(Illustration by Guy Billout)

Fire and Ice

A journey to the cradle of climbing reveals a strange new alpine environment, where glaciers are melting, mountains are falling, and nothing is as it was

Illustration by Guy Billout

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WE’D HEARD RUMORS that the Alps were decomposing, but we ignored them. Europeans can be so querulous, so theatrical, waving their arms as if the sky were falling. John Harlin III and I had been planning this trip for half a dozen years, and we weren’t about to change our minds. And, for John, this particular late-summer journey was considerably more than the usual climber’s hajj—a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the sport.

John’s father, John Elvis Harlin II, died on the north face of the Eiger in March 1966 when his rope snapped and he fell 4,000 feet. He was 30, and John was ten. Harlin II is still remembered in Switzerland for his California charm and his many first ascents. Not surprisingly, the north face of the 13,025-foot Eiger has long preoccupied Harlin III, now 47, an accomplished climber and the editor of The American Alpine Journal.

After many other trips together, we’d finally come to climb the macabre Mordwand, or “Death Cliff” (a play on Nordwand, as the Eiger’s north face is called). It would be a first for both of us. But we were too late.

“The Eiger has changed completely,” Nicho Mailäer told us upon our arrival in Geneva. A peerless climbing historian, Mailäer is one of the authors of The Tyrol Declaration, a pioneering manifesto on mountaineering ethics and environmental responsibility that was adopted by the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme in 2002. “It is not the mountain it used to be. To climb it this summer, particularly, would be very, very dangerous.”

“The Eiger per se no longer exists,” he continued. “There used to be three main icefields on the Eiger. Over the last five years, they have all but vanished. In their place are slick, 50-degree limestone slopes covered in rubble. Rubble which tends to slide off. Who wants to climb rubble? No. I’m sorry, but nowadays, the Eiger can only be safely climbed in winter.”

Given that more than 45 climbers have died on the Eiger, safely is a relative term. So much for the Eiger. It was almost a relief.

So John and I went directly to Plan B: a new route on the Fréney Face of Mont Blanc. Rising to 15,771 feet and straddling France and Italy, Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps, and the Fréney Face is its most difficult wall. Free from the shadow of John’s personal tragedy, however, it seemed to us a comparatively easy alternative.

But when we got there, the news was the same. “C’est suicide!” announced the French caretaker of the Franco Monzino Hut, a fortresslike hostel on the Italian side of the mountain. “Mont Blanc est ruiné.”

The crevasses were hanging open like the mouths of a thousand dragons. The summit snowfields were running with water and setting off torrents of stone. Couloirs that alpinists had used to reach the massif’s climbing routes for generations had melted. With balmy obstinancy, John and I decided to go up and have a look for ourselves. Despite a foul-weather forecast, we departed the Monzino lodgings laden with more than a week’s worth of food and fuel, a complete wall rack of climbing gear, and Jacques Barzun’s 900-page history From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life from 1500 to the Present.

Throughout the day, scrambling vigilantly toward the Eccles Hut, two-thirds of the way up the peak, we heard rockslides thundering all around us. Ice and snow had been the glue that held the crumbling layers of rock to the substrata. Without it, every hand- and foothold was appallingly loose, balanced at the angle of repose. Pull out or nudge off one rock and thousands of tons of jagged blocks could begin slipping downward like a calamitous escalator.

Still, we kept climbing. Denial is a powerful thing.

THIS PAST SUMMER in Europe was the hottest in recorded history. New highs were set north to south, east to west. In England—where people are accustomed to wearing tweeds in July—the mercury shot above 100 degrees for the first time since people began measuring. In Switzerland, the temperature spiked in August to a Saharan 107 degrees. From the Netherlands south to Italy, at least 35,000 people, many of them elderly, perished from dehydration and heatstroke. France, which was hit the hardest, attributed some 15,000 deaths to the six-week heat wave.

In the Alps, several massive rock towers collapsed on the 14,691-foot Matterhorn in mid-July, stranding some 70 climbers and temporarily closing the mountain. In early August, a series of enormous rockslides swept down the usually climbable west face of 12,237-foot Le Petit Dru, knocking out a chunk of the legendary Bonatti Pillar. By mid-August, the three customarily safe snow marches up the Mont Blanc massif had become death traps: the Grands Mulets route threatened by collapsing ice cliffs, the Traverse route menaced by a labyrinth of yawning crevasses, and the Goûer route plagued by rockfall. After two hikers were killed by falling rock below the Goûer route in mid-August, alpine guides stopped taking any bookings for Mont Blanc, effectively shutting down the peak for the first time in its 217-year climbing history. In 1760, Professor Horace-Bénédict de Saussure of Geneva offered a reward of 20 gold talers for the first ascent of Mont Blanc. The prospect of climbing this behemoth of groaning glaciers was so intimidating that no one took him up on the offer for 15 years. It would require ten more years and ten attempts before Frenchmen Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat reached the summit, on August 8, 1786. They had neither crampons nor rope, and they bivouacked in the snow, wrapped in wool blankets.

