Friday, December 31, 2021

The Matterhorn sways

Why John Ruskin might have welcomed the latest research

For those who see mountains as dynamic creations rather than dead matter, confirmation has just come in from the savants. A team of German, Swiss and American researchers has discovered that the Matterhorn sways – or resonates – about once every two seconds.

The Matterhorn from the moat of the Riffelhorn, by John Ruskin
Image courtesy of the Ruskin Collection, Museum of Sheffield

Seismometers hooked up near its summit, flank and foot showed that the Matterhorn oscillates in both a north-south and in an east-west direction, each at a frequency of 0.42 Hertz. The energy for these vibrations comes from earthquakes and tidal movements. They move the Matterhorn’s summit – albeit by microscopic amounts – more than they do its base.

For a more detailed account of the research, see the excellent write-up in the Daily Mail – always quick to spot a good celeb story – or, if you prefer a more scholarly rendition, the one published by Switzerland’s Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. Don’t forget to listen to the sound recordings, amped up for human hearing.

Ruskin by Millais
News that the Matterhorn sings in its sleep probably wouldn’t have fazed John Ruskin (1819-1900). Although best known as an art critic and promoter of mountain scenery, he once said that if his parents had allowed him more freedom he would have become “probably the first geologist of my time in Europe”.

Be that as it may, the great critic had an intuitive sense of stone. Take his extraordinary riff on “slaty crystallines”, the gneiss-type rocks that for the most part make up the Matterhorn. In tracing their wavy structure to some "strange quivering of their substance", he seems almost to have anticipated the latest research:

We yield ourselves to the impression of their eternal, unconquerable stubbornness of strength; their mass seems the least yielding, least to be softened, or in anywise dealt with by external force, of all earthly substance.

And, behold, as we look farther into it, it is all touched and troubled, like waves by a summer breeze; rippled, far more delicately than seas or lakes are rippled: they only undulate along their surfaces—this rock trembles through its every fibre, like the chords of an Eolian harp—like the stillest air of spring with the echoes of a child’s voice. Into the heart of all those great mountains, through every tossing of their boundless crests, and deep beneath all their unfathomable defiles, flows that strange quivering of their substance.

They .[the mountains] … are yet, also ordained to bear upon them the symbol of a perpetual Fear: the tremor which fades from the soft lake and gliding river is sealed, to all eternity, upon the rock; and while things that pass visibly from birth to death may sometimes forget their feebleness, the mountains are made to possess a perpetual memorial of their infancy,—that infancy which the prophet saw in his vision: “… I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled; and all the hills moved lightly.”

Fragment of the Alps, by John Ruskin
Courtesy of the Havart Art Museum, Cambridge MA


Samuel Weber, Jan Beutel, Mauro Häusler, Paul Geimer, Donat Fäh, Jeff Moore, “Spectral amplification of ground motion linked to resonance of large-scale mountain landforms”, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 2021, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2021.117295

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol IV, Chapter IX, “Of the materials of mountains: secondly, slaty crystallines"

Friday, December 24, 2021

Motivations of the Maoist mountaineers

On May 27, 1975, nine Chinese mountaineers successfully ascended the world's highest peak, Qomolangma Feng (Mount Jolmo Lungma), from its north slope, thanks to the loving care and attention of Chairman Mao and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and to the wholehearted support of the people throughout the country....

 … Their remarkable feat in the conquest of nature, the second of its kind accomplished by Chinese mountaineers, was a triumph of Chairman Mao's proletarian revolutionary line, another creditable achievement of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius.

Thus begins Another Ascent of the World’s Highest Peak: Qomolangma, published by Peking’s Foreign Languages Press soon after the event. This was the second Chinese expedition to the mountain that some recidivist elements still call Everest. The first one in 1960 had completed the north ridge route to the summit, as originally prospected by the British expeditions of the 1920s.

The 1975 expedition was notable for the participation of 36 women climbers and support members, of whom one reached the top. This triumph is set out in a carefully worded paragraph:

The fact that during the Chinese expedition, a woman climber reached the summit of Qomolangma from the north side for the first time in world history, serves as a convincing proof of the great truth pointed out by Chairman Mao: "Times have changed, and today men and women are equal. Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too."

The summiteer mentioned above was Phantog (right), who was born as “daughter of a serf” in Tibet. When selected for training as a mountaineer – this was in 1959 – she was working for the “July First” State Farm in Lhasa.

Phantog very nearly became the first woman to summit Everest from any side – except that Japan’s Tabei Junko had pipped her to the post just 11 days earlier, reaching the summit via the southern route. But this was a disappointment that the anonymous authors of the Foreign Language Press book could not bring themselves to mention explicitly.

The book’s illustrations reveal much of the motivations that China’s mountaineers were obliged to profess during the last years of Chairman Mao’s tenure. The words in italics are the original English-language photo captions: 

Source of strength, guarantee for victory. Earnestly studying Chairman Mao's works they enhance their consciousness of the necessity of continuing the revolution and strengthen their determination to conquer the world's highest peak.

