When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory famously replied “Because it is there.” There is something undeniably attractive about scaling both massive peaks in the Greater Ranges and more humble hills in the British Isles. Sadly, the question now seems to be, “But for how much longer?”

When Climate Change can’t be denied

There has been no shortage of articles and commentaries on the impact we are having on the planet; the changes we are making and the damage we are inflicting on our one and only home.

Somehow, there are also people out there who not only seem oblivious to this but actively deny that this is the case. I’m afraid I am neither smart enough, nor knowledgeable enough, to argue about the concrete facts of either case. I can, however, talk about some of the entirely undeniable changes in the place I call home.

The Chamonix valley is surrounded by some of the most majestic and incredible mountains in the entire world, queen amongst them is the highest point in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, at 4,810m.

The polished rock on the walls of the Vallée Blanche

The polished rock on the walls of the Vallée Blanche caused by thousands of years of ice grinding past.

In every direction, from town, you see red spires of granite, giant snow gullies and snow capped-peaks, and seas of ice pouring down towards town. It is not surprising that people have flocked here for centuries. How close you can come to the wilds of the big mountains is unparalleled.

I first arrived in Chamomix in 2010, wide-eyed and in utter awe of the steep walls and unknown, to me, mountains as far as the eye could see. We set out to climb Mont Blanc and I was very fortunate to have a safe and successful summit bid. En route we walked under leaning seracs, crossed open crevasses, and scaled steep snow and ice to stand on top of Europe. Back then, I was utterly none the wiser to how much it had not just changed in the last 10, 20, and more years but how much it would change in my time here.

Old guides often tell stories of how the noses of the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers used to come all the way down to town. Old photos from 50 years ago show farm animals grazing right up to the snouts. Now, it is a long hike to get even close.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Mer de Glace.

The Mer de Glace

Victorian mountaineering. Photo Chamonet

Victorian mountaineering. Photo Chamonet

There are some terrifying and spectacular paintings and prints of 19th century mountaineers negotiating aggressive and precarious glaciers. I often looked at these and thought that a pinch of artistic license was used. The artists wanted to play up the bravery and valour of these crazed climbers.

Though I sadly can’t find it now, I then stumbled across a photo from the early 1900s that showed the Mer de Glace, Sea of Ice, in all its glory however. It was simply incredible. Jutting seracs, gaping crevasses, and just going on and on as far as the eye can see.

Today, it is a very different story.

Taking the train up to the Montenvers station, you used to arrive almost immediately on the glacier. As the glacier receded ladders were bolted to the smooth rock walls to allow climbers and tourists alike descend onto the icy desert.

And then it receded more. Eventually it became too far for tourists to down climb and a gondola was added.

Then it receded even more. New stairs and ladders were added. And not, there are rumours of a second lift being installed. But how long will that be useful?

When you ski the classic off piste outing of the Vallée Blanche, later in the season when the snow is melting and skiing down to town is not possible, you climb these stairs and ladders to take the train back down to town. On the way up, you are reminded of the stark difference in levels of the glacier.

Passing the sign for 2005

Passing the sign for 2005

After several flights of stairs you are greeted by a plaque on the wall “Level of the glacier 2005”. In just 10 years the glacier has dropped well over 15m vertical. As you carry on up you pass more and more signs. Each one, more unbelievable than the previous.

What do we do?

Whether we are a direct cause of this or not, it does not really matter nor change the fact that the world is most definitely suffering. Is it a natural cycle? I don’t know. What I do know is that there are things we can do to slow it down.

I love these mountains. I want to climb and explore them for many years to come. I want to be able to take my children out into them. Even my grandchildren.

If that is going to be possible then we need to start doing something about it.

I’ll be honest, I am very ignorant to what is possible. Of course, the carbon footprint of any gasoline-based travel is a huge influence, locals also site poorly built and energy inefficient housing too. There are most definitely hundreds of strategies that I could easily adopt to help limit my own impact on the environment and this place I call home.

As I look to travel to the Greater Ranges this summer to follow my dreams of climbing bigger mountains, I have to seriously consider “Is it worth it?”. Is the satisfaction I will get from attempting such an expedition worth more than the damage I may cause?

Do I act selfishly and climb as much as I can, with little thought for the impact it has, so that I can climb these mountains before they are gone? Or should I not, and do what I can to preserve them for future generations.

This is a subject I am going to research more and find out what I can do, what I shouldn’t be doing, and how I can help spread the message of responsible enjoyment of these frozen giants.

Please, if any of you have information that may help, I would love to talk. You can email me at charley@digitalsteak.com.

So far in just 25 years. Glacier level in 1990

So far in just 25 years. Glacier level in 1990

by Charley Radcliffe

2 Responses to “Because it is there. For now.”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)