Written by Luke and Hazel Robertson, our Explorers-in-Residence who have just returned from a year spent living in Europe.
Skis balanced delicately over one shoulder, we climbed higher. The weight of each laboured step in heavy boots caused the metal steps to shudder and a clanging noise to reverberate around the valley. This was no mountaineering ascent. Instead, we were travelling back in time; every few minutes revealed another small plaque drilled into the ice-worn rock. 2017. 2013. 2008. Then finally our eyes spotted it: 2001.
We stopped and looked back down from where we had come – the scale of change in our short lifetime felt hard to comprehend. The valley had disappeared below us; the sea of ice felt so far away.
Nestled high above the Chamonix Valley, the Mer de Glace (or “sea of ice”) dominates the landscape of a smaller valley tucked away below the Mont Blanc massif, to the south of Chamonix town. Created by the confluence of the Glacier de Leschaux and the Glacier du Tacul, it covers an area of over 30 square kilometres – about twice the size of Perth, Scotland – and weaves over 11 kilometres through the valley it carved. Although it is the longest and largest glacier in France and the second longest in the Alps, the Mer de Glace used to be much, much bigger.
Glaciers are formed through the gradual build up of snow which eventually becomes denser and forms ice. The sheer weight of this accumulation of ice causes glaciers to move downhill or “flow” plastically, much like a river. It wasn’t until the mid 18th Century, however, that the Scottish physicist James David Forbes helped unlock this theory by observing the movement of light and dark bands, linked to the seasonal movement of the glacier, on the Mer de Glace itself.
The sheer scale of the Mer de Glace has frightened, inspired and captivated visitors for hundreds of years. Throughout most of the “little ice age” of 1300 – 1870, the glacier spilled all the way down to the Chamonix Valley and could still be seen from the town itself until 1820. Its shrinking size, but growing appeal led to the construction, in 1908, of the steeply winding Montenvers rack and pinion railway, which shuttles ice-worshippers up to a large Victorian Hotel overlooking the glacier. Both train and hotel are busier than ever today.
Geography has always been a big part of our lives. In secondary school we were in the same geography class and were fortunate to have a passionate teacher, who is now a good friend. Such was the dedication shown to this rabble that he used his free time to plan summer field trips for the pupils he taught. One such adventure took us on an inspiring and memorable trip to the bustling mountain town of Chamonix.
And so in 2001, as fellow enthusiasts had done almost a century before, we stepped fresh-faced onto the carriage of the red mountain train to take us up to Montenvers. After descending on a short cable car, then climbing down 118 steps to the ice, we found ourselves entering the Mer de Glace itself.
We both remember feeling like we were underwater – the deep mineral blues, the air bubbles hanging in the ice, and the glacial debris floating there for millennia, suspended in time and space. It was, and is, a living, breathing relative to the long extinct glaciers that scoured and shaped the Scottish landscape we knew so well. From then on, the imagery of our homeland’s valleys took a new and enlightened form. It was hard to imagine, during those moments inside the glacier, that something so still and beautiful could bulldoze its way through mountains.
Now, seventeen years later, the Mer de Glace was about to evoke that same mixture of wonder and respect. Ahead was a 16km ski descent over the glacier itself, which was covered in perfect spring snow on this bluebird April day. As well as being on constant alert to stay clear of any crevasses, we paused a few times to catch our breath. Each time we listened, the sound of rockfall from the steep valley sides offered a stark reminder of the unstable environment we were immersed in, caused by the rapidly receding glacier.
Finally, with tired legs, we reached the bottom of the steps which we thought would allow an easy exit from the glacier. The top, however, looked a lot further away than we had remembered as teenagers. After 480 steps we reached the bottom of the cable car; in 2001, it had taken us 118. If we had been there in 1988 it would have taken just 3.
The Mer de Glace has been transformed on a timescale that we can comprehend – that of our own lifetimes. Since the turn of the 19th Century, the glacier has lost over 1400m from its length and a recent conservative estimate forecasts it will lose a further 1200m over the next 20 years. Here the laws of nature, where larger tends to mean proportionally slower, seem to have been ignored.
Climate change can often feel too complex an issue, and it can be hard to grasp the scale of changes that it brings without witnessing them. For us, walking an additional 362 steps past that plaque of seventeen years ago and watching as the glacier dropped away into the distance was a sobering experience. But also a source of motivation. Like that final climb, the steps towards climate change solutions are in place, but unless action is taken each year the distance to that goal will only increase. It can be achieved, we just need decision makers to move more quickly, and drag their feet a little less than we did that day.