"Never forget bitter class oppression, firmly remember the blood and tears of the down-trodden!" A visit to an exhibition on class education in Lhasa, exposing the brutal oppression of the Tibetan people by the serf-owners, arouses burning hatred for the old society and strong love of the new in the minds of the mountaineers.

Study hard to combat and prevent revisionism and consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat. Secretary of the Party Committee of the Expedition Wang Fu-chou (second right), one of the three that reached the summit of Qomolangma for the first time ever from the north slope in 1960, and mountaineers at the 6,000-m. camp, study the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat to fortify their revolutionary will in scaling the world's highest peak.

Nothing can stop the advance of the mountaineering heroes armed with Mao Tsetung Thought. Here, they are seen struggling up a snowy slope at 7,400 m. in the teeth of ferocious altitude winds.

Women alpinists write big-character posters to criticize the reactionary fallacy preached by Lin Piao and Confucius, that "man is superior to woman," and to pledge their determination to win honour for socialist China by a successful climb of Qomolangma.

A new member is admitted into the Communist Party at the 8,200-m. camp.

Instantly Base Camp becomes alive with joy and excitement, shouts of "Long live Chairman Mao!" and "Long live the Chinese Communist Party!" echo through the valleys.

There is a coda to this expedition. Four years after their respective Everest ascents, Phantog met Tabei Junko at a climbers’ meet in Chamonix, where they were photographed together with Poland’s Wanda Rutkiewicz, the third woman to summit Qomolangma. The full story is told by Alison Osius, herself a climber of renown.

Photo by courtesy of Isabelle Agresti/Climbing

Phantog and Tabei were coevals, both born in 1939. Both combined full-time jobs with climbing, marriage and motherhood – Phantog had three children, and Tabei two. Each was a member of her country’s mountaineering elite. One wonders if they had a language in common and, if so, what they talked about at that long-ago encounter in Chamonix …


Another Ascent of the World's Highest Peak: Qomolangma
, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1975.

Alison Osius, The First Three Women to Climb Everest, Climbing online, March 2021.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Motivations of the scientist-mountaineer

The name of Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974) will live for ever in the annals of cosmology. In 1933, the Swiss astronomer was the first to postulate the existence of dark matter. And, to follow up, he predicted the existence of neutron stars, only two years after James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron itself. 

Fritz Zwicky demonstrates his crampon technique

Zwicky applied his talents widely. During the war years, he served, quite literally, as a rocket scientist, on the board of a company that pioneered JATO “bottles” for overloaded aircraft. Before he moved to the United States, he was also a hard-driving scientist-mountaineer, making several bold first ascents in the Alps of Glarus, his home canton. What follows is his take on what motivates a mountaineer:

As for the value of expanding our comfort zone, we should certainly not omit to mention the kind of risky adventure that we occasionally and deliberately undertake in the prime of our lives. If we achieve such an adventure, it not only lives in our memory as a striking episode, but it also strengthens our confidence that we will be able to unerringly trace the one path through life that suits our genius and which nobody else could follow. 

There are many such follies to choose from. I mention here only one example, which represented the summit of summits for ourselves as alpinists in my time. Non-alpinists ask again and again why we rush like madmen into the mountains. All kinds of answers have been given, the magnificence of nature, blowing off physical steam, the escape from everyday life, the joy of adventure (according to Schiller "And if you do not put your life at stake/Never will you gain your life"), and so on.

Fritz Zwicky in Zermatt, 1932

But I have never read the kind of reply that would apply to people like myself and my faithful mountain companions such as Professor Thadeus Reichstein of Basel University, namely this. In daily life, as well as in science, one rarely encounters problems that one can solve by oneself, quickly and completely. Even if one tackles some real-life problem with success, new issues always seem to emerge, and these we have to grapple with over time, perhaps over our entire lifespan. We therefore have a hankering for achievements that can be completed like a work of art, by ourselves and alone, and which nobody can deny us. The first ascent of a mountain, or of a difficult new route (such as one of those prized direttissimas), represents exactly such an achievement.

But even here, people are never completely satisfied and they’ll think up something that is artistically more compelling, harder still than the riskiest first ascent, even a solo one. I myself had two things in mind. The mountain I wanted to climb had to be a long ice face, at least sixty degrees steep, of hard blue ice into which you’d have to cut steps, tough work, a real man’s job. 

Zwicky's first ascent route on the Glärnisch north face

You can’t deal with rocks in this way; you have to cling to them, and there’s something effete about that – though the world’s great rock climbers will want to strangle me for this remark. And, to push things even further, I wouldn’t solo the ice face but I’d take with me a lady companion who wouldn’t be a top alpinist and so couldn’t help me with the step-cutting, but who’d nevertheless blindly trust me to bring her safely to the summit.

To this day, almost fifty years later, I’m amazed when I think back to that sunny day in August 1923, when I set off the Grünhornhütte on the Tödi at two o'clock in the morning with Leni Ott, a pianist from Glarus, and crossed the Biferten glacier heading towards the rarely climbed blue ice walls of Piz Urlaun.

