Melting Giants: La Meije, Massif des Ecrins, France

Posted on: January 3, 2020


[This On Belay story originally appeared in Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 68 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The south face of la Meije (3983m) and the upper Etancons Valley, with the Glacier Carre covered in snow during spring, Massif des Ecrins, France. [Photo] Manu RivaudThe south face of la Meije (3983m) and the upper Etancons Valley, with the Glacier Carre covered in snow during spring, Massif des Ecrins, France. [Photo] Manu Rivaud

AUGUST 7, 2018: "Bonjour! It's 4:30 a.m." The voice of the Promontoire Refuge guardian Fredi Meignan roused sleeping climbers from their dreams. The local guides woke almost without effort; their bodies followed reflexes ingrained from years of the same ritual. Titou Aumenier, from the nearby town of Serre Chevalier, got dressed and met his client in the dining room. That morning, three rope teams were planning to climb the Voie Normale and the Traverse of la Meije—a popular itinerary across a beloved summit ridge that rises above steep glaciers, its pyramids pointing to the sky.

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At 3983 meters, la Meije isn't the highest peak in the Massif des Ecrins, but it was the last major peak in the Alps to be climbed. Its Voie Normale was also one of the most significant early routes to be established by an all-French team: on August 16, 1877, after more than twenty attempts by other groups, two local guides from Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, Pierre Gaspard and his son of the same name, and their client Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau found a passage up the steep rock of the south face. As Gaspard led the way to the top of the final summit pyramid, he removed his shoes to gain more dexterity. The resulting route became a sought-after challenge for generations to come. Gaspard became a legend. As one of his clients, Theodore Camus, later wrote, the guide represented "the perfect archetype of the montagnard": someone who was both a mountain dweller intimately connected to the land and a consummate mountaineer capable of previously unimaginable feats.

For 141 years since the first ascent, alpinists had traveled here from around the world to experience this historic place. Yet as the climbers in the refuge quietly sipped their coffee and gazed through the windows into the darkness of a still morning, no one knew that the events of that day would forever change the shape of the mountain and its stories.

Inside the kitchen of the Promontoire Refuge, built in 1901 by the Club Alpin Francais (and rebuilt in 1966) at 3092 meters, guardians Nathalie Clerc and Fredi Meignan enjoy a glass of genepi with La Grave guide Pierre Cinquin. The summer of 2018 was Meignan’s last after a decade as a guardian. He recalls the season as unusually warm. [Photo] Abdou MartinInside the kitchen of the Promontoire Refuge, built in 1901 by the Club Alpin Francais (and rebuilt in 1966) at 3092 meters, guardians Nathalie Clerc and Fredi Meignan enjoy a glass of genepi with La Grave guide Pierre Cinquin. The summer of 2018 was Meignan's last after a decade as a guardian. He recalls the season as unusually warm. [Photo] Abdou Martin

BY 5 a.m., at 3092 meters, the outside temperature was 5C (41F). The air felt noticeably and uncharacteristically warm. For sixty-nine of the seventy days since the refuge had opened for summer, temperatures hadn't dropped below freezing. Fredi, who had been the guardian for a decade, recalled that he'd never experienced a season like this one. This would be his final summer working in the refuge. As he observed the strange weather and severe thunderstorms of 2018, he felt uneasy about the future of the range. Uncertainties seemed to crack with the same force as the lightning that struck his corner of the alpine world.

From a distance, high mountains may look like solid pyramids and indestructible spires that tower above the world, as if their summits are impervious to time and change. In fact, the upper regions of alpine peaks are conglomerates of seeped ice and fissured stone, elements that hold each other together against gravity's pull. Earth that is frozen for two or more consecutive years—known as permafrost—forms a cement between fractured rocks. When air temperatures stay below freezing, these structures remain stable. When the freezing level (the altitude at which temperatures begin to fall below 0C) rises too high for too long, the internal ice melts and the precarious balance of mountain architecture starts to waver. Eventually, from individual grains to massive blocks, erosion tears at the weaknesses within the rock, and mountains crumble.

Images of catastrophes were still far from Titou's mind as he finished his breakfast and stepped outside with his longtime client Hugues. The lights of headlamps flickered against the shadowed rock while the two men waited to let other teams pass ahead of them. Titou and Hugues hoped to complete the climb in three days instead of the more common two-day ascent. They wanted to take their time so that Hugues could appreciate each moment of his first journey up la Meije.

