Rapidly deteriorating conditions across the European Alps due to rising temperatures are forcing mountain guides, their clients and independent teams to change their objectives as the risk of rockfall, avalanches and serac collapses increases. Some normal routes up major peaks are no longer being sold by guiding companies as the impact of climate change and the current heatwave becomes clear following a tragedy on the Marmolada this month and a spate of incidents and near-misses during the high season.
'Conditions are changing fast and not in a good way,' a translated Alpine Club report on the Mont Blanc Massif via La Chamoniarde reads, above a list of reports of retreating parties, "constant" rockfalls and "tormented" glacial approaches across some of the most popular routes in the area as melting snow, ice and permafrost destabilise the landscape's structure.
In Chamonix, the Compagnie des Guides strongly advise against the normal Goûter Route on Mont Blanc due to increasingly heavy rockfall occurring mostly in the Grand Couloir — also known as 'Death Gully', an accident hotspot — while local guiding companies are refusing to sell popular objectives such as the Dent du Géant or the Arête de Rochefort.
Gone are the days of the romantic notion that rockfalls are just part of alpinism. We are now looking at rockfalls and collapses on a different scale
Over the course of the last century, temperatures in the European Alps have increased by around 2°C, or twice the global average. This summer, heatwaves have led to record-breaking June temperatures across the continent, and - catalysed by a lack of snow and precipitation over winter and spring - are causing glaciers to vanish at a record rate.
On 25 July, MeteoSwiss reported a record-high freezing point (0°C) of 5,184m - far above the highest peaks in Western Europe - beating the previous record set in 1995 by almost 70 metres.
British Mountain Guide Jon Bracey first visited the Alps in 1998, and moved to the Chamonix valley in 2006 when he qualified as a UIAGM mountain guide. "Over the years I've observed very marked changes in the climate, vast glacial retreat and a huge increase in the incidence of rockfall," he said.
Jon believes that the work of a mountain guide has become far more challenging - and more dangerous - due to climate change. "It's a delicate balancing act of trying to meet clients' expectations and goals without taking too much risk," he said. "I can't remember the last time this summer that the zero degree isotherm was below 4,000m, and we've had temperatures of +10 degrees celcius at Col Major (4,750m) near the summit of Mont Blanc. Even basic stuff like glacier travel is inherently way more dangerous."
The traditional July and August summer Alpine season is occurring earlier and extending in length, but also becoming somewhat obsolete as conditions worsen, Jon explained. "In today's world, the alpinist has to be much more of an opportunist," he said. "You've got to jump on the good conditions, because it might be a long wait until the next chance." To avoid climbing in the most unstable period in the heat of the afternoon, alpine starts are shifting to even earlier hours in the morning as temperatures rise.
Many bucket-list summits and classic lines - which typically bring guides the most income - are currently off the cards. Guides are doing their best to adapt and make the best of a bad situation, Jon explained, while facing a potential loss of earnings. "Economically, most people will take a bit of a hit, be it the huts, guides, hotels or ski lifts," he said. "With the ongoing heatwave, it's no wonder that most people want to head to the lakes instead of the mountains!"
What we see developing - no snow, all dry, all hot - is absolutely unprecedented
The recent serac collapse on Italy's Marmolada alone has caused some climbers to reconsider their holiday plans. Barbora Sojkova has just returned from the Swiss Alps. "We planned to climb on snow in the Bernina Range, but scrapped it after the Marmolada incident," she said. "We decided to do only rock routes – it was scorching hot, even above 2,500m, and dry."
Likewise, Clare White headed to the Dolomites instead of higher-altitude, glaciated areas, partly due to conditions and temperature predictions: "I'm already considering altering ideas for next summer."
As poor conditions become apparent or worsen en-route, retreat is occurring more frequently. Wendy Searle recently experienced this on a trip to Chamonix, on one of the area's most well-travelled and famous itineraries. "We had to turn back on a traverse of the Vallée Blanche due to open crevasses and rotten snow," she said.
For mountain professionals reliant on regular outings, flexibility amid the uncertainty is proving essential.
British Mountain Guide Calum Muskett was booked to work on the Matterhorn this week but changed plans last-minute, following the lead of local professionals. "Zermatt guides aren't guiding the Matterhorn due to how dry the top slopes are, and they also cancelled trips to Pollux due to the state of the glacier," he said." Cervinia guides also cancelled Matterhorn trips on the Lion Ridge and above Saas Grund, the Weissmies normal route hasn't been done pretty much all season due to the state of the glacier and serac risk."
Last week, Calum descended to Chamonix from the Refuge de Charpoua, where he had decided to cancel a guided trip up the Traverse of the Drus — the glacier was becoming difficult to navigate and rockfall was a major threat.
"Conditions are fine for many other objectives if you're flexible," he said. "The general state of glaciers is pretty worrying though, with rocky routes being in condition but difficult/dangerous to access. With freezing levels being so high for so long, we also have a poor idea of the general stability of large faces held together with permafrost."
With much media attention being placed on the current heatwave, Calum emphasised the importance of looking at long-term changes in weather and conditions. "It's worth remembering that this time last year it was very snowy — I climbed the North Face of the Matterhorn around the first week of August," he said. "Generally though, it's the big picture of regular extremes in weather and rapidly disappearing glaciers making guiding and planning unpredictable."
The volume of climbers in the Chamonix area and the European Alps in general has both forced and enabled guides and authorities to swiftly manage changes, by finding alternative routes, monitoring areas of concern and adapting infrastructure. Other global locations aren't as fortunate. "New Zealand has similar issues, but the level of adaptation hasn't been the same because of the few mountain users," Calum said.