More than fifty mountaineers were setting out at the same time to climb the Tödi (the highest mountain in the canton of Glarus), and some shouted to us that we must be on the wrong route. When we pointed to Piz Urlaun, half of them seem to have the breath taken from them. They forgot about the Tödi and sat down on the edge of the glacier, where they stayed all day following us with their binoculars, watching us as we worked our way up the hard blue ice for twelve hours, with me driving in ice-pitons to secure my companion. By four o'clock in the afternoon we were on the summit.

From one of my friends, an excellent alpinist, I later learned that one of her colleagues from the Swiss Ladies Alpine Club, who was observing our ascent, had told her that a total lunatic had dragged a young lady over the bergschrund, ice slopes and up the treacherous overhanging ice cliffs of Piz Urlaun. She said the man should be sent to a lunatic asylum.

Of course, the shackles of tradition don’t necessarily need to be shaken loose on the ice slopes of Piz Urlaun, the Marinelli Couloir of Monte Rosa, or on the north face of Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies. For the excellent advice to "do things differently" can be put into practice in many ways, and it doesn’t have to be a reckless one.


Fritz Zwicky, Jeder ein Genie: Der berühmte Astrophysiker revolutioniert unsere Denkmethode, Glarus Fritz-Zwicky-Stiftung, 1992 (translated text is from this book). 

Roland Müller, Alfred Stöckli, Fritz Zwicky: An Extraordinary Astrophysicist, Cambridge Scientific Publishers, 2011 (illustrations are from this book).

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Motivations: Because it has a high utility function

When a behavioural economist asks what motivates a mountaineer

“Because it’s there.” Ask mountaineers why they climb, and this is the kind of brush-off you’ll get, mumbled often as not through a tangled growth of expeditionary beard. Much better, perhaps, to put this question to, say, an expert in analysing and even quantifying the motives that drive people’s actions.

"Unrelenting misery from beginning to end ..."
An illustration from the Badminton Library: Mountaineering 

Such a specialist is George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon University. Not only is he a behavioural economist, one who seeks to give the dismal science a decent grounding in human psychology, but he admits to a mountain epic or two in his younger days.

In his essay "Because it is there: the challenge of mountaineering … for utility theory", Loewenstein's starting point is the concept first explored by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the English philosopher and jurist who now sleeps out his eternal bivouac at University College, London.

Scholars have already hypothesised that “utility” can arise from intangibles such as memorable experiences and social kudos. Even so, it’s hard to attach any utility to mountaineering or polar exploration, which – in Professor Loewenstein’s own words – so often “tends to be one unrelenting misery from beginning to end”.

So why do people do it? One answer, the professor posits, is “self-signalling”. That is, mountaineers may be seeking esteem, at least within their own circles. At this point, the professor cites Joe Simpson, who is certainly no stranger to unrelenting misery:

The truth seemed uncomfortably egotistical. I wanted to do only hard climbs, great north faces, impressive and daunting rock routes. I wanted a ‘tick list’ of hard routes under my belt.

If there is any utility here, Loewenstein suggests, it may lie as much in convincing oneself as in dazzling others.

If self-signalling brings climbers to the mountains, the dynamic of “goal completion” may be what keeps them there. Here Loewenstein summons to the witness stand Beck Weathers, who narrowly survived a high-altitude bivouac on Everest in 1996: his earlier failure to summit the mountain

had come to possess him, take hold of his life, and control his every waking moment. And he came back this year vowing that under no circumstance was he going to allow himself to be turned around again.

Summit fever is so well documented that it should need no further explanation, at least to readers of this blog. But, as a psychological phenomenon, it does raise an interesting question. If people like to set goals for themselves, why do they stick to them when the goals no longer make sense – as, for example, when an over-large party is strung out along a summit ridge late in the day with a storm threatening.

Instead of an answer to this question, Loewenstein has a hunch:

My own suspicion is that the drive toward goal establishment and goal completion is 'hard-wired'. Humans, like most animals and even plants, arc maintained by complex arrays of homeostatic mechanisms that keep the body's systems in equilibrium. Many of the miseries of mountaineering, such as hunger, thirst, and pain, are manifestations of homeostatic mechanisms that motivate people to do what they need to do to survive, such as taking in calories (hunger) and liquids (thirst) and avoiding tissue damage (pain) … The visceral need for goal completion, then, may be simply another manifestation of the organism's tendency to deal with problems … The only difference between the visceral need for goal completion and visceral feeling of hunger is that the former goal state is, in some sense, self-chosen.

This may also explain why mountaineers often feel a sense of disappointment when they reach the long-sought summit. Quite simply, the motivation for reaching the goal is much stronger than the pleasure any summit can afford. “The discrepancy between desire and satisfaction is also characteristic of other motives such as curiosity, envy and some forms of drug addiction,” the professor adds.

Yet a third motive for mountaineering may be a sense of mastery. Again, Joe Simpson is tapped for a quotation:

there is a perverse delight in putting oneself in a potentially dangerous situation, knowing that your experience and skill make you quite safe.