The Voie Normale begins directly from the terrace of the refuge and continues up the golden granite of the Arete du Promontoire, across the gleaming white of the Glacier Carre and onward to the highest point of the skyline. After reaching the apex of the peak, Titou and Hugues planned to keep going along the serrated five teeth of the summit ridge and then to spend the night at the Aigle Refuge, just below the Doigt de Dieu, the final peak of the traverse. At 3450 meters, this hut provides the last point of comfort before a 1788-meter descent that leads over the rolling Glacier du Tabuchet and down loose scree and cliff bands toward the larch forests and the icy river of the Romanche Valley.

One by one, Titou and Hugues stretched their bodies to reach beyond the railing of the Promontoire Refuge and take hold of the solid granite. A variety of moves up blocky holds linked together but never repeated as they made their way toward the Couloir Duhamel—named for the man who was almost the first to summit the Grand Pic, the main peak of la Meije. In 1876 Henry Duhamel had faltered at the top of the couloir, confronted with the "polished mass of rocks" before him. Now, at the front of the rope teams, Olivier Giroud, a guide from the nearby town of Villar-d'Arene, was nearing the end of those smooth and rounded slabs, close to "le Miroir," a passage of granite so polished that climbers could almost see their own reflection.

Just then, with a whoosh and a crack, a small, swift pellet of stone struck the rock near Olivier. A little while after, Titou and Hugues were crossing the Dalle Castelnau, another steep slab with only three tiny holds and one solitary piton, when a second rock hissed through the air and landed on the Etancons glacier a few hundred meters below.

Occasional rockfall isn't unknown in the Massif des Ecrins, and everyone continued climbing. Only in retrospect did those falling pieces of rock resemble a subtle warning.

THE SOUTH FACE OF LA MEIJE rises like a maze of stone up an immense and airy mountain wall. Before long, Titou and Hugues entered the Muraille Castelnau, a series of ledges that zigzag right and left to create an easy, but mostly unprotectable path—one mistake and you could find yourself free falling toward the valley below. Guides generally short-rope their clients through this section, moving together close enough to watch and direct every step, taking care to throw the rope behind rock horns and to weave the team around natural features to keep them on the mountain in case of a fall. The other rope teams had just finished this section, and they were back on the ridge just below the Dos d'Ane, a steep slab that resembles a donkey's back, where only the concentrated friction of your boots will allow you to pass.

At the end of the first ledge of the Muraille Castelnau, Titou and Hugues found themselves alone in the silence of the early morning light. It was at this moment—just three minutes after the second rock zoomed over the wall—that an immense wave of ice, snow and rocks rushed toward them.

Until that morning, two hundred meters above them, two rock needles rose into the air between the upper edge of the Glacier Carre and the base of the Breche du Doigt, a col to the left of the Pic du Glacier Carre. Each one between ten and fifteen meters high, these small towers were like a pair of teeth held in a gum of ice. The intense heat and thunderstorms of the summer had started to loosen them. There were other peculiar geologic factors that made the surrounding area inherently unstable: a fault line extends through this zone, and the nature of the rock changes from the solid and compact granite in the lower half of the face to the more fractured and brittle gneiss above. When the permafrost melted away to the point of release, the pillars tumbled into the abyss.

Titou and Hugues were directly in the fall line, unable to escape. Titou had already placed the rope around a rock horn for protection. Now, in a last minute effort, he quickly scrambled a few meters upward to try to find a safe crevice in the wall, but it was too late. As the blocks fell on top of them, their helmets cracked and their rope became a pile of shredded fibers. "I thought it was the end," Titou recalled, "that either he or I would topple into the void."

The south face of la Meije became quiet again. Titou was still attached to the mountain. He made sure that his client was also still there. As if by miracle, neither of them was incapacitated: Titou had a major hematoma between his hip and knee and a few open surface wounds; Hugues had a broken shoulder, as well as several bruises and lacerations, but they were able to down climb in search of safer ground. After Titou clipped them both into an anchor with what remained of their rope, he turned on his radio. He learned that the guides above, just barely out of harm's way, had already called for a rescue for them. A half hour later, a helicopter arrived and hauled them, battered yet breathing, into the sky.