The first woman to summit Mont Blanc was Marie Paradis, from Chamonix, in 1808. The world’s first recorded climbing catastrophe occurred on the mountain in 1820, when an avalanche swept five guides into a crevasse, killing three. Ascents of all the satellite summits—Grandes Jorasses, Les Droites, Petit Dru, Aiguille de Grepon—were accomplished before the turn of the 20th century; the innumerable difficult routes were put up on these same spires during the last century.

Today, the vast, intricately incised Mont Blanc massif remains an icon of mountaineering.

As long as there’s snow.

FOLLOWING A SNUG NIGHT in the Eccles Hut, John and I scampered up the slag heap of steep talus to a knobby pinnacle called Punta Eccles. The entire southeastern side of Mont Blanc, in all its intimidating splendor, rose before us. To the left, the Brouillard Face; to the right, the Fréney Face; and the two separated by the jagged Innominata Ridge.

Rivers of stone were cascading down the Brouillard Face, but the Fréney Face appeared pacific. Then the sun pulled itself above the morning haze and, minutes later, rockslides began ricocheting down between the Fréney’s four main rock pillars. The top of Mont Blanc seemed to have been hit with a mortar. Stones came rumbling down the face—one the size of a van, bouncing like a rubber ball.

The roar diminished. “Guess that clinches that,” John said.

As the hut keeper had predicted, fusillades of rockfall made climbing the Fréney Face out of the question. Desperate, we began glassing the Innominata Ridge, directly above us, our eyes drawn to a red granite pillar split by a gorgeous dihedral. “It’s never been climbed!” I enthused. This I knew from a visit to the Office de Haute Montagne, in Chamonix, a constantly updated library of Mont Blanc climbing routes.

“Might be because of that ten-foot icicle dangling from the first overhang,” John replied. Two hours later we were at the base of the pillar.

“I wouldn’t waste time when you’re directly below the icicle,” John remarked. It was a delicate way of saying that if it broke off at the wrong time, you might be cleaved in two.

After 60 feet, I was below the icicle, fist-jamming in the overhang right beside it, when the back of my shoulder accidentally glanced against the monster tooth and the whole thing let loose.

Miraculously, all the head-crushing junk missed John.

“Good work!” he bellowed.

In less than two hours we were standing atop the 200-foot pillar, talking big about our new route.

It was late, 4:30 p.m. There were only two shorter pillars above us, and our first ascent of the Super Directissima —as we had modestly named it—would be complete. But heavy clouds and buffeting winds were rolling in; the foretold winter weather was arriving right on schedule. If we continued, we’d have to rappel down—or, worse, bivy high—in the snowstorm.

John had a different idea: “We leave most of our rock gear up here, snow blows through, then we come back up and knock this baby out.”

It seemed to make perfect sense, so we bailed. All the way back down to the Eccles Hut.

“THE WORLD’S CLIMATE is getting warmer,” Professor Andy Kääb, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich’s World Glacier Monitoring Service, tells me. “There has been a one- to two-degree-centigrade increase in the past century, and much of this occurred in the past 50 years.”

What’s a couple degrees? Plenty. It turns out the alpine glaciers in Europe and the Himalayas, as well as most in North and South America, are “temperate”—the ice hovers right at freezing—and are therefore extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. The air warms just a degree or two and it’s like moving an ice cube from the freezer into the fridge: It’ll melt—slowly but surely.

“Glaciers in the Alps are receding at unprecedented rates,” says Kääb, his office walls papered with grainy satellite images of the world’s glaciers. “We have also documented dramatic down-wasting”—a shrinking of ice thickness—”of the large glaciers. At the present rate of global warming, it is probable that all the small glaciers in the Alps will disappear entirely in the next 100 years.”

Within 20 years, he predicts, the Alps’ few remaining summer ski areas will likely close, as will many low-elevation winter ski areas. Only the upper reaches of the larger winter ski areas will have dependable natural snow; and base lodges and lifts built on present-day permafrost will begin to collapse. Climbing routes and their approaches will continue to change, rendering older guidebooks frustratingly inadequate at best, dangerously inaccurate at worst. Meltwater will increase, swelling rivers and temporarily generating abundant hydropower. The permafrost line will rise, unleashing ice avalanches and landslides. Glacial lakes—water where there used to be ice, held in place only by loose terminal moraines—will burst their tenuous natural dams and flood the valleys below. Dozens of towns and cities in Europe lie in the line of fire.

“The Alps as we know them,” Kääb says, “are disintegrating before our eyes.”

