Climate Change Has Made Climbing the Matterhorn More Dangerous

Melting permafrost is leading to more frequent rockfalls and landslides on the iconic peak and other areas of the Alps

(Zermatt photos via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0)
smithsonianmag.com

From a distance, the imposing sight of the Matterhorn appears fixed in time. But up close, the 14,692-foot spire in the Swiss Alps is getting a little rickety. As the snow evaporates and permafrost melts, the mountain is shedding rock and developing cracks, leading to more rockfalls, landslides and other dangerous conditions.

“When the high mountains thaw in summer, the stiffness decreases and the ground sediments get soggy and wobbly with water. Think stracciatella ice cream with much more chocolate chips than vanilla ice cream,” Jan Beutel tells, group leader of the Permasense Consortium spearheaded by the University of Zurich, tells Nicholas Hellen at The Sunday Times. “Cracks expand and move. Many continue to move in the same direction every year and then at some point it’s too much and a small scale of the surface breaks off. If there were more ice in place — as in the good old mountaineering past — it wouldn’t be that bad, since the ice cover would still hold these pieces together.”

The problems facing Matterhorn are not unique. A study published last year found that by 2060 Switzerland will have a climate akin to Mediterranean countries. Already, the 1,500 glaciers in the Alpine nation have lost 60 percent of their volume since 1850.

Another study from last month, which appears in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, warned that mountaineering itself is imperiled by climate change. Researchers assessed the 100 mountaineering routes laid out in the influential guidebook The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes, published in 1973. They found that of the 95 climbing itineraries they studied, 93 had been impacted by climate change, with 26 being greatly affected. Three climbing routes no longer exist. The signs of change are becoming more apparent as well; earlier this month during Europe’s record-breaking heat wave, a new alpine lake formed at 10,000 feet on the Massif, which is normally permanently frozen.

Guides on the Matterhorn have watched similar iconic climbing routes crumble away on their mountain. Buetel and his group of scientists are currently tracking the changing terrain of the mountain. The team just finished installing the last of 50 sensors on the upper reaches of the mountain to keep track of what's happening there. The sensors will also allow them to alert mountain guides in the region to instabilities, such as rock falls, which make climbing the Matterhorn much more dangerous.

While Buetel assures Hellen of The Sunday Times that there’s no danger the Matterhorn will "topple" or "crumble," the mountain is different; routes that used to involve climbing on snow and ice now involve hiking on rough rock and dangerous terrain. Then there are the trails no longer accessible at all.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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