The rockfall zone on the Glacier Carre on August 19, 2018, 12 days after two pillars broke and caused a massive debris slide. [Photo] Benjamin Ribeyre, with a drone and special authorization from Parc national des EcrinsThe rockfall zone on the Glacier Carre on August 19, 2018, 12 days after two pillars broke and caused a massive debris slide. [Photo] Benjamin Ribeyre, with a drone and special authorization from Parc national des Ecrins

FOR DAYS AFTERWARD, climbers abandoned the mountain. At first, local guides didn't dare approach la Meije for fear that more rocks would stream down its faces. After such an extreme event, anything seemed possible. Eventually, some of them became curious to see the damage for themselves. An entire community had built an existence below this peak. From La Grave, the view of the dark summit pyramid and the gleaming blue glaciers had drawn people's gaze toward a dream of fantastic heights. The popularity of la Meije had attracted visitors and helped sustain a way of life for guides, shopkeepers and other residents.

Unsure of the future, the guides contacted the local rescue helicopter service, the PGHM of Alpe d'Huez (Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne), in hopes of getting an aerial image of the destruction. But without an actual rescue to carry out, members of the PGHM said it was impossible to organize a reconnaissance mission. The only option was for the guides to get close to the zone on foot, but they knew it wouldn't be possible to climb directly to the rockfall site. There was no safe access route that could entirely avoid the areas where other pieces of the mountain might collapse and land.

With this thought in mind, Benjamin Ribeyre, a guide from La Grave, got the idea of approaching the Glacier Carre with his drone. On August 19, after obtaining authorization from the Parc national des Ecrins, Benjamin hiked toward la Meije with two other guides, Cyril Dupeyre and Patiss Vauclair. Below the telepherique, the only lift system in La Grave, they ran into Pierre Mathonnet. At age seventy-four, he was the oldest working guide in town, and he had just celebrated fifty years of practicing the profession.

"Are you going to go and look at la Meije?" Pierre asked. "You know, in fifty years, I've seen a few rockfalls on la Meije. And not small ones. So, one more.... It's been twelve days since it fell. It should have stabilized by now."

Patrick Guillaume, alarmed by the state of the Glacier Carre in October 2018. The normally snowy glacier was covered in rocks and had melted down to the ice, while countless massive blocks lingered on the face and above it. [Photo] Olivier LaboriePatrick Guillaume, alarmed by the state of the Glacier Carre in October 2018. The normally snowy glacier was covered in rocks and had melted down to the ice, while countless massive blocks lingered on the face and above it. [Photo] Olivier Laborie

The three younger guides smiled with him, but they didn't share his optimism. It was true that from 1900 to 1990, there had been six major rockfalls on different parts of the mountain, while the spread of industrialization increased greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures in many parts of the world. In 1916 the Doigt de Dieu had a massive collapse that reshaped its silhouette into a slightly bent stone finger pointing toward the stars. On May 15, 1964, the Breche Zsigmondy—a natural skywalk between the Grand Pic and the Pic Zsigmondy—had decreased in height by about twenty meters. In 1969 and 1982, the Meije Orientale (the easternmost summit) had also lost mass. After the second of those events, a new ten- to fifteen-centimeter layer of rock debris had covered nearly 270,000 square meters of the Etancons Valley. The stones had tumbled almost as far as the Chatelleret Refuge, more than three kilometers down the valley from the south face. Philippe Buyle, a guide from Briancon, had traversed the rockfall area of the Meije Orientale shortly after the 1982 collapse. He said he felt as if he were an "elephant in a porcelain shop." Every rock seemed about to tilt beneath his hands and feet. It was not the kind of memory to inspire confidence.

From the midstation of the telepherique, Benjamin, Cyril and Patiss clambered up the terraced rock and alpine heather of the Enfetchores approach route on the north face of la Meije. Past the deep col of the Breche de la Meije, they climbed the west ridge toward the Glacier Carre. Cyril arrived first on the ledge below the glacier—just in time to watch a gigantic block rush over the edge of the cliff above the south face. While the dismal crash echoed in the valley, Patiss and Benjamin cautiously joined him. They settled into a sheltered nook and prepared to take photos. Using his smartphone to pilot the drone, Benjamin could barely believe the images that appeared on the screen: two major black streaks stained the ice of the Glacier Carre as if a heavy plow had carved a grisly path toward the Muraille Castelnau. A massive patchwork of other rocks and boulders still perched nearby, ready to fall.

