One hundred and fifty years ago, when Europe was in the final grip of the “Little Ice Age,” glaciers tumbled into low valleys and a dozen Britishers founded the Alpine Club, the first of its kind. The Alpine Club would be a place where members “might dine together once a year, say in London, and give each other what information they could,” William Mathew suggested to a friend in 1857. He continued, “Each member, at the close of any Alpine tour in Switzerland or elsewhere, should be required to furnish, to the president, a short account of all the undescribed excursions he had made, with a view to the publication of an annual or bi-annual volume. We should thus get a good deal of useful information in a form available to the members.”
In June of 2007 I was fortunate enough to share in the Alpine Club’s sesquicentennial celebration in Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn. On the first day we took the impressive cable car up the Kleine Matterhorn, where we disembarked to climb the neighboring Breithorn, 4,164m. I tied into a rope with Doug Scott, a past president of the Alpine Club and, along with Dougal Haston, the first person to climb the imposing south face of Everest—and then survive an open-air bivouac above 8,000 meters. Also on our rope was Stephen Venables, current Alpine Club president and the first British climber to summit Everest without bottled oxygen, via a new route on the Kangshung Face, no less. Fourth on the rope was Steve Goodwin, the current editor of the Alpine Journal—the British equivalent of the American Alpine Journal, only roughly a half-century older. Along the way we chatted with another roped team, this one including George Band, 78, who had climbed the Breithorn 50 years ago as part of the Alpine Club’s centennial celebrations; four years earlier he had been on the team that first climbed Everest; two years after that he made the first ascent of the world’s third highest peak, Kangchenjunga. I felt like I’d stepped into a history book.
But the stories on everyone’s lips weren’t nostalgic memories of high conquest and broken legs (Scott: the Ogre; Venables: Panch Chuli V). Instead, we were all swapping tales of shrinking glaciers, changing climbing seasons, and vanishing icefields. The lift up to the Kleine Matterhorn swooped over glaciers that seemed to be running backward, leaving vast piles of morainal debris to mark their former glory. Venables pointed to glacial tongues he used to ski down that now are piles of rubble. To reach some glaciers in Chamonix, steel ladders recently were installed to span polished rock that was covered in ice when I played there as a kid in the 1960s. In Switzerland the average temperature has risen almost two degrees Celsius since 1970, with another three to five degrees predicted in the next few decades. Just since the 1980s, Alpine glacier mass has shrunk by over 20 percent (50 percent since 1850), and scientists predict the glaciers will vanish almost entirely—except for the high-altitude accumulation zones—by the end of our century, maybe even by midcentury.
It wouldn’t be fair to hold 21st century Alpine glaciers to their 19th century past. The Little Ice Age was drawing to a close just as the Industrial Revolution ramped into high gear. This happened to coincide with what’s been called the Golden Age of alpinism—the mid 1800s, when the Alpine Club was founded. Most Alpine peaks were climbed for the first time during these decades, and most of the significant summits were pioneered by British climbers employing Swiss guides. Switzerland during that time was arguably the poorest country in Europe, with villagers trapped by the isolation of their rugged valleys. It was Brits on holiday that finally put money into Swiss pockets. As it turns out, many of those Brits could afford their holidays because of rising fortunes back home, where modern machines produced goods at formerly unimaginable rates. The machines were powered by coal, and giant smokestacks belched its byproduct—CO2—into the atmosphere as never before, unwittingly launching our age of “Greenhouse Catastrophe,” with consequences that are only beginning to be understood 150 years later.
I was on the south flank of Mont Blanc during the record hot summer of 2003, when up to 10 percent of glacial mass in the Alps was lost in one big heat wave. Mark Jenkins and I were searching for new-route potential in the region where my Dad had put up two routes in the 1960s, but when we reached a viewpoint overlooking the monstrous Frêney and Brouillard faces we stared dumbfounded as continuous streams of rock poured off the bone-dry walls; the glaciers below were solid black from debris. Boxcar-sized pillars periodically pealed off the nearby walls, echoing between peaks. French guides wouldn’t climb Mont Blanc that month for fear of unstable seracs, and for a while the Swiss “closed” the Matterhorn when melting permafrost caused massive landsliding on the Hornli Ridge. From our vantage, it looked like climbing was over.
But little is cut and dry when it comes to climate change. The next day, September 1, the heat wave collapsed into storm, and three days later Mark and I waded through a meter of fresh snow that had cemented in all the unstable rock. Two years later, this time in late September, I was on the north face of the Eiger. Almost no one climbs that face in the summer anymore because it’s too dry and prone to rockfall. But recent storms had plastered the face with ice, gluing in all the loose stones, and the single falling rock we saw was broken off by a party above.
It was stories like these that flowed between participants at the Alpine Club’s birthday bash. We compared notes on what was in shape where and when, from Mt. Kenya’s Diamond Couloir to snowfall patterns in Pakistan. Old rules didn’t apply, and everyone wanted to learn the new rules in order to better plan their next excursion. No one thought that climbing would end, but we stared wistfully at the sight of gorgeous glaciers snaking down from Monte Rosa, wondering what would be left for participants at the Alpine Club’s bicentennial ascent of the Breithorn. And if these glaciers have indeed all melted by then, what would this mean for the state of the rest of the world?
For thoughts on what you can do to help monitor glacier changes (and maybe even help do something to slow the process), please read Joe Stock’s “The Front Lines of Climate Change,” beginning on page 117 of this Journal. And keep in touch with the American Alpine Club, because we’ll soon be initiating an online clearinghouse for updated mountain info and photos, so we can keep track of changing approaches and route conditions worldwide. You can already find the American Alpine Journal online in free searchable and downloadable PDF format (www.AmericanAlpineClub.org/AAJ). But those editions featured yesterday’s conditions. What will tomorrow’s be?
John Harlin III, Editor