Curiously, an animal experiment seems to confirm the benefit conferred by a sense of control over one’s environment. Rats who were allowed to administer alcohol to themselves had lower thresholds for brain stimulation – ie enjoyed it more – than rats who had no control over their intake. So it may be that Mo Anthoine’s account of “feeding the rat” is more than just an apposite metaphor for the climbing experience.

As a final source of utility, Loewenstein considers a paradoxical possibility – that the very misery of high-altitude mountaineering confers meaning. Maurice Herzog, the first man to climb an 8,000-metre peak lost several fingers and parts of his feet to suppurating frostbite. But this ordeal, he reported:

has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.

Self-signalling, goal completion, mastery, meaning – none of these drivers are easy to define, let alone quantify. Yet they motivate at least some mountaineers far more strongly than classical economic stimuli such as the profit motive or increased consumption. Is that significant? Professor Loewenstein thinks it is:

The question, then, is whether mountaineers and mountaineering are unusual in the degree to which they are motivated by non-consumption-related motives. The answer, I believe, is that they are not. Although these non-consumption motives may be more important in mountaineering than in other activities, and better developed in mountaineers than in other people, the same motives can also be seen in most people's daily behavior.

Now that’s an interesting thought. If you could understand what drives mountaineers – if, mind – you’d be well on the way to understanding what motivates most everyone.


George Loewenstein, Because It Is There: The Challenge of Mountaineering ... for Utility Theory, Kyklos, vol 52, 1999.

Illustration from C T Dent, The Badminton Library: Mountaineering, third edition, 1901, ex libris Nancy Sandars.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Fact into fiction

How a mountain writer of the belle époque borrowed from real life

Mountain writers who climb at a high standard often seem to emphasise the dark side of alpinism. Think Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, or Mark Twight in Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber.

The Matterhorn's west face, seen from the Dent d'Herens
Photo by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery

n an earlier generation,the Swiss author and alpinist Charles Gos (1885–1949) was no exception to this pattern. Alpine Tragedy, his account of 25 selected mountain accidents, delivers amply on its lugubrious title; a subsequent novel has two of its three protagonists fall to their deaths from a north face, and Gladys, the heroine of the eponymous short story translated for this blog, meets her end in a rockfall.

For the time – Gladys is set at the end of the belle époque – Gos's creation is an unusual figure, even in fiction. We are first properly introduced to her as an accomplished concert pianist, playing at a soirée hosted by a senior personage of Britain’s Alpine Club, but it is in the mountains that her star burns brightest. With her husband, the Count of Fairness, she blazes a trail across the Alps. And what a trail:

… the couple continued a brilliant series of ascents: the Aiguille Verte by the Moine ridge, the Géant by the north face, the Dent Blanche by the Ferpècle ridge, the Dent d'Hérens by the hanging glacier that leads up to the Tiefenmattenjoch (the latter, a new route, if I'm not mistaken), and many other expeditions, all first-rate …

What is more, all these first-rate expeditions are conducted without guides – a more remarkable circumstance before the First World War than in the cash-strapped years that followed it. Gos even permits himself a brief disquisition on authentic guideless climbers as compared with less qualified ones:

A true guideless climber must bring together physical stamina and moral strength, which is a fundamental quality as necessary, if not more so, than instinct (which cannot be learned) when it comes to finding the least dangerous line or the best chimney in the middle of a cliff, or the strongest snow bridge on a glacier, or the slope least prone to avalanches.

Guideless climbers fall into two categories, the real ones and the make-believes. The former are as good as the best guides, or almost so; the second kind are just favoured by luck; let’s call them honorary guideless climbers. The Fairnesses clearly belonged to the first category, demonstrating their mastery, almost coquettishly, with a boldness that bordered on heroism.

Alas, fate all too soon catches up with the guideless couple. Descending from the Matterhorn’s Z’mutt Ridge one autumn afternoon, they are avalanched in the Penhall Couloir, a snow gully that seams the mountain’s western face. The Count staggers away to find help, while the heroine is left unconscious in the snow…

The Penhall Couloir on the Matterhorn's west face
Photo by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery

It’s hardly surprising that Gos was well-qualified to describe this scene. He knew the terrain well, having himself led what was probably the first guideless ascent of the Z’mutt ridge. And the accident to which he subjects his heroine came straight from a real-life disaster that happened some decades before.

Just like the Count and Countess of Fairness, the Austrian alpinist Guido Lammer and August Lorria – two leading proponents of guideless climbing – were descending the Penhall Couloir when they were avalanched. And just like the fictional couple, Lammer had to leave his companion lying senseless in the snow while he hastened down the glacier to find help at the Staffel Alp hut. Like Gladys, Lorria was rescued, recovered and later wrote up his experience, in his case as “An accident on the Matterhorn in 1887”.

Of course, fiction is very far from fact. In some respects, Charles Gos cleaves closely to the historical accident – the effects of severe concussion are one detail that he carries over into his short story. But other aspects of the 1887 accident – such the NDE-like thoughts that pass through Lammer’s mind as the avalanche carries him down – are left unexploited. As must always be the case, the consummate artist abstracts as much as he borrows from the real world.