All the while, as the team collected pictures, they listened to the constant stream of rocks spilling over the void in the intense sunlight: an eerie, cacophonous symphony of sounds. The core of their bodies seemed to shiver with each exploding and echoing crack. At last, with the drone batteries dead and their hearts fatigued by the state of the mountain, the team descended to the Promontoire Refuge to give an update to Fredi: the Voie Normale on la Meije was out of condition for that year, and its future remained unknown.

We’ve gone from a paradise of rock to hell, two guides from Alpe d’Huez recounted after climbing the Voie Normale in October 2018. They were the only team to have climbed the route in that year after the rockfall event of August 7. [Photo] Olivier Laborie "We've gone from a paradise of rock to hell," two guides from Alpe d'Huez recounted after climbing the Voie Normale in October 2018. They were the only team to have climbed the route in that year after the rockfall event of August 7. [Photo] Olivier Laborie

BACK IN FRONT of his computer screen, Benjamin sent his photos to two geomorphologists who specialize in studying mountains and who are also guides themselves: Raphaele Charvet (a mountain guide) and Ludovic Ravanel (a trekking guide). Ravanel replied with a chilling forecast based on the images:

For the rest of this summer: numerous rockfalls are still to be expected because there is a lot of remaining material that is only asking to fall in and around the rockfall scar.

Next summer: the wall of ice that you photographed was cementing the rockfall area, and it won't totally melt this year. This ice will melt next summer and release a large amount of rocks. Maybe larger volumes than what fell in 2018.

The long-term forecast (low level of confidence): the collapsed area was certainly a physical support for all the area behind it. It was also providing protection against the heat and the degradation of the surrounding permafrost. Without this natural shield, it's possible that more rockfalls with comparable or larger volumes will occur around this first collapsed area. Especially around the col above, which is made of friable rock....

An insidious fact about today's climate crisis is that high altitudes in the European Alps are heating more rapidly than lower elevations. As reported by CREA Mont-Blanc (The Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems), from the end of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the twenty-first, there has been an average temperature increase of +2C in the Alps. A marked acceleration started in the 1980s. This rate is more than the average change in France, which is +1.4C, and two times greater than that of the northern hemisphere (+1C) overall. When mountains are still white, they reflect the sun's heat back into the atmosphere. As more dark rock peers out from the snow and ice, the heat is absorbed instead of released, and the process of warming becomes amplified.

These rapid environmental changes create heightened risks for climbers: the emergence of newly uncovered and unsettled rocks that were once safely buried beneath glaciers; the thinning of snow bridges that provide an increasingly unreliable way across crevasses; the appearance of bare, hard ice on routes that used to be easy snow slopes. But the melting of the cement that holds these magnificent peaks together is perhaps the most alarming. Within the Mont Blanc range, Florence Magnin, Alexander Brenning, Xavier Bodin, Philip Deline and Ludovic Ravanel have studied the phenomenon closely. During the last twenty years, they report, the cool temperatures that keep permafrost frozen and stable (-2C on average) have been found only at increasingly high elevations, with the average start of that level creeping upward from 3300 meters to 3850 meters.

Each summer, throughout the Alps, fresh rock scars appear on mountain walls, and the missing puzzle pieces become scattered in the valleys. The expanses of white snow and blue ice grow ever smaller. Dark greys and browns increasingly dominate the alpine color spectrum. The rays of heat have become visible, weaving off the mountain through the reflecting sunlight.

AUTUMN SETTLED BACK into the high valley of La Grave: the low angle of the evening sun shone through yellow larch trees and lit the crimson-red and blood-orange leaves of the alpine heather. While the air turned crisp and the tips of the mountains whitened, the guiding life slowed down. Climbers headed south to find warmer rock, and hikers returned to their homes. Restaurants and lifts would remain closed until the snow began to pile and the winter skiing season started. Like mountain dwellers around the world, many residents wondered how much the yearly rituals of the seasons would change in the coming years.

In the past, local guides and climbers sometimes adapted the landscape of la Meije to continue their usual pursuits. After the rockfall of the Breche Zsigmondy in 1964, the rescue team of Briancon and the Compagnie des Guides de l'Oisans installed a permanent cable to bypass the Pic Zsigmondy: its once manageable ascent had become a steeply overhanging wall, and the new detour lacked natural protection. Nonetheless, most of the mountain remained much wilder than other parts of the Alps, and the present-day local guides wanted to preserve its unique ambiance. They didn't want to transform la Meije into a new Matterhorn—a peak covered by fixed boat ropes and heavy chains, complete with metal corkscrew rings that you can pass a rope through and painted arrows that show you the way.