AS IF TO CONVINCE US otherwise, the storm clamped down on Mont Blanc that night. By morning the incessant thunder of rockslides had stopped. A small drop in air temperature, a fresh coat of snow, and the mountain suddenly went silent. Cracking the troll-size door of the Eccles Hut, brilliant white light and snowflakes sprayed into the room. Back to bed.

The next morning, ditto.

The morning after that, ditto.

So much snow had fallen that going up or down would have been tricky. But we were safe in our tiny cliff dwelling, and—as the case may be—happy (John) or claustrophobic (me).

John began reading aloud the best bons mots from Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence:

“Dessert without cheese is like a pretty girl with only one eye.”

“We cannot be wrong, because we have studied the past and we are famous for discovering the future when it has taken place.”

While the snowstorm railed, Barzun revealed to us through numerous examples how persistently and valiantly humankind has been grappling with the tough issues—equality, poverty, liberty, and justice—and how discouragingly slow we have been to devise lasting solutions.

The storm broke late on the fourth day. John and I plowed up through one to two feet of fresh, wet, surprisingly stable snow to Punta Eccles to determine the possibilities of completing the Super Directissima.

“Doesn’t look that bad,” I said.

“No, it really doesn’t,” replied John.

Somehow, we still believed things had not changed enough to warrant a change of plans.

IF THE ALPS ARE transmogrifying so radically, what about the other mountain ranges of the world?

An August 2001 United Nations report cited “a rapid retreat of nearly all glaciers” in the Himalayas and the Karakoram from 1860 to 1980. A UN team dispatched to Nepal’s Everest region found that compared with 50 years ago, when the peak was first climbed, the area is now “unrecognizable as ice has retreated up the mountain.” The glacier that was once at the foot of nearby Island Peak is now a mile-long, 330-foot-deep lake that is imperiling villages downstream—just one of 20 new glacial lakes in Nepal that the UN identifies as being “in danger of bursting its banks.”

In Africa, Ohio State geologist Lonnie Thompson has found that 33 percent of the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro has disappeared since 1980, 82 percent since 1912; last January, a chunk of the mountain’s Furtwängler Glacier dislodged and rained down on the summit crater. Mount Kenya’s famous Diamond Couloir ice route, put up in 1977 by Yvon Chouinard and Mike Covington, is now nothing but an ugly rock gully.

In the Snowy Mountains of Australia, the tree line has jumped 100 feet, after 300 to 500 years of stasis. John Morgan, a botanist at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, believes Australia could lose its precious alpine ecosystem entirely within the next 70 years.

In the south-central Peruvian Andes, the Quelccaya ice cap has shrunk by 20 percent since 1963. Eight mountaineers were killed in July when a giant block of ice near the summit of 19,511-foot Alpamayo broke loose. Thirty-five climbers have died in the Andes in the last five years, almost twice as many as in the previous five-year period—a jump locals attribute to unstable conditions.

Of course, it’s not just glaciers and tundra that are feeling the heat. Sea levels have risen four to ten inches in the last hundred years and could rise another two to three feet in the coming century, threatening coastal cities from New York to Shanghai. With rising global temperatures, the mosquito has extended its range, bringing malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile virus to previously unafflicted regions. Other species, such as North America’s pika—a rabbitlike mammal deftly adapted to alpine terrain—are on the decline: In the 2003 Journal of Mammalogy, Erik Beever, of the U.S. Geological Survey, cited a 28 percent reduction in the animal’s population across the West between 1898 and 1999, due largely to warmer temperatures.

As for the much-debated cause of global warming, the answers are slowly becoming clear. Even the U.S., one of only 15 nations that has not ratified the fundamental 1992 Kyoto Protocol, has conceded the predominance of scientific proof. “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing global mean surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise,” states the EPA’s 2002 U.S. Climate Report, which identifies automobile use, oil refining, and electrical power generation as primary offenders.

JOHN AND I WERE UP before our alarm went off and out before we were awake. The steps we’d postholed the night before gave us confidence until we began scratching our way up the granite arte. The rock was thickly glazed with multiple layers of ice and snow. The new route we’d begun five days earlier in the heat wave of summer was now a winter climb. We were forced to use crampons and ice axes to ascend what we had originally climbed with rock shoes and bare hands.

We reached our gear, buried beneath two feet of snow, at dawn, but the sky was black with fresh storm clouds. The consequences of continuing up would likely be severe: a cold bivouac, frozen toes, perhaps worse. We had been defying and denying the conditions on Mont Blanc from the start, but such impertinence was no longer tenable.

Sometimes, when you have all the evidence you need, you just have to accept it—and then change course. After ten days of ignoring the obvious, it was time to cut ourselves loose.

“We’ve got to go down,” yelled John through the swirling snow.

So we did.

From Outside Magazine, Dec 2003 Lead Photo: Illustration by Guy Billout