 of them had been affected by climate change, 26 had been severely impacted and three no longer existed.

The scare stories linked to global warming are sure to increase, given the two record-setting heatwaves in June and July this summer. Mountain guide, Matt Helliker, for example, shared this photo and comment on Instagram:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Trident yesterday dropped another huge bomb, whilst we where next door on the Chandelle! Adding to yet more tonnage of granite to the Mont Blanc Massif skip!! 💣 . With another heatwave on the way on top of already some of the worst conditions I’ve seen here in the mountains it’s definitely worth thinking about where to climb safety and when, wherever that is these days, but I don’t think it’s here! it’s easy to look through rose tinted glasses and except this is just the norm and that rocks will bounce off you! It’s not and they don’t... . I’m scared to see what’s going to go big next towards the end of the summer season, once the perma frost is even more screwed than it is now after months of being baked. It’s a very sad situation. . @patagonia_climb @patagoniaeurope @blackdiamond @oakley @puritionuk @climbskinspain @tca_themothership @lyofood @scarpa_uk @patagonia @protectourwintersuk . #liveclimbrepeat #actnow #alps #rockclimbing #climateemergency #ecocide #rockfall #oneearth #plantbased #climatechange

A post shared by MATT HELLIKER (@matt_helliker) on

On June 7, as part of the cross-border European project AdaPT Mont-Blanc, the High Mountain Climate Plan was unveiled, looking at the potential impacts of global warming by 2050 and 2080 and ways to stem it.

The first phase of the 32 million euro ‘climate plan’ runs from 2019 to 2021 and includes a series of seven measures to reconcile tourism and environmental preservation:

  • Adaptation of the reception conditions in the refuges
  • Adaptation of the opening periods of the ski lifts
  • Modification of the access to the high mountain and the refuges
  • Adaptation of tourist infrastructures
  • Reinforcement of the prevention and the training of practitioners
  • AdaPT Mont Blanc Transborder Program; Enhanced Equipment Surveillance

On August 7 in Chamonix, Ludovic Ravanel, an academic at the University of Savoie Mont Blanc who has been studying major rockfalls in the area, presented point 7: reinforcing the monitoring of equipment at high mountain sites. Here, sensors will be deployed on a dozen sites, in particular the Aiguille du Midi, the Aiguille des Grands Montets, the Cosmiques Arete and the Bochard. From 2019 to 2021 this will cost between 120,000 and 150,000 euros. 

IFMGA Mountain Guide Andy Perkins offers his opinion:

AP: I have no idea how there was no one on Cosmiques when it fell down. It happened at ten in the morning - prime time… a bloody miracle! And the Lépiney. It’s five pitches of solid granite crack that’s existed for years and years. You just wouldn’t consider that it might fall down.


IFMGA Mountain Guide Andy Perkins. Photo: Angela Percival

Another incident which was concerning last summer: the Bochard gondola was shut in April because the pylons that are driven into the permafrost moved. I wouldn’t want to be in charge of architectural security on the Aiguille du Midi. They must be watching that like a hawk wondering what’s going to happen!

The new normal 

For me it’s the middle ground between 3,000m and say 4,000m which is starting to get affected very quickly. This middle ground includes routes like the Cosmique Arête, the Lépiney and the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru, which was totally washed away by a series of huge rock falls between June and September 2005.

When the freezing level goes above 5,000m for more than a couple of weeks, I’d be staying out of anything in that 3,000-4,000m band. I wouldn’t even go anywhere near it because even if you’re approaching something nominally safe, with the size of the mountains above you, if a rock the size of a district hospital decides it’s going to detach itself you’d want to be a long way away from it. In the case of the Cosmiques Arête it had been super-hot and then bingo, it fell down.

"If a rock the size of a district hospital decides it’s going to detach itself you’d want to be a long way away from it”

We have to readjust: there is no normal anymore. We also have to accept that the optimal climbing conditions have moved. Snow and ice routes are in fantastic nick in early June. Climbing snow and ice routes like the Whymper Couloir is now too late by the third week of June, unless you get really lucky. In the 80s I used to come here in the last week of June or the first week of July and we’d be doing snow and ice routes. Now I wouldn’t dream of doing that. The season has contracted by two weeks.

Climate change also necessitates avoiding some of the legendary routes: If you look at Gaston Rebuffat’s book, 'Mont Blanc Massif: The Hundred Finest Routes' published in 1975 and Philippe Batoux’s 'Mont Blanc: The Finest Routes' published in 2013, the types of routes and the way they are climbed has changed out of all recognition.


Open crevasses on the Vallée Blanche with the Dent de Géant behind in August 2019. Photo: Andy Perkins

And there is the possibility of the season contracting in August as well, due to the heat. Take Mont Blanc. I think we will start to see more years when Guides will decide they don’t want to do it between early and mid-August. Then it will cool off. So there will be a hole in the middle of the season in August and the classic season from mid-June to mid-September will lose two weeks.

The warmer temperatures also lead to an increased avalanche risk, which presents other dangers. Everyone will be forced together into smaller areas, which makes it more dangerous as our decision making is affected by the actions of other people skiing or climbing above you.

Mountain huts open in mid-June because that’s when the alpine season used to begin. But this isn’t true anymore. And innovative hut guardians should start to realise that if they open earlier, then people will come.

Another concern is water supply to mountain huts because they rely on snow melt. The Gonella Hut on the Italian side of Mont Blanc closed in early August last year for the season because there was no water. We could reach a situation where water has to be helicoptered in to huts.

NOTE: The new 'climate plan’ measures look at the renovation of shelters. In June, 50,000 euros was invested into the Cosmiques hut, which experienced a water shortage at the end of winter 2018, including the installation of a new water melter, and 1.8 million euros is also going to be ploughed into renovating the Couvercle refuge.

So what can guides and clients do? 

Being adaptable is my kind of guiding: I say come out and we will do whatever is best. Places such as Monte Rosa in Italy, or Switzerland where 4000m peaks are relatively safe. Don't be too set on ticking mantelpiece-worthy objectives like Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn, which is another mountain that’s experienced two big rock falls in ten years. 

I believe that in 100 years a Mountain Guide's job will be totally different. At the moment our terrain-du-jour is glacial terrain. That playground, where only we, as IFMGA qualified guides, have a legal right to work, is shrinking.

"I believe that in 100 years we won't have a job anymore because a Mountain Guide's terrain-du-jour is glacial terrain"

I don’t have children but if I had I wouldn’t persuade them to be Mountain Guides. I’d be saying ‘get your yacht sailing ticket because by the time you’re grown up, there will be less work, less snow, and the work that exists is going to be more dangerous.

Guides have got the same skill set as yacht captains: looking after people while being the interface between our natural environment and people who are near or out of the limit their comfort zone in those wild natural environments. Or they could become mountain bike or canyoning guides: all that melting water means it will be fantastic, and it’s all in the post-glacial sub-3000m terrain!

Here in the temperate west we think we can do anything, any time as long as we pay enough money. That’s not true and will be less true as the years go by. No matter how much money you throw at the Midi, if it decides to fall down - it will fall down. This all sounds pessimistic and rightly so. What we can do about this is a whole other thing.

Katy Dartford is a freelance adventure sports writer and broadcast journalist from London, who now splits her time between Chamonix in the Alps, and Lyon, France. She's passionate about all things mountain and likes to write about them, as well as take part in all the sports they have to offer. See www.katydartford.com


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