Hoping to find another solution, the guides contacted the Federation Francaise des Clubs Alpins et de Montagne (FFCAM), Parc national des Ecrins, and the Petzl Foundation, as well as geologists specializing in melting permafrost and mountain rockfall. After many meetings, representatives of the FFCAM and the local guide offices created a budget to search for a way around the most hazardous area, either on the north or south face. But the guides would have to wait until the next spring or summer for the right conditions to begin the explorations: while there couldn't be too much snow on the rock, there had to be enough of it on the Glacier Carre to diminish the risk of rockfall.

Only one team climbed the Voie Normale that autumn: two guides from Alpe d'Huez in October 2018. They reported a terrifying account of the Muraille Castelnau. What was once an improbable, but sturdy ledge in a vertical face had become a mangled disturbance of unstable blocks, scarred impact craters and rock dust. Some boulders appeared so unsteady that they might barely withstand a sneeze. Entire new cracks had opened up; large sections of rock now leaned toward the Etancons Valley. "We've gone from a paradise of rock to hell," they recounted.

THE SNOWS OF WINTER FELL, and for a time la Meije, the glaciers and the larch forests all returned to pristine white. Then the drifts began to dissolve back into the Romanche and Veneon rivers, and the rock started to reappear. By the spring of 2019, the guides were ready to see what awaited above the Glacier Carre. On June 16, Benjamin leaned against the rail of the Promontoire deck, directing his drone on another aerial visit to survey the area and to look for a possible variation on the north face. Once the winter snows melted, the passage through the Muraille Castelnau and the traverse across the Glacier Carre would be at risk for further damage. Climbers could detour along the west ridge to avoid the first zone, but they'd have to find a route on the other side of the Pic du Glacier Carre to bypass the second one.

Social media platforms exploded with questions about the possibility of climbing the route again. Telephones at the Promontoire Refuge and at the local guide offices rang without pause. By June 18, 2019, the snow had finally melted enough for an attempt by foot. When Benjamin and Olivier set out from La Berarde, Gaspard's hometown remained shadowed in the dark predawn air. Once they arrived at the refuge, the new guardian, Sandrine Delorme, prepared an omelet for them.

"What are we going to find up there?" Benjamin said to Olivier. The last time Olivier had been on the south face, he'd narrowly missed getting caught in the same rock avalanche as Titou and Hugues. Olivier glanced slowly out the window toward the mountain, and then back to Benjamin. "Let's go find out," he replied as he stood up and readied his pack.

At the start of the traverse onto the ledges of the Muraille Castelnau, they saw the first glimpses of the damage: an endless field of scars from last summer had ripped into the rocks in front of them. From then on, all Benjamin's senses remained on alert. Aware of the fragility of his body, he tried to perform each move perfectly, to the scale of a millimeter. Testing every hold and step in his path, he approached the edge of a landscape of desolation.

Benjamin and Olivier had anticipated that the weight of winter snowfall and spring meltwater would have cleared some of the debris off the ledges. Instead, they saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of precariously balanced blocks, strewn about like the silent remains of a bombed city. As they got closer, Benjamin was on the lookout for any suspicious noises. Olivier had guided this route more than fifty times, but nothing about the terrain ahead looked familiar anymore.

They knew there was no one else directly below them so they pushed as many blocks into the void as they could. Slowly, the ledges reemerged beneath the remains, and the route began to reappear. In the past, this passage had remained free of fixed protection. Now, they placed four pitons. That way, in case of another major rockfall, a rope team might at least avoid being swept entirely off the mountain.

It was enough to reach the Dos d'Ane that first day, and the two climbers decided to return to the Promontoire Refuge for the night. While they rappelled, they noticed that the rock just to the left of the Voie Normale appeared firmly in place and free of any impact scars. They decided to return to this part of the wall the following day and to search for an alternative to the ledges of the Voie Normale.

That evening, news came through the Promontoire radio that a good friend had just died. Georges Turlin, seventy years old and recently retired, had planned to spend the rest of his years adventuring in the mountains he loved. On his way down from the Aigle Refuge, he had fallen over a cliff. To residents of La Grave, it seemed as if he'd left his spirit forever on the shoulder of la Meije. That night, Benjamin managed only short periods of sleep, haunted by memories of Georges's habitual, welcoming smile.

