A trip to the ice edge

July 20, 2010, 5 Comments

[slideshow]It’s hard to imagine what 27 billion tonnes of ice looks like; even harder to imagine that mass moving, albeit at the relatively sedate pace of 180 metres a year. Hard until you stand beside it. This is the Aletsch glacier, Aletschsgletscher to the locals, Europe’s longest largest glacier – a remnant of the Ice Age, a frozen Amazon carving its way through the Alps, crushing everything beneath it. It’s truly one of Switzerland’s natural wonders (and one of its ten Unesco heritage sites), so I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to come and see it. What have I been doing these last five years? Oh, that’s it, seeing all the other wonderful corners of the country so that I could write a book. It’s not as if the glacier was going anywhere in a hurry.

The Aletsch glacier may be up at over 2000 metres above sea level, and in the middle of Europe’s great mountain range, but it’s remarkably accessible. Most probably because it’s in Switzerland. The Swiss never let mere trifles such as mountains stand in their way of a good walk with a view. In this case, four different cable-car lines take you up to viewpoints along the southern ridge, so that you can walk down to the ice’s edge, or take the panorama route along the ridge-top, or even (if you’re not Swiss) just gaze down at the glacier from on high. With so many options, it’s hard to know what to do. We plump for the cable-car up to Bettmerhorn, 2647m, and a walk from there. A very good choice, and you can follow our route on this map. Walking down towards Roti Chumme is quite easy, despite the height drop of 3oom and the diversion up over a huge rockfall, and the lower you go, the better the views. Rock and ice fill the landscape, and the only sound is of rushing water. Not that you can see much; most of it is under the glacier, only heard but not seen. Best of all on a baking hot day, the breeze is refreshingly cold. It’s like standing in front of a fridge with the door open, or walking through the cold food aisle at Tesco, and all thanks to the ice.

While the overall picture is spectacular, look more closely at the glacier and it’s rather dirty, with the ice at the edge all grey, like day-old snow beside a busy road. The central expanse is littered with rocks and debris, although it’s all arranged in tidy lines that follow the curve of the glacier as it flows downhill. I wonder if all glaciers have such neat moraine, or if it’s just ones in Switzerland? It wouldn’t surprise me if teams of Swiss workers come along every few months to sweep all the moraine back into perfect lines. Perhaps the most fascinating bits are the crevasses sliced into the surface, revealing slithers of deep blue from the depths below. Beautiful but deadly.

From Roti Chumme to Moosfluh is a longer but more satisfying way back, following the course of the glacier southwards. As with all Swiss footpaths, this one well-maintained, well signposted and well worth it. Every so often I have to stop to admire the view and take a photo, knowing full well that when I get home I will have 80 very similar shots on my memory card. And this part of the 23-km long glacier isn’t even the deepest, wildest or widest bit. For that you have to go back up towards the Bernese Alps, where the ice is over 900m thick and 1.5km wide. That’s an awful lot of ice. In fact, if you melted the whole glacier, there’ be enough water for every person in the world to drink one litre a day for six years. Mind-boggling.

After almost four hours, including a leisurely panoramic lunch and many photo stops, we climb up to the last bit of path to Moosfluh for the cable-car back down. What an amazing walk, what an incredible sight. By the time we’re back in Brig, I notice how tired my legs are and how hot it is down in the valley away from that giant natural air conditioner. The Aletsch glacier has gone straight into my Top Ten list of things to see in Switzerland. If you want to know the others, just ask. And if you haven’t seen it yet, isn’t it time you did?

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5 Comments on "A trip to the ice edge"

  1. Ania Friday July 23rd, 2010 at 02:47 PM · Reply

    Truly a magnificent place! But it kind of is going somewhere (with the glaciers melting, global warming and all that).

    • swisswatching Friday July 23rd, 2010 at 03:26 PM · Reply

      Unfortunately, you’re right. The only place it is going is backwards, retreating up the valley.

  2. Mark Howells-Mead Wednesday July 28th, 2010 at 09:09 AM · Reply

    After nearly ten years in Switzerland, your blog post has inspired me to finally get off my a**e and get up there myself this weekend. 🙂

    • swisswatching Wednesday July 28th, 2010 at 09:20 AM · Reply

      Do it! It really is worth it. The walk we did (Bettmerhorn down to Roti Chumme and then along and up to Moosfluh) was not that hard and gives great views for not a lot of effort. Of course, you could just go to Bettmerhorn and do the five-minute walk to the viewpoint…

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