Gladys, the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

An account of the 1887 accident taken from the English edition of Guido Rey’s The Matterhorn introduced and with two additional chapters by R L G Irving:

The aspect of the wall Penhall climbed is anything but encouraging, and Messrs. G. Lammer's and A. Lorria's experience of it on August 3rd, 1887, confirms the report of its difficulty and also shows up its danger. Dr. Guido Lammer described the events of that terrible day in the Oesterreichische Alpen Zeitung,vol. ix. no. 188, p. 205.

The two skilled mountaineers, without guides, were ascending the Tiefenmatten face by Penhall's route. At 1 p.m. they were on a level with the teeth on the Z'mutt spur. The face was glazed with black ice, and in a most dangerous condition. They decided to turn back. About five o'clock they were crossing the Penhall couloir when a small snow avalanche fell towards them from above. It did not strike them, but flowing down at their feet, it made them lose their balance and carried them down in a leap of 150 to 200 metres (500 to 600 feet).

Dr. Lammer related that during those very short moments a crowd of the most varied thoughts flashed through his mind with extraordinary clearness; and, while the consequences of such a fall were thoroughly evident to him he had time to think of his home, of a certain Alpine and literary controversy, of india-rubber balls rebounding with prodigious elasticity, etc. etc., all which led him to the conclusion that death by falling must be quite painless.

When at last they stopped Lammer felt an intense pain in his foot, which had been dislocated. His friend was lying motionless a short distance away. He had a terrible wound on his forehead and a broken leg; the rope, which had become much entangled during the fall, was compressing his neck; he was unconscious, and when he recovered consciousness he was seized with delirium, unbroken by any lucid interval.

Dr. Lammer attempted to drag him down-hill over the snow, but his companion howled with pain, cursed imaginary assassins, clutched himself with his hands, and rolled about on the avalanche snow. Lammer was prevented by his own condition and the difficulty of the place they were in, from making any other efforts to convey his friend downwards; he laid him on a mound of snow, threw his own jacket over his shoulders, and put his hands into a pair of stockings. He wished to tie him to a rock with the rope, but it seemed to him cruel to make it impossible for his friend to move if he should recover consciousness.

He shouted loudly and frequently for help, but no voice was heard in reply. He then descended alone, without an axe, without his coat, and without a hat; he dragged himself across the glacier to the Stockje hut on the opposite side. Finding no one there he resumed his journey, and limped and crawled, as best he could, down the long Z'Mutt glacier, till at nightfall he was knocking, quite exhausted, at the door of the Staffel Alp.

The relief party which he sent off reached the spot where Lorria was lying at eight inthe morning, and found him still unconscious. In his delirium he had torn off his clothes. Lorria suffered long from the effects of his fall.

This event was followed by a violent controversy. Some firmly maintained that the accident was due to the absence of guides, while others were convinced that it would have occurred just the same if a guide had been with the climbers. [Dr. Guido Lammer's writings show him to have had a morbid attraction for dangerous situations; hence, perhaps, the choice of Penhall's route. – R.L.G.Irving.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

No recovery for Switzerland's glaciers

The annual audit of snowfall, glacier wastage and permafrost depth in the Swiss Alps, as reported by the Cryospheric Commission of the Swiss Academy of Sciences

At low altitudes, the winter of 2019/20 saw the lowest level of snowfall ever. The loss of ice volume in Swiss glaciers continued in the summer of 2020, during which temperatures reached record highs. The influence of climate change on the cryosphere is very evident.

Meltwater channel on the Kanderfirn, 2018
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Weather and snow: little snow at low altitudes

In the winter of 2019/20, the mountains were covered with snow about two weeks earlier than normal, at the beginning of November. Record snowfalls for November occurred in some locations on the southern slopes of the Alps. 

Temperatures then reached record highs from December to February, more than 3°C over the long-term average.The following spring was also clearly too warm and characterised by a lot of sunshine. Below 1,000 metres, precipitation fell mostly as rain during the entire winter half-year. In terms of mean snow depth, this led to the winter with the least snow since measurements began, just ahead of 1989/90 and clearly ahead of 2006/07. 

At several stations, for example in Marsens/FR (718m), Einsiedeln/SZ (910m) or Elm/GL (965m), there had never before been so few snow days (days with at least 1 cm of snow). At some low-lying stations on the northern side of the Alps (eg Stans, Basel and Lucerne), no snow at all was recorded for the first time ever.

Above about 1,700 metres, however, snow depths were average in the northern Ticino and in the southern Valais, which was mainly due to the large snowfalls at the beginning of winter and in February.

Very warm between July and September 2020

With the exception of the measuring stations in southern Valais, the snow melted everywhere one to four weeks earlier than normal. The months of July to September 2020 were once again characterised by above-average temperatures. In contrast to the two previous hot summers, snow fell twice in August to just below 2000 metres. On the last weekend of September, the snowfall line on the north side of the Alps fell to as low as about 1,000 metres. Above that, 20 to 80 centimetres of fresh snow were recorded, which is unusual for this time of year, leaving the Alps in a thick white mantle.

