“On the Aletsch Glacier, a snowflake falling at the beginning of the glacier would take 400 years to travel to the end of today’s ice stream.”
It wasn’t until I stepped from the gondola at Moosfluh that I realized the size of the Aletsch Glacier – before me was one huge mass of frozen water.
Minutes before, I’d hopped aboard the gondola in the tiny, car-free village of Riederalp, perched on a plateau overlooking the Rhône Valley in the Valais region of Switzerland. Making up the heart of the Swiss Alps, the Valais contains more than 50 major mountain peaks, including 10 of the highest – members of the 4000 metre plus club with names like the Jungfrau, the Mönch and the Matterhorn. These names quicken the pulse of serious climbers.
From the valley town of Mörel, a 15-minute gondola ride shuttles visitors, food, provisions, schoolchildren, and even the occasional goat up and down the mountain to Riederalp. The gondola makes the trip dozens of times a day and has been doing so since 1950, opening up Riederalp to tourism. In the winter, the skiers swell the population of 500 residents tenfold; in the summer and fall, the plateau is a walker’s paradise with over 150 kilometres of trails. But, compared to the crowded tourist resorts of Zermatt or Verbier it is still a relatively undiscovered treasure.
As our gondola climbed and swayed above the steep, grassy meadowlands, it afforded stunning views over the valley. Small wooden chalets were stuck to the sides of the slope. The window of the cable car was open and only the tinkling of the bells on the wandering cows broke the silence below. In the opposite direction, on the far side of the Rhône River valley, the brown rock folds of the mountains looked forbidding. In the distance, there were too many rocky peaks to even count, each topped with a whitecap of snow.
Our earth, nicknamed “the Blue Planet,” is largely covered by water. Only three per cent of the earth’s water supply is freshwater, and two-thirds of that is locked in icecaps and glaciers. Greenhouse gases are on the rise, the world is warming up and water is essential to all life on this planet – so glaciers, those huge storehouses of freshwater, are being watched and measured and studied like never before.
Riederalp is the jumping-off point for hikes on the famous Aletsch Glacier- at 24 kilometres the Aletsch is the longest ice flow in Europe. In 2001, the glacier and the surrounding Aletsch Forest was designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site – the only one that exists in the Alps. The alpine forest is home to the oldest trees in Switzerland; tall stands of larch and bushy, dark green arolla pine, some estimated to be 1,000 years old.
“If you really want to get an impression of what the Aletsch Glacier is like, you need to take time and go far out onto the glacier,” explained my hiking guide. “It is not everyone’s business to walk over those paths between the crevices. You have to be sporty, you must have a sense of balance and you must not be afraid of heights.”
This was the ultimate trail experience and crossing the vast expanse of this glacier was the stuff of hiking dreams.
For the first two hours, we were able to study the glacier from a distance as we hiked along a pathway cut into the mountain wall beside. But before we even took a single step, the hiking rules were dictated: step with your feet flat to maintain your balance, don’t use your hands, stand straight, breath in quickly and follow it with a long breath out, and whatever you do, don’t talk - it just wastes oxygen.
Like a Swiss timepiece, our guide kept a pace that never varied. The only time we stopped was to move off the path and let a herd of oncoming sheep move through (hikers always yield the right of way to sheep). In the spring, herders move the flocks into the alpine meadows to graze. In the fall, they shepherd the flock back down the mountain and return them to the farmers.
We reached the spot to begin our steep descent to the surface of the glacier. The slope was made up of loose rock and the trail switchbacked for another half hour of hiking. Where the rocky moraine joined the ice, we jumped over a small crevice and landed on a surface that had been frozen for hundreds of years.
The Aletsch Glacier begins at the southern flank of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks and continues as a massive stream of ice until it flows into a plateau from where the melting ice feeds the Rhône River. A glacier is simply snow that has been tightly compacted into a solid mass, forming in areas where more snow accumulates each year than melts. Pulled by gravity, an alpine glacier begins to move under its own weight, earning the nickname “river of ice.” On the Aletsch Glacier, a snowflake falling at the beginning of the glacier would take 400 years to travel to the end of today’s ice stream.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, the Aletsch Glacier has become a victim of global warming - because of the accelerated melting it is retracting at a rate of 30 metres each year. It is the fate of glaciers worldwide and a certain measure of the pressures on natural ecosystems. With the current environmental, social and economic demands on our fragile ecosystems, the United Nations has estimated that by the year 2050, one-quarter of the world’s population will live in a country affected by shortages of freshwater.
From the pathway above, the surface of the glacier appeared even and level. But standing on the edge of the mass of ice, I could see that it crowned in the centre and that there were enormous drop-offs where the ice surface had cracked and pulled apart.
We stopped and roped together – like a group of preschoolers out on a field trip. The thick rope was wrapped and secured around my waist with a few metres of extra rope between the hiker in front and behind. We were shown how to handle the excess rope – looping it and holding it loosely in the left hand for the flat stretches and letting it out and holding it taut when we walked along the peaks of the creviced areas.
At first the walking was not too challenging - mainly crusty white ice with silt and dirt imbedded into the surface. Then, we reached the crevices. Different parts of a glacier move at different speeds, causing tension to build within the more brittle upper layers of the ice. Under this pressure, the surface fractures, forming wide cracks called crevices. Balance becomes crucial.
There were so many crevices crammed together that they looked like huge folds of ice, with the dips between being up to 10 metres deep. It became a maze, with our guide scouting a route along the top and trying not to lead us into a dead end. On occasion, the crest between the crevices was very narrow and rounded – with no flat surface to plant your foot. We backed up the line and then waited while a less steep route was found.
After almost three hours crossing the glacier’s craggy surface we climbed out from the valley to the mountainside pathway above. It was a steep climb, using ropes that were attached into the rocks as well as metal ladders that were welded into the spots of sheer rock. At the top, we gathered on a small plateau, climbed out of the ropes and stood in awe at the inspiring sight spread out below us. Twenty-four kilometres long, up to two kilometres wide and up to a thousand metres thick beneath the boots of the trekker. A ribbon of ice of those proportions leaves an unforgettable impression.
By the time we returned to Riederalp the sky was filling with stars and the mountains were just inky outlines. In this little piece of heaven, what struck me the most was the absolute quiet. The only sound was the soft clanging of the cows’ bells as they wandered through the village.
After the longest shower I could stand, under a stream of the hottest water I could endure, all I wanted to do was sleep. But before crawling under the plump duvet there was just one last thing that I needed to do – I opened the windows wide and invited in the perfect quiet of this alpine paradise.
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Josephine Matyas is an award-winning freelance writer with a jonesing for travel, and a passion for the outdoors, food and photography. Her modus operandi is to quickly toss the map out the window once she hits the road.
Located: Kingston Canada
Likes: almost anything outdoors, ecotourism, food and music, history, heritage and culture