THE ALARM SOUNDED at 7 a.m. It was a late wake-up call for guides in a refuge, but they wanted to have complete daylight for their explorations. A sense of weariness weighed on them as they lingered over the breakfast table scattered with bowls of coffee, baskets of bread, and plates of butter and jam. The loss of a friend made the return into the unknown feel even harder.

For a time, in the cool, bright air, they could almost imagine that the mountain hadn't changed. While Benjamin had only climbed the Voie Normale twice before, Olivier knew every hold of its original line by heart. As Olivier tried to pass on his knowledge of what remained, his words echoed, in part, the advice that generations of guides had given each other.

And then they were once again at the foot of the Muraille Castelnau, confronted with the scars and debris. This time, they searched for the passage they'd seen the day before on rappel. They wanted to find a variation that didn't require bolts so they could preserve the historical style of la Meije.

Equipped with cams and pitons, Benjamin stepped onto a steep, orange granite slab. He paused to place his first piton a few meters above the ledge, where the thin cracks closed. Only the rubber soles of his mountain boots held his weight on two small footholds. This spot was his last opportunity for protection for as far as he could see. Ahead, the upright slab of smooth rock looked intimidatingly steep, but as he continued, rounded holds appeared along the way. The rock was solid, with no signs of damage, but there also wasn't a single crack for sliding in even the smallest stopper or piton.

Soon Benjamin was fifteen meters above the sole piton, and he no longer had the option to fall. The young guide clenched on to two small in-cut holds in the stone. He knew he had to make a choice: commit to the unknown, or down climb and grab the drill. Perhaps because of his stubbornness or the ardor of youth, he kept going up. After some awkward, but controlled, upward lunges—just at the last moment before he thought he might have to try to down climb—he found a tiny bump for one hand, and he stretched his other arm as far as his body allowed to search for another hold. Finally, his fingers closed over an edge. He pulled and then pushed himself up and onto a terrace, though not without trembling a little.

There, he built an anchor using a few former descent pitons that were already in place. As Olivier followed, he reached the section of unprotectable stone where Benjamin had struggled. They shouted back and forth to each other in the quiet morning: Would Gaspard and Castelnau have agreed with the use of bolts if they had been available back in 1877? In the Parc national des Ecrins, the use of bolts and power drills is not forbidden, but it's closely monitored, and it requires permission. Twice a year, a committee made up of representatives from several professional unions, such as the Compagnie des Guides Oisans-Ecrins, as well as members from the Parc national and the Office National des Forets, meets to study various proposals for permanent protection. They review projects according to several criteria, including the proximity of historic routes and the possibility of environmental issues, such as the presence of a protected species.

Olivier and Benjamin had obtained authorization for drilling bolts, but they hoped to avoid doing so. In the end, they managed to use mostly traditional protection, and they completed their bypass route with just three bolts throughout its four pitches. The original sections of the Voie Normale remained undistorted without any addition of bolts. They descended to the valley, and they shared what they'd found. After other local guides had tried the new version of the route for a few weeks, Benjamin posted the topo online.

The black dotted line represents the horizontal change in rock type from the lower granite to the upper gneiss on the south face of la Meije, with the two main vertical fault systems in yellow. The Voie Normale and Traverse of la Meije are shown in red. [Photo] Jocelyn ChavyThe black dotted line represents the horizontal change in rock type from the lower granite to the upper gneiss on the south face of la Meije, with the two main vertical fault systems in yellow. The Voie Normale and Traverse of la Meije are shown in red. [Photo] Jocelyn Chavy

[Inset from previous photo] The main area of impact from the 2018 rockfall, overlaid in red, with the Voie Normale and the more technically difficult new variation that avoids this hazardous section. (Drawings by Benjamin Ribeyre.) [Photo] Benjamin Ribeyre, with a drone and special authorization from Parc national des Ecrins[Inset from previous photo] The main area of impact from the 2018 rockfall, overlaid in red, with the Voie Normale and the more technically difficult new variation that avoids this hazardous section. (Drawings by Benjamin Ribeyre.) [Photo] Benjamin Ribeyre, with a drone and special authorization from Parc national des Ecrins

Alpinists now had a choice: they could follow Benjamin's and Olivier's variation, which is more difficult than the usual Voie Normale, but which avoids the worst of the rockfall danger; or they could keep climbing the entire historic route, which remains exposed to the hazards above. The new Promontoire guardian observed an interesting pattern of choice this summer: younger rope teams tended to pick the alternative direction; older and more experienced climbers used the original one. In previous years, five to fifteen teams tended to set out for la Meije whenever the weather was good; but in 2019, even on perfect days, only one or two groups attempted the climb.