Ice collapse on the Morteratsch Glacier, November 2011
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Glaciers: another 2% of ice volume lost

Between the autumns of 2019 and 2020, glacier loss continued relentlessly, but was somewhat less dramatic compared to the previous three measurement periods of 2016/17, 2017/18, and 2018/19. After average snow amounts were measured at the glaciers' elevations in early May, the summer melt was once again substantial. 

Over the entire year, low-lying shallow glaciers (eg the Glacier de Tsanfleuron/VS) showed an average reduction in ice thickness of two metres. Glaciers in southern Valais as well as in Ticino and the Engadin (eg the Findelgletscher and the Ghiacciaio del Basodino) lost only about half a metre in thickness, which can be attributed to the large amounts of snow in early winter as well as the positive effect of the summer snowfalls. 

The amount of snow on the Silvretta glacier in Graubünden was about the same as the average for the past decade. This shows that 2019/20 was not an extreme year in terms of the current situation - despite massive losses of about 2% of the remaining glacier volume in Switzerland. 

All glacier tongues are receding

The shrinkback of glacier tongues reflects weather conditions over a period of several years rather than the effects of a single year. Climatic conditions affect the position of the tongue with a varying lag depending on the tongue’s location. The fact that the autumn measurements showed a further reduction in the length of glaciers is therefore hardly surprising. 

With two exceptions, the glaciers showed a shrinkage of up to 25 metres. Massive recessions of more than 50 metres were seen at Kanderfirn/BE and Sankt Annafirn/UR. In both cases, the tongues have thinned out increasingly in recent years and have now literally disintegrated.

Block glacier in Val Sassa, 2021
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Permafrost: 11 metres of thaw layer on the Schilthorn 

On the 20th anniversary of the Swiss Permafrost Measurement Network Permos, all permafrost measurement parameters have reached or exceeded the record values posted in 2015.

Due to the early snowfall in autumn 2019, the permafrost accumulated a lot of heat. As a result, surface temperatures were above average, especially during the winter, while annual averages were in the range of the extremely warm years of 2003, 2015 and 2018. The high surface temperatures led to an increase in the depth of the thaw layer – the uppermost metres above the permafrost that thaw each summer. 

The previous record values were reached or exceeded everywhere, from 2.8 metres at Flüela/GR to 11 metres on the Schilthorn/BE. The latter is the deepest thaw layer ever measured in Swiss permafrost. Since the beginning of measurements in 1998, the depth at this location has more than doubled. Across Switzerland, the increase on the previous year ranges from a few centimetres to half a metre.

End of the short recovery

The short break in the warming trend that was seen after the snow-sparse winter of 2017 is definitely over. Permafrost temperatures are again similar to or even higher than in the previous record year of 2015. But the permafrost reacts to the changes at the surface only with a long lag time, implying that the warm conditions of recent years have not yet fully penetrated into the depths. 

The creep rates of rock glaciers generally follow the trend of permafrost temperatures. Compared with the previous year, they have again increased by an average of 20% on the previous year, exceeding the previous record values from 2015 in some cases.

Text: Matthias Huss, Christoph Marty, Andreas Bauder und Jeannette Nötzli

Retreat of the Forno Glacier
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

Appendix: New radar system used to measure glacier ice depth 

Data on the extent of glaciers and their ice thickness are of interest not just to alpinists but also to forecasters of future glacier retreat and runoff, as well as for the assessment of glacier-related natural hazards. In close cooperation with Swisstopo, the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network Glamos has therefore compiled a new detailed inventory of the country’s glaciated areas. In 2016, glacier ice covered 961 square kilometres or 2.3% of the country's surface.

In addition to the inventory, a project at ETH Zurich, a new type of helicopter-borne radar was used to measure the ice depth of all larger glaciers. Ice depth measurements are now available along a total track of more than 2,000 kilometers, which makes it possible to determine the total ice volume.

The volume of all Swiss glaciers for the reference year 2016 is estimated at 58.7±2.5 cubic kilometres. Distributed over the area of the whole of Switzerland, this corresponds to a water layer 1.3 metres deep. In line with the extent of the glaciers, ice volume is concentrated mainly in the Bernese and Valais Alps, but considerable volumes are also found in central and eastern Switzerland. 

The Great Aletsch glacier – the largest Alpine glacier at just under 80 square kilometres – accounts for 11.7 cubic kilometres of ice. Thus, it alone stores about 20% of Switzerland's glacier ice. By combining these results with annual measurement data, it is possible to determine what proportion of the existing ice has been lost. The numbers are impressive: since 2000, Swiss glaciers have lost just under a third of their remaining ice mass, and in an extreme year the loss can amount to more than 3% in a single year. 

The extent of glaciers and their depths can now be can now be viewed directly on the official online map of Switzerland at The map shows the most important most important parameters such as area, volume or the maximum and the average ice thickness for the respective glacier.


