The Disappearing Glaciers of Switzerland and the Aarbiwak

Hiking on a glacier, Switzerland

A few days ago we headed into a part of the Swiss Alps that has continual comparisons made to the Himalaya. It is one of the more remote corners of the Alps with few reasons to go beyond exploring an entirely alpine world. If a 7-8 hour walk up a long, glacier filled valley sounds good to you – the Grimsel Pass entry to the Finsteraargletscher and a night at the Aarbiwak is the place to go.

Man at Aarbiwak

A different world at the Aarbiwak

We had recently watched Chasing Ice – the film about James Balog’s work photographing glaciers in their speedy retreat from this planet. Standing on the Unteraargletscher and Finsteraargletscher, we were in shock at the amount these glaciers have dropped. Scars several hundred meters on the mountains above serve as glaring evidence of the depth these rivers of ice once flowed. Once home, we visited the website Gletscher Archive and found images of the very glaciers we explored. Only one hundred years ago, the very ice we hiked on would have been about 80 meters deeper.

Heading up the boulder strewn Finsteraargletscher to the Aarbiwak

If you love the mountains, explore these glaciers before it is too late. They are a magical world for reasons mostly felt while moving amongst them. Their beauty is sublime, but so too is the feeling of their energy and all the characteristics not so obvious from just looking from a distance. They must be experienced.

Even in the flattest parts of the glacier, you never know what you’ll find.

Finally, on our walk back out we witnessed a scene of the impact the melting glaciers are having on human interaction with the mountains. The Lauteraarhütte sits a few hours walk from the trailhead in a commanding position to look out on several 4000 meter peaks and vast alpine terrain. Yet the hut, built in the 1800’s just above the ice, now sits perched more than 200 meters above the glacier. Relatively few hikers find reason to hike all the way back, and then so far up, to a hut. As much as we would have liked to see it, we too skipped it for the difficulty accessing the beautiful location. But then we heard drilling, and there, just above the glacier we saw a work party installing ladders as a direct, and nearly vertical path to the hut. Sadly, we shook our heads and carried on down what’s left of the glacier.

The area looks like the Himalaya in many ways, prayer flags on the walk in to the Aarbiwak

Lunch stop on the Finsteraargletscher

Taking fresh water from one of the many flowing creeks on the ice’s surface

Strolling on ancient ice and stone

The lower section of the Unteraargletscher appears to be on solid ground, but this is all rock covered ice. Occasionally we’d see deep, dark crevasses with brilliant blue ice below – a reminder to pay attention.

The ladders being built to the Lauteraarhütte > click to enlarge

 

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