Climate Change And The Mt Blanc Massif

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Aug 13, 2019

Nowhere is global warming more keenly felt than in the mountain environment. Researchers from Grenoble have recently published a novel study that describes how this impacts upon climbers and mountaineers in the Mt Blanc massif...

Between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 21st century the Western Alps has seen a temperature rise of 2 degrees C. This has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the surface area and thickness of glaciers - in recent decades the Argentiere glacier has lost 80m of it's ice depth and the Mer de Glace has receded at a rate of 40m per year.

Gaston Rebuffat's "The Mont Blanc Massif - The 100 Finest Routes". Not only has it been essential bed time reading for generations of aspiring alpinists but has now become a useful starting point for those investigating the effects of climate change.

But how has this affected climbers and mountaineers?

Jacques Mourey and his team analysed the effect of climate change upon 95 routes taken from Gaston Rebuffat's 1973 classic guide, "The Mont Blanc Massif - The 100 Finest Routes". A total of 31 experts, including guides, hut guardian's and guidebook editors were asked to identify specific climate-related changes to the approach, route and descent of each and determine whether these had an impact upon those seeking to climb it. The latter was determined by using a 5 point scale that ranged from no change (0) to complete change (4).

The results were striking. Only 2 of the routes were unchanged, whilst the remaining 93 had altered to some degree - 30 (slight - 1), 34 (moderate - 2), 26 (great - 3) and 3 (complete - 4). The leading reasons for these changes were the appearance of bedrock (85 routes), wider crevasses and bergschrunds (78 routes) and steeper glaciers (73 routes). In addition, warmer temperatures were also associated with weakening snow bridges, narrowing ridges and an increase in the risk of falling rock, snow and ice. Collectively, the experts concluded that these changes meant that the routes had become harder and considerably more dangerous to climb.

The start of Rebuffat-Bacquet Route (red) on the south east spur of the Aiguille Du Midi can no longer be accessed from the glacier. Due to 25m of glacial recession the route now needs to be started via the harder Contamine Route (black) on the left. A short connecting pitch now links both routes (purple dots).  A mean score of 2 was awarded to this route by the expert panel.

Historically, the Whymper Couloir on the south face of the Aiguille Verte was regarded as a classic early summer snow and ice climb (a - photo from late 1960's). However, climate change has meant that the bergschrund at the base of the route has receded and widened, whilst large sections of underlying rock are now often exposed (b - August 2017). Frequent rock falls are common (orange arrow). The orange star represents a massive rockfall that took place in 2015. A mean score of 3 was awarded to this route by the expert panel.

In 2005 an enormous rock fall stretching 700 vertical metres destroyed several lines, including the legendary Bonatti Pillar, on the Petit Dru. A mean score of 4 was awarded to this route by the expert panel.

Like much of our planet, mountainous regions are being affected by climate change. In future posts we'll take a look at the broader picture and discuss what is responsible for these changes and, perhaps more importantly, what we can do about it.

Please get in touch and share your thoughts!  

Interviews with environmental activists Jim Duff and Robin Barraclough can be found on the blog. The impact of climate change on Mt Blanc's "Death Couloir" can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Climate Change And The Mt Blanc Massif

Robin Barraclough commented 2 years, 1 month ago
To my mind it appears that many in the outdoor community, including the UIAA have what I would term a ‘cognitive dissonance’ - holding stated core values in sustainability and mountain protection, while at the same time creating promoting and lending legitimacy to the ‘Adventure Tourism’ industry, hastening man made global warming. I know that the BMC have been pushing a sustainable agenda and are linked in with the Climate Coalition. For that they should be applauded. However, I now feel the urgency of this matter is such that I, we and all of us have to do more. I have just written to the BMC to provide more leadership and start an active discussion of what climbing and mountaineering looks like when done in a low or zero carbon way. For instance this could be via a paper on what climbing and mountaineering will look like in 20 years and publish it to members. People need to see tangibly be shown how this is going to affect them or their children. I also suggested they consider organising an ‘outdoor' sustainability festival to bring together like minded climbers and walkers to really kick things off. The pace of events in the environment is so concerning that the distractions of how we do in the Olympics next year is very soon going to seem pretty insignificant.
Jim Duff commented 2 years, 1 month ago
These changes are congruent with global heating. We all need to realise that unless there are radical changes to global energy and agriculture in the next decade (or less) we face potential chaos. I despair at the lack of the necessary radical response to this from all levels of government. Climbers beware, the next great expedition might be you and your kids survival.
Chris Sloan commented 2 years, 1 month ago
It was really obvious this year in Chamonix, in both summer and winter. When you ski the Mer de Glace and climb the stairs back up towards Montenvers there are a series of little signs on the rock with the date the glacier was at that level, you climb a lot of stairs and see dates that are still in recent memory. This summer a lake formed on the approach to the Dent du Geant and you didn't need boots for most routes in the Aiguilles Rouge. The Chamonix valley is going to end up looking like the dolomites...

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