© Die Alpen, journal of the Swiss Alpine Club, 06 2021 edition. Originally published in German. This is an unofficial translation by MAGE/Captain. Images and charts of original article are not reproduced here. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Honouring the Hyakumeizan author's memory

Half a century has passed since Fukada Kyūya collapsed on a hike “among the mountains he loved” –the very words that should be used to describe such a fate, as he himself had once written. To mark this anniversary, an exhibition at the Fukui Museum of Literature (福井ふるさと文学館) will run until January next year.

Some might flag up an act of cultural appropriation here. For the Hyakumeizan author was born at Daishōji in neighbouring Ishikawa Prefecture, he lived for decades in Tokyo, and he died on Kaya-ga-dake (1704 metres) in Yamanashi. But Fukada’s mother came from Fukui, he went to school there, and he later anointed Arashima-dake, a Fukui meizan, as one of his hundred mountains. So this prefecture too has a claim on him.

The exhibition casts its net widely. As one might expect, mementoes of the Hyakumeizan author are on loan from the Fukada Kyūya Memorial Museum (深田久弥 山の文化館) at Daishōji. These include a manuscript of Nihon Hyakumeizan, as well as the author's pen. Awkwardly, his passport, also on show, reveals that officialdom chose to spell his family name as “Fukata”. Well, we’ll stick with the usual version here.

Other mountain authors are featured too. There is a manuscript of Nitta Jirō’s Tale of a Mt Fuji Porter (強力伝) and items related to Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, whose “Kappa” (1927) is set in the Japan Northern Alps. And there are paintings by Kushida Magoichi, who is best known for his Mountain thoughts (Yama no pensée), and images by the present-day photographer Ishikawa Naoki.

For alpinists, the holiest relic of all will be the very notebook in which Matsunami Akira scribbled his last words. Posthumously published as Fusetsu no Biwak (Bivouac in a blizzard), this is the account of a fatal attempt to traverse the entire Hodaka ridgeline in midwinter. Found by a search party on Matsunami’s body in the spring, the notebook is visiting Fukui by courtesy of the Ohmachi Alpine Museum.

Supporting events include a speech on mountains and literature by Fukui’s doyen of mountain writing, Masunaga Michio, an exhibition of photography by Ishikawa Naoki, and a showing of Hyōheki (Ice wall), the film of a novel by Inoue Yasushi that takes a broken rope as its mainspring. To round things off, there is a comedy film about people who go on a hike to a waterfall and get lost. Surely, everyone can relate to that.

“Yama ga aru kara” (Because it’s there), an exhibition at the Fukui Museum of Literature (福井ふるさと文学館), opened on 30 October 2021 and will close on 23 January 2022. See the exibition webpage for details and a programme of events.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Calling all meizanologists

A conference on Japan’s alpine culture is due to convene on November 14 and 21, both Sundays. Entitled 
The Alpine Archipelago: Surveying Japan from the Timberline, this is probably the first meizanological conference ever to take place outside Japan.

The organisers, David Fedman and Jon Pitt, both of UC Irvine, outline the programme as follows:

Taking a timberline view of Japanese society, this conference explores the place of mountains in Japanese history, literature, film, religion, and popular culture. It does so in the same spirit as Fukada Kyūya's One Hundred Mountains of Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan): by offering detailed portraits of individual mountain landscapes and the communities in which they are embedded. Each speaker will guide us to a particular peak, showcasing not just the wide range of alpine environments in Japan but the host of methodological approaches to studying the upland areas that make up the better part of the archipelago.

The presenters are David Fedman on Petari-dake; Shayne Dahl (Harvard University) on Gassan; Alison Miller (Sewanee: The University Of The South) on Tsurugidake; Aaron Jasny (University of Maryland, Global Campus) on Yarigatake; Eric Cunningham (Earlham College) on Ontakesan; Pedro Bassoe (Purdue University) on Hakusan; Andrew Bernstein (Lewis & Clark College) on Fujisan; Joanna Linzer (Harvard University) on Dōgo-yama; Komeie Taisaku (Kyoto University) on Ominesan; and Jon Pitt on Chibusayama.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Last blue mountain

Absurd, it seemed. 

Yes, we got the e-mail. A late-season attempt on the NE Pillar ...
But, on Friday, surely the phone would ring, and the gravelly voice would ask about tomorrow. And then, before dawn, we'd be on our way again in the battered white Volkswagen – which, incredibly, was older than my weather-beaten Subaru. 

Old cars give you something to talk about: how to keep them going; the iniquities of Swiss auto repair shops; hassles at work; the key points all driven home with a broad wink and a grin in your direction. Right, but how about keeping one eye on the road, I wanted to ask – but, still, we'd get there in the end. 


