In the summer of 2017, a ski resort worker on Switzerland’s Tsanfleuron glacier found a shoe. Unfortunately it wasn’t his size; worse still, it already had a foot in it. And there was more: pre-war clothes, backpacks, a bottle, and the mummified remains of a couple who had disappeared in the area 75 years ago.
It’s a growing trend. Ice-encased artefacts are rising from the glacial grave – not just bits of missing alpinists, but Indian jewels lost near Chamonix in a plane crash, Roman coins all over the place, and possibly most famously, Ötzi the 4,000-year-old ‘Iceman’, found encased in ice high on the border between Austria and Italy.
As with everything from Brexit and beyond, it’s mostly thanks to climate change. The science of this particular bit of cause and effect is relatively easy to follow: cold climate = more snow & ice, and growing glaciers; warm climate = less snow and ice, and therefore shrinking glaciers, which consequently give up secrets which have been frozen into their depths, for centuries or millennia.
All of which is rather more dramatic than the world of glaciology conjured up in the classroom – how ancient ice caps shaped the landscape, from beautiful U-shaped valleys to ‘drumlins’ and ‘glacial erratics’, whatever they might be. But one glacial fact is memorable even before you factor in rising temperatures worldwide: collectively the world’s glaciers and ice caps account for about three-quarters of the globe’s fresh water. Or put another way, enough ice for a very large gin and tonic.
Even in times when glaciers were growing rather than shrinking, items absorbed on the upper reaches of the ice eventually emerged from the bottom in a chilly version of the world’s slowest game of Pooh Sticks: ice flows, but very slowly. What has changed in recent years, is that with glaciers melting near the top as well as the bottom, things are appearing on the surfaces of glaciers rather than just from their snouts. But perhaps the most impressive demonstration of the loss of depth and volume of continental Europe’s biggest glacier, the Aletsch, is at the Konkordia Hut, one of several refuges on the glacier. When built in 1877 it was perched just 50 meters above the sea of ice. Now it teeters nearly 200m above it, and a steel ladder extends down from the hut to reach the glacier’s surface, to enable alpinists to scale the near-vertical cliff.
For alpine walkers, glaciers are points of interest and beauty rather than objectives, which for safety reasons should remain in the distance rather than beneath your feet. They’re more obvious in summer than winter, when they blend with their mountainous surroundings under a blanket of snow. But footpaths avoid them, or if they lead up to them, peter out at the edge of the ice. Onward progress across the icefield is only for adequately equipped mountaineers and skiers, for whom glaciers are often the easiest routes towards peaks or cols, as long as they can avoid falling into lethal crevasses – deep splits in the ice – by a combination of route-finding and sometimes a bit of luck. For properly equipped and trained teams the risk of becoming a statistic is lower than in the good old days, and extensive mobile phone coverage and efficient mountain rescue means even those who fall in are usually saved before becoming entombed.
There are more flamboyant ways to end up trapped on icy wastes, as proven in 1946 by a US military Dakota DC3 which crash-landed on the Gauli glacier, leaving a plane-load of passengers (who had thought they were flying from Munich to Marseille) wishing they’d popped a spare jumper in their hand luggage. They waited out five winter days before being rescued by a Swiss team which climbed the glacier. The survivors were judged too weak to make a safe descent, so a plane was brought in, equipped for landing on snow – at that time an experimental attempt at altitude and on a glacier. The mission was considered to be the birth of mountain air rescue in Switzerland and for years Alice McMahon (the plane’s youngest passenger who was eleven at the time of the crash) joined a memorial flight over the area each year. You’d have thought she’d suffered enough. Flying experts then and now thought the episode a near-miracle, with all eleven passengers surviving without major injury and without anyone having to eat anyone else. Though the Dakota was rapidly enveloped by the glacier, parts of it – you guessed it – are now reappearing, about two miles from the original crash site.