In another Alpine adventure hotspot, the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, Grindelwald-based Aspirant British Mountain guide Dan Moore reported on local conditions. "The Eiger Mittellegigrat is still currently being guided, though there has been a recent rockfall on the descent route via the Eigerjöcher," he said. "The first gneiss tower following the northern Eigerjoch (saddle) has suffered in the heat – this week a large rockfall has made the normal route via snow/ice on the right unsafe and impracticable." In response, a team of Grindelwald guides promptly removed a large amount of loose rock and bolted a new, safer route on the east side of the tower.
As of last week, the Grindelwald Guides Association has also suspended ascents of the Jungfrau until further notice following three near misses in as many days due to rockfall from the summit slope. "The snowfield has now thinned out to the extent that parties are changing to the debris-covered rock – and knocking razor edged plates down onto parties below," Dan explained. "This gradual disappearance of the snow slope occurs most years. However, it usually reaches this stage around mid-August to mid-September."
The Mönch normal route is still being climbed, but rapidly widening crevasses on the upper Jungfraufirn are increasing the danger of the pisted track to the Mönchsjoch hut. "Cracks have suddenly shot through it over the past weeks, leading to several path closures while piste bashers attempt to fill in the holes," Dan said. "Even the short crossing from the piste over to the start of the SE Ridge is starting to open up." Gaining the SE Ridge from the glacier is becoming more difficult due to surface drop, forcing many parties onto a looser rocky approach, while a glacier hollow forming below the hut is also raising questions as to its long-term stability, he explained.
Jan Beutel, a mountain guide, natural hazard researcher and professor at the University of Innsbruck, is concerned that media headlines will sensationalise a 'doom and gloom' narrative; one focusing on "closures" of certain routes or mountains and neglecting to acknowledge that responsibility falls to individual guides and climbers.
"We are very grateful that in the Alps, ownership of the land does not limit adventures," he said. "But of course this lack of management requires some personal judgement. As guides, we have a long tradition of best practices both in alpine know-how as well as in hazard assessment and mitigation. There has always been change and adaptation, only now the speed necessary is beyond comprehension."
You can't get set on an objective in spite of everything. It's more about a type of 'mountain experience', isn't it, than a particular peak
Increasingly, this will mean passing up jobs on lucrative high-earning routes for safety's sake. "Guides in many of the most prominent alpine locations are not "closing" mountain X,Y or Z, but are actually making an active pledge not to earn money through guiding on them tomorrow — in the middle of high season!" Jan said. "Congratulations to all those responsible professionals!"
But the industry is nonetheless struggling with this, he says. "Features are there to be sold and consumed at no risk, 24/7 with a money-back guarantee — like on safari, shooting the Big Five."
Being prudent and taking precautions is the best approach — save for avoiding the mountains altogether. "Often, a single ascent is not problematic, even in these conditions, Jan said. "But having 50 guides plus clients hit the same route in a single day does cause issues, even on simple glacier travel peaks like the Breithorn or Wildspitze normal routes."
Climbers, whether guided clients or self-sufficient amateurs, will need to learn to forego dream routes until the time is right — or let go of them altogether.
"I don't think it is a "catastrophe" when a certain sector or route is inaccessible, either permanently or for a limited time," Jan said. "When the Dru face collapsed, my goal to climb the American Direct went with it, and I don't want to climb in the vicinity of very fragile rock. When one summit route is deemed "not in good shape" – so be it. It's nothing to get aggravated over. There are so many other nice places to go and play."
Some climbers are already finding positives in making compromises. "I went for Mont Blanc mid-June and arrived the same day as a fatality in the Grand Couloir," Jon Slade, a British climber on holiday in the Alps, said. "We moved to Monte Rosa and honestly I think I enjoyed it more than I would have Mont Blanc — it was beginning to feel a bit box-ticky."
Emily Woodhouse was part of a large group of beginner female alpinists attempting to break a world record on the Allalinhorn in June, but they were forced to shift plans to the Breithorn as the snow was too soft. "It was my first 4000er and it was disappointing to have to change, but you can't get set on an objective in spite of everything," she said. "It's more about a type of 'mountain experience', isn't it, than a particular peak."
As the summer season continues, guides are encouraging climbers to make informed decisions. "It's a good call to ask for assessments and guidance at a local UIAGM guide office, rather than to follow social media advice from 'sofa alpinists'," Jan said.
British UIAGM guide James Thacker echoed his sentiment. "Be cautious when people say "It was fine!" — that may well be true, but look for factual information from La Chamoniarde or respective conditions resources," he said. "Gone are the days of the romantic notion that 'chutes de pierres' [rockfalls] are part of alpinism. We are now looking at rockfalls and collapses of a different scale."
Sharing stories from first-hand experiences in the Alps can inspire others to realise the impact of climate crisis, Jan believes. "Stick with the facts, educate, convince and set examples," he said. "The last decade has been absolutely breathtaking. It's past 12 o-clock and the worst of the worst is panning out. Often I wonder why climate scenario prognoses are still so soft in their communication. What we see developing - no snow, all dry, all hot - is absolutely unprecedented. We have got to act now, but that means all 8 billion people need to act!"
Jon Bracey called for a pragmatic approach to tackling both changes in climbing itineraries and climate. "It's hard not to get depressed at the situation, but there is no use in crying," he said. "We've got to act in meaningful ways to reduce climate change, even if it's for our own sanity. The devastating scenes we are witnessing in the Alps this summer should be a stark warning to everyone of what awaits planet earth in the very near future."
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