Gear discovered alongside the climber’s body. (Photo: Valais Canton Police)

A Melting Swiss Glacier Has Revealed Human Remains—Again

Retreating ice continues to yield bodies across the Alps

Valais Canton Police

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In the middle of the hottest July on record, a pair of hikers in the mountains above Zermatt, Switzerland, discovered the body of a climber who had disappeared decades before. The human remains had been entombed in ice just a short distance from an international ski resort, and near the route up the famed Matterhorn. The discovery occurred on July 12.

Local authorities have released few details about the climber beyond the basic timeline of his disappearance. “In September 1986, a German climber, who was 38 at the time, had been reported missing after not returning from a hike,” the local police department said in a statement. His remains were identified using DNA tests at a local hospital, the release said, but authorities have not released the climber’s identity.

Police also released a photo showing a pair of crampons, a single black leather boot, a gray piece of fabric, and a length of rope resting on ice.

How the climber lost his life is still unclear. The mountains surrounding Zermatt are popular and infamously deadly, and several hundred people have died while attempting the Matterhorn. In 2018 alone, ten climbers perished on the mountain.

The location of the body gives few clues about his cause of death. He was found along the Theodul Glacier, rather than at the base of a notorious Matterhorn route. The upper portion of the glacier is more than 12,000 feet above sea level, and it sits adjacent to Zermatt Ski Resort—parts are served by multiple chairlifts. In the summer, the glacier is popular with hikers, who regularly traverse it in short-sleeve shirts. In 1965, someone even crossed the route on a bicycle. A gondola line, constructed in the 1970s, provides a panoramic view of the ice flow on its way to a luxury viewing lodge, complete with a restaurant and a theater.

Despite its proximity to buildings and chairlifts, the area presents dangers for outdoor recreation users—storms often descend on the area and trap hikers on the snow.

“It doesn’t matter really how tame the glacier is,” says Dave Miller, owner of guiding company Alpine International Guides. “You get caught in one of those alpine storms, and even if you’re close to the ski resort, that can do you in right there. You can literally be a half mile from the ski resort and not be able to find it.”

The location where the climber was discovered isn’t necessarily where he disappeared. Glaciers slowly flow downhill, and can carry bodies miles from their original locations. And as climate change melts the ice, that flow accelerates.

In recent years, the retreating glaciers across the Alps have revealed ancient relics, archaeological discoveries, and yes, human remains. In 2017, a French climber found three bodies on the Italian side of Mont Blanc—authorities believe the three had died two decades earlier. That year a ski resort worker in Zermatt found the bodies of a couple who disappeared in 1942 while herding cattle in their mountain pasture.

Last summer, multiple hikers in Switzerland made similarly gruesome discoveries. In July, hikers found a mummified body clad in 1980s-style clothing on the Stockji Glacier; in August, a French climber found skeletal remains in the retreating Chessjen Glacier in Valais, Switzerland. Then, on August 4, debris from a plane crash emerged from the ice on the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland’s Bermese Alps. The plane, a Piper Cherokee, had crashed on June 30, 1968.

The Theodul Glacier has also produced human remains from bygone eras. In 1985, archaeologists found coins, a dagger, and remains of a human thigh bone amid the retreating ice. Subsequent digs in the area unearthed the body of a merchant who had perished during a crossing in the 1600s, wearing a thin pair of leather shoes.

The melting glaciers around Zermatt are bound to reveal more finds like this. According to the news site, roughly 200 people have disappeared in the mountains of Valais Canton, where Zermatt sits.

That a body could be found so close to an international ski resort illustrates how dramatically the Alps are changing due to climate change. More than a quarter of Theodul Glacier has melted over the last 50 years. That melt has been dramatic enough to trigger a border squabble between Italy and Switzerland—Theodul Glacier sits on a ridge between the two countries, and its retreat has slowly pushed an Italian alpine refuge onto Swiss territory.

This past winter dealt an especially bad blow to the Alps’ glaciers: temperatures in Switzerland rose above 60 degrees Fahrenheit around Christmas, and six percent of the country’s glacier mass disappeared in 2022. More areas that were once covered in ice are now exposed—and items that were stuck in the glacier are also thawing out. So common are these discoveries that the Valais Canton produced a smartphone app, called Icewatcher, which allows hikers to photograph tools, wood, or even human remains that they find on the edge of the ice, and alert the local archaeological department.

Lead Photo: Valais Canton Police