Towering above the Alpine villages of Switzerland, Italy and France, the imposing peaks of the Matterhorn and its neighbours have long been a Mecca for mountaineers and explorers alike. Today, while cable cars and a mountain railway transport hordes of tourists to the more accessible areas, pioneering exploration continues, not on the surface, but far out of sight in the icy depths of the second-largest glacier system in the Alps.
On the eastern side of the tourist town of Zermatt, two big glaciers fall into the deep on either side of Monte Rosa, the highest mountain in Switzerland and the second-highest in both the Alps and western Europe. To the left is the Findelen Glacier and to the right is the 14-kilometre-long Gorner Glacier.
At the end of October last year, I joined a seven-person British team that was returning to the Gorner Glacier for its second expedition exploring, mapping and photographing the sub-glacial world of moulins – well-like shafts through which meltwater drains from the surface of the glacier – and the ice caves that they help to create.
We arrived in Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, late in the evening, heavily laden with equipment and enough food for a week’s stay on the glacier. By now, the three members of the advance party should have been tucked up in their sleeping bags, perched on the edge of the glacier, awaiting our arrival the next morning.
The weather seemed calm and benign, but that evening, considerably more snow fell than had been forecast and the next day, the Gornergrat mountain railway – which would transport us up to the glacier – was closed. Up on the mountain, the advance party was completely snowed in, with only the tips of their tents sticking out of the fallen snow.
So, a day later than planned, we took the railway up the mountain and reached the station from which our hike along the footpath and down to the glacier would begin. When we alighted from the train, however, we discovered an expanse of knee-deep snow. It would be impossible to cover the three-kilometre traverse down to the advance team that afternoon, especially without snowshoes, so we set-up camp close to the station.
The following day was clear and we began digging out a path from our camp down towards the glacier. Meanwhile, the advance team was heading back towards us. Eventually both teams met up, shared a few jokes and plodded back up to the upper camp.
Thankfully, the weather eventually cleared and we had two great days exploring the spectacular world beneath the glacier’s surface. More moulins had opened up since last year’s expedition, and the team split into two and began abseiling down into those that looked the most encouraging.
I flitted between both parties, desperately trying to capture as many images of this wonderful environment as possible. The dramatically sculpted ice walls reminded me of shapes I’d seen before in cylindrical caves formed in limestone. Looking up, I noticed rocks and pebbles of varying sizes emerging from the roof of the ice caves.
Members of each team set about surveying the caves, while others rigged ropes around large areas of meltwater and moulins that led to other levels of the system. Sam Doyle, a glaciologist from the University of Aberystwyth who spends most of his time in Greenland studying the rate at which the ice sheet is moving, saw many similarities with the moulins on the Gorner Glacier.
Typically moving at about 15 metres a year, the Gorner Glacier picks up speed due to meltwater falling through these moulins and acting as a lubricant along its base. Although the glacier has a total area of more than 50 square kilometres, making it the second largest glacial system in the Alps, it has receded every year since 1892 – since then it has shrunk by almost 2.5 kilometres, including a staggering 290 metres over the summer of 2007.
We discovered, surveyed and photographed three enormous ice caves that ran for almost 150 metres through the glacier; the largest had a ceiling height of 20 metres in places. Descending through one moulin, we followed an eight-metre-deep trench where the water had carved it’s way through the ice.
Seeing how vast and extensive the glacier’s moulins and ice-cave systems can be gives an indication of just how much water flows through them during the summer. Sadly, this is also an indicator of the rate at which the Alps’ majestic rivers of ice are shrinking.