It is said they contain the memory of the world. Irascible, marvelous, silent yet somehow eloquent, glaciers are stewards of ancient secrets. We would do well to treat them with respect while we have the chance, to appreciate that even to walk upon their surface is a rare and exquisite privilege.
“Meditate on this summit, which is truly – to use the fabled expression of poets – one of the ends of the earth”: in 1825, celebrated French author Victor Hugo traveled to the Alps and saw the Mer de Glace glacier with his own eyes. Later, in his Fragment d’un voyage aux Alpes, he described it as “nature’s curio cabinet,” and as a “divine laboratory in which Providence holds in reserve a sample of all the phenomena of creation”.
Writing nearly 200 years ago, Hugo understood the glacier as a sanctuary, an almost-sacred site that merits our utmost respect.
They are swathed in myth and legend; we fear them and admire them. But what is a glacier, really? It all starts with snow. Layer upon layer of snowfall accumulates and compresses until it is compacted into ice. A glacier feeds on fresh snowfall, on snow sliding from higher to lower altitudes. It is shaped by the contributions of the wind, as well as the melting of its surface layer every summertime, creating water that consolidates the glacier’s structure.
The most famous glacier in the Alps is indeed the Mer de Glace, given its name by explorer William Windham when he discovered it in 1741. It has since been praised and depicted by countless writers, painters and illustrious personalities, all equally moved by its beauty. Those who have seen it often set out to conquer it from Chamonix, the town of pioneering Alpinists. Those early and blessed adventurers were followed by all those drawn to the mountains’ grandiosity, seeking inspiration, understanding, perhaps a new lease of life.
The Hameau Albert 1er hotel witnessed this succession of intrepid explorers. It’s a Chamonix institution that, before becoming an upscale hotel, was established in 1902 as a humble boarding house, open only in the summer and with no electricity.
Much of its appeal lay in its proximity to the Montenvers railway line, the cogwheel train that began operating in 1908 and offered a way to reach the Mer de Glace other than on foot or muleback. The line was completely renovated in 2008 and, to this day, remains how tourists ascend to the Mer de Glace. It takes only 20 minutes to arrive at the bottom of the glacier, where you then take a cable car and climb the steps leading to an ice cave and La Glaciorium – a museum and information center about the glacier and glaciology in general.
What do visitors expect? What motivates them? Are they astounded or disappointed? What does the future hold for high-altitude tourism? For glacier tourism has become a huge business, drawing numbers that now worry some experts, like researcher Emmanuel Salim. This mountain lover is a doctoral student in geography, at the Université Savoie Mont-Blanc, who cares deeply about climate change and its consequences for the major glacial tourist attractions of the Alps.
“I dovetailed my love of the high mountains with my interest in humanities and social sciences. This is a topic that interests tourism operators wondering about their impact as well as the academic institutions that funded this thesis,” explains Emmanuel. “The fundamental question is how major glaciers behave when faced with the retreat of their main resources.”
Their fate is no longer a secret: global warming is causing glaciers to recede and shrink. The phenomenon has been observed in the Alps since the late 19th century, but has only been precisely measured since the 1990s.
With the growth of mountain tourism, some glaciers (depending on their location and the sophistication of surrounding facilities) have become multiuse sites, home to recreational activities and sports from caving to climbing, hiking and skiing.
Such use has certainly done more harm than good, so these sites have set new objectives. “There’s a conspicuous trend in the Alps and around the world,” Emmanuel continues, “and that involves treating glaciers as a form of heritage, rather than a playground. Many sites now have glacial interpretation centers, where visitors can learn more about the glacier, its condition, and how it’s impacted by the climate.”
He calls this “last-chance tourism”: “People want to see the glacier because it’s receding. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not just about seeing a slow death, but about taking advantage of this visit to try to understand planetary phenomena, the effects of climate change. What might seem abstract to some people in their day-to-day lives becomes very concrete here.”
Such awareness does not preclude wonder. In Zermatt, the Matterhorn is showcased as an Alpine nirvana. This instantly recognizable, 14,692-foot summit towers over the highest-altitude ski area in the Alps, recalling a Toblerone chocolate bar or an amusement park’s bobsled ride. This heavenly experience, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, is not just for skiers: heated cable cars designed by Carrozzeria Pininfarina and an elevator take visitors to an observation platform with a 360-degree view of 14 glaciers in France, Italy, and Switzerland.
Year-round skiing? Yes – thanks to glaciers. 1970s advertisements for Val d’Isère pictured suntanned women in ski pants and bikini tops. It was the first French resort to install a lift tower on the ice, anchored on the Grand Pissaillas Glacier, a feat achieved in 1962.
This glacier, on the edge of the Vanoise National Park, is open to skiers for one month per year only, generally between mid-June and mid-July. Amateurs and pros must share variable and limited access to the terrain, for glaciers are irreplaceable training camps for board-sports teams.
Similarly, in Saas-Fee, in the Swiss Alps, the primary sport is freeriding: this takes place lower in the valley in winter but on the Fee Glacier itself in summer and fall, reached in all seasons from the Längfluh cable-car station.
Glaciers are thus still serving as playgrounds. But for how long? Some estimate that the Alps could lose 85 per cent to 95 per cent of their glacial surfaces by 2100. When you set your boot- or crampon-clad feet on a glacier, you must remain acutely aware of just how precious and fragile it is.
“We scientists see these glaciers as climate thermometers. They’re the evidence of a transformation that we can very easily and accurately measure,” says Emmanuel Salim. “They provide archaeologists a chance of finding traces of certain passages in the Alps. And by extracting ice cores from the Antarctic or Arctic glaciers, scientists can reconstitute the atmosphere as it was thousands of years ago. Lastly, for visitors, these sites are very effective in triggering reflection, giving tourists the opportunity to think about the environmental impact of their practices.”
The clear consequence is that these snows, once considered eternal, can no longer be thought of as such. That thought is as dizzying as the peaks themselves, but also sparks wonder by virtue of the sheer scale brought to mind.
For it must be remembered that it all starts with a tiny snowflake – an impossibly miniscule and immensely beautiful crystal creation. In 1610, astronomer Johannes Kepler observed the minute and perfect flakes landing on his coat and wondered why their shapes always had six angles and six branches. He even wrote a book about them: L’Étrenne ou la Neige Sexangulaire, the first scientific examination of snow crystals.
Gazing at the infinitesimally small, Kepler sought to understand nothing less than the harmony resonating across the enormity of our universe.