The fallen boulders from last summer remained on the Glacier Carre, initially covered and secured by a layer of winter snow. As the season progressed, the snow continued to melt and trickle down the cracks in the south face, streaming through the alpine heather in the valley to join the Veneon River. More and more, the black tips of unsteady rocks showed through the surface of the glacier. When a second strong heat wave arrived in late July, the guide office decided to stop selling excursions up the Voie Normale—in hopes of preventing another accident like the one that Titou and Hugues had suffered. Some guides disagreed: How could anyone be sure that another major rockfall would take place? Others felt that it was an appropriate step. Perhaps later in the summer, they hoped, a snowstorm might arrive to bury the boulders again or a cold snap might freeze everything in place.

Alas, the temperatures remained warm, and the snow on the glacier melted completely down to the ice. The two big troughs from the collapsed pillars reappeared, and its entire surface became a grey and dirty sheet nearly indistinguishable from the nearby granite. Ravanel's short-term predictions came true: once snow-free, the emptied areas released many new stones, although nothing bigger than last year's rockfall occurred. We will have to wait and see for his long-term forecast.

Throughout the Alps, glaciers are reacting to the rising heat of the planet by receding and melting at an alarming rate. On September 24, 2019, Stefano Miserocchi, the mayor of Courmayeur, an Italian town below the south side of Mont Blanc, signed an order closing roads in the Val Ferret. Experts from the Fondazione Montagna Sicura (Safe Mountain Foundation) have monitored glaciers in the region since 2013, and they warned that a section of the Planpincieux glacier on the Grandes Jorasses peak is sliding at speeds of 50-60 centimeters per day. A block of 250,000 cubic meters of ice is at risk of breaking away and crumbling into the valley. According to a report by The Cryosphere, even if we manage to decrease our carbon emissions to zero, two-thirds of the ice in the Alps will have melted by 2100. And if we are unable to lower our carbon emissions, all the ice in the Alps will be mostly gone within eighty years.

What is the summer climbing season in the Alps? There is no longer a definite response. Familiar seasons have ceased to exist. Ice lines or couloirs that used to remain cold enough to resist the sun of the warmest months now melt as early as June. As climbers and guides, we will need to adapt to the unexpected. In a study of the famous guidebook written by Gaston Rebuffat in 1973, The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes, Jacques Mourey, Melanie Marcuzzi, Ludovic Ravanel and Francois Pallandre observed that at least ninety-three of these beautiful mountain routes have been affected by climate change. "Twenty-six of them have been greatly affected," they noted, "and three no longer exist."

Since 2009, scientists from GREC-SUD (Groupe Regional d'Experts sur le Climat en Region Sud Provence-Alpes-Cte d'Azur), a French government-funded project, have measured the temperature at 3000 meters of elevation and 30 meters of depth at the neighboring Deux-Alpes ski area. They found an average temperature of -1.3C, too high for the permafrost to remain stable. As surges of heat become more common and cloudbursts of rain pound the upper elevations, the thawing rock will result in more landslides down the steep walls.

The climate crisis is a reality that cannot be denied. We will still be able to climb la Meije in the near future, though the climbing season will be shorter. But even if we watch the weather and conditions more carefully, we won't be able to predict exactly when the next big rockfall will happen or how much of the mountain will topple. As climbers, we can simply decide not to go into alpine regions during certain times of the year when the possibility of rockfall or other risks are too high. But there are many other aspects about our changing climate that we won't be able to avoid: increasing droughts and fires that will plague whole regions of the world; rising sea levels that will displace the populations of entire cities; decreasing availability of fresh, clean drinking water that will impact millions; shifts in ecosystems that will result in the extinction of numerous animals and plants.

During our brief forays into the mountains, we make choices as individuals to mitigate hazards for ourselves and for our partners. Our decisions as a species, however, will affect the long-term survival of all living things. And as our mountains crumble, the fragile beauty of vanishing heights will remain a symbol of our world moving swiftly into an unknown future.

—Benjamin Ribeyre and Erin Smart

[This On Belay story originally appeared in Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 68 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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