Like the time we went to the Bifertenstock, a great white whale of a mountain. The cold winter air floods in and we're unloading skis and gear all over the road. This morning, maybe in March, we’ve parked in Brigels, a village in the Grisons, and there are three of us. I was the one who suggested the mountain but the plan is now being prosecuted at a different level of intensity. We even set off without a coffee. 
Now the sun is up and Alpinist S. is out ahead on the Val Frisal, a small outwash plain. The photo shows a small figure, red-jacketed, already half-way to the glacier. The sky is blue and there's just a wisp of cloud curling over the ridge. The image shows how misleading both photos and weather can be, because the clouds soon clamp down, an ominous-looking serac looms above, and the icy slope curves down and away below our ski-crampons. 
"I'm not happy about this," I say, and there's a crisp reply – "I know" – from above. 
We're on edge here: Alpinist S. wants to go on, I'm for turning, and Alpinist A. is hovering. Now we can hardly see each other on the rope. The weather casts its vote, and it really is time to point those skis downhill. 
These photos are getting to be a genre. Here's another showing the tiny red-jacketed figure, far ahead, but this time it's the Blinnenhorn in the background, the shadows borrowing their icy blue from the sky overhead. Deep blue shadows, blue-washed snow, a lemon-slice moon recumbent in the cold blue sky. Not another soul around. Somebody else’s verses float to mind: 
"We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow… "

Poems, as well as photos, can mislead. The red-jacketed figure is waiting – he always waits for slower companions and patiently too – because two ways lead there. There's a high road and a low one, and Alpinist S. took the high one. The high line was faster (another giant wink when we meet), hence the wait, but it led over a steep and icy slope. The low road, my choice, seemed safer, but you had to take off your skis and flounder down a gully choked and primed with powder snow. 
Another hour or so, and we're underneath the summit ridge. The wind is cutting, the ridge is icy, but we've left crampons and axes behind to save weight. That's enough for me; that ridge is crampon territory or none, but for Alpinist S., it's the top that counts. "I'll have a look," he says with that wink. He starts off up the ridge, propped on ski-sticks against the wind, while I fight off hypothermia. An hour or so later, we're both hypothermic. Alpinist S. got his summit and we're skiing back over the glacier. 
We're not home yet. Even Alpinist S. doesn't want to repeat the icy traverse, so he asks about my snow gully. "It's OK," I say. But it's not. That gully is a bomb waiting to go off. The powder's too deep, too loose to walk up; you'd sink to the waist. Without comment, Alpinist S. sets off – it's difficult, tense work laying a ski-track in that white mine-field smother. But there's no other way. At the top, there are no recriminations. There are none on our tours. 
Another March, we're skiing up Piz Platta, another unheard-of mountain in the Grisons, and, needless to say, from the steep side. This time Alpinist S. isn't out ahead, but only because he has a cold. As the snow clouds dissipate, the air above us glitters with diamond dust. Another crew goes off-route and has to climb a rock step in ski-boots but we find the right way, across a ledge into the summit gully, thinking instead of floundering. We have a doctor of science in the lead, you see. 

At the top is a massive summit cross, two great beams of iron-clenched pine. The golden light comes grazing across the rippled ridges. If we don't want a night epic, we'd better be on our way. The couloir is steep, but Alpinist S. strolls down it like a city street. I'm more circumspect. Some might call this steep. 

The uncompromising ethic might scare you. Or it can save your bacon. The mountains are already snowed in and it's a grey autumn day. We're making the most of it on the limestone flutings of a crag near Zurich. Left to myself, I'd take the easy route up. But you need the practice, don't you, Alpinist S. says (with another of those mighty winks), so we end up on the V+ territory on the right, rock shoes scarting off the embedded oyster fossils. Alpinist S. is doing the leading, so it's his call. It's steep, one might say. 

 We're half-way up when there's a rumble on the left. Two boulders – head-sized – are bouncing down the easy route. People start shouting; a girl's been hit on the hand. It takes twenty minutes for a helicopter to come in, put a skid on the rock terrace and take her aboard. 

Other parties abseil off. Their rats have probably had enough for today. Anyway, it's late. But we haven't finished the route. This time, I don't even suggest giving up. Waste of breath. Alpinist S. confronts the overhang and subdues it. When we get back to the packs, everyone else has gone and the chair-lift down the meadows stopped running hours ago. We walk down to the weather-beaten Volkswagen in the dusk. 
Of course, we wouldn't be setting out in the VW any more. Its last trip is to the Ringelspitz, on a cold November weekend. The ground is frozen hard but there's still no snow. At dawn, on our way to the ridge, we surprise a herd of chamoix. Better not to make them run, says Alpinist S., or they'll burn up their fat before the winter. On the way home in the car, a Ferrari-like roar bursts out from below decks. The exhaust has fallen off. OK, that's it for the Golf, says Alpinist S., after getting out to check: I'm taking it to the scrapyard. No sentiment for old cars. 
Another year, and we've both survived the summer. And then the e-mail arrives, on a bland autumn morning. At first, it seems absurd that the phone won't ring on Friday, that the old cars won't be lurching out of their parking bays, that we won't be climbing into the freezing fog or skiing down in the dark, Alpinist S. waiting for us in the distance. Now it really does start to sink in, that he won't be waiting. This time, he really did go on too far ahead.