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Ice Cold Exploration

Robbie Shone

Towering above the high alpine villages of Switzerland, Italy and France, the lofty peaks of the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains have long been a Mecca for mountaineers and explorers alike. But, whilst cable cars and a mountain-railway usher hordes of eager-minded tourists to the region’s more accessible heights, pioneering exploration is still continuing, just not quite where one expects. Far out of sight, down in the eerie blue darkness of Western Europe’s second largest glacier system, are ice caves as yet unmapped and unseen by any explorer. It was into these hidden depths that our expedition was venturing.

Towards the end of October 2012, an eight-person strong British team, partly funded by Welsh Sports Association and led by Martin Groves and Gareth Davies, returned to the Gorner Glacier for their second expedition exploring, mapping and photographing the harsh but beautiful sub-glacial world of moulins. For those not in the know, these huge shafts are formed when meltwater up on the glacier weakens the ice around it and suddenly flushes downwards to unseen depths from the bottom of a surface lake or down a crevasse. It was decided that our expedition should take place slightly later than during the previous year, in the hope that the meltwater would be less, and the going significantly easier as a result. In reality, extremely harsh weather conditions made progress difficult, as the team lugubriously battled with strong blizzards and temperatures of -18 °C. Countless hours were spent advancing through the deep snow, only for all that hard work to be completely erased again at a moment’s notice. 

But that was all yet to come. Starting at the far most eastern side of the bustling tourist town of Zermatt, two big glaciers fall steeply into the deep at either side of the iconic Monte-Rosa Mountain; at the left of the group lays the Findelen Glacier, on its right the Gorner Glacier. Between these two glaciers, a long extended mountain ridge rises up to the Stockhorn, before then completely disappearing under the glacial ice further up. This ridge is called Gornergrat and the legendary railway that conquers this mountain from Zermatt is called Gornergratbahn. This was to serve as our primary means of transport up to somewhere moderately close to the Gorner Glacier. The rest of the way in would unfortunately have to be on foot.

Far out of sight, down in the eerie blue darkness of Western Europe’s second largest glacier system are ice caves as yet unmapped and unseen by any explorer; it was into these hidden depths that our expedition was venturing.

Ice Cold Exploration

It was late into the evening before we finally arrived at the base of the Matterhorn, tired and heavily laden with equipment and food for our week’s long stay up on the glacier. The weather had given no signs of being against us, and by now the three members of our advance party should already have been tucked up warmly in their sleeping bags perched on the edge of the Gorner Glacier high above, awaiting our arrival the following morning. Well, at least that’s what we had hoped for. However that evening much more snow fell than had been forecast and the Gornergrat mountain railway was closed for the entirety of the day. What’s more, the advance party was so completely snowed in, that by the morning only the tips of their tents could be seen sticking out of the fresh snow.

So it was that, a day later than planned, we finally took the railway up the mountain and reached the station where our hike along the rickety footpath and down to the glacier began. We were immediately faced with knee-deep powder. It proved impossible to cover the three-kilometer traverse down to the advance team that afternoon, especially without snowshoes. We had to set-up camp, a little-bit discouraged, close to the station where we had a safe retreat should the weather come to it.

The following day was crystal-clear and – relieved at last with the break in the weather – we began digging out the path from our camp and along the side of the mountain, steadily descending towards the glacier. Meanwhile the three from the advance team were also busily de-tackling their camp and retreating back to our base. We made incredibly slow progress and it was hard toil just to keep going. With only one shovel for leader, the rest of the group followed using their hands to scoop away at the snow to form a passage. Later that day both teams met up, shared a few jokes and plodded back up to the safer of the two camps. It transpires that a French team leaving the glacier when the advanced group arrived had spoke of a week’s worth of stunning weather with clear blue skies and warm temperatures; it must be the luck of the British to get all the rubbish weather fronts.

Ice Cold ExplorationIce Cold ExplorationIce Cold Exploration

I had brought the only ‘dumb’ phone on the expedition and while all the batteries on everyone else’s state of the art mobiles ran out of power one by one, I was still able to get weather updates for our location from my girlfriend back home in Innsbruck. This proved to be a great way to plan the next day’s activities, where we could estimate how far to travel around the glacier before bad weather brought in fresh snow dumps. Still, it was a good hour’s walk back up from the glacier each time to the safe camp close to the station, and the promising warmth and escape that retreat offered incase the weather turned truly malicious. Thankfully before our time on the glacier came to an end, our luck changed and we were blessed with two great weather days. In order to maximize the short time now left to us, we decided to embrace this opportunity and rise from our sleeping bags at first light and be away from tents no later than 8:00am; a normal workday awakening like any other, except we were trading the usual office destination for the unknown of the ice below us.

On the glacier itself many more moulins had opened up since last years expedition. Our team decided to split into two smaller groups and descend down the friendliest looking opening first. I flitted between both parties, desperately trying to capture as many images of this wonderful environment, one that I had never witnessed before. A short abseils from the surface – rope belayed around giant erratic rocks or ice screws carefully placed in hard ice sheltered away from the hot searing sunshine – and we were truly beneath the surface of the glacier.

Heavily sculptured walls, carved into magnificent shapes throughout the ice, reminded me of shapes I had seen before in cylindrical shaped caves formed in limestone, a more familiar environment for me. And I couldn’t help notice rocks and pebbles of varying sizes wedged in the roof of the moulins, some over ten meters up, partly exposed and partly trapped in the ice. I wondered how long it would be before they dropped out and come crashing to the ground. But we didn’t hang around to find out. Some members of each team set about surveying the caves as far as the depths took them, while other members explored the ways on rigging rope traverse around frozen pools of water or small drops down to other levels of the system. Team member Sam Doyle, a Glaciologist from the University of Aberystwyth who spends most of his time in Greenland studying the rate in which the ice sheet is moving, drew many comparisons with his previous studies and the moulins on the Gorner Glacier. Moving at 15m a year the Gorner glacier picks up speed due to meltwater falling through these moulins and acting like a lubricant along the base of the glacier helping it along its way.

Within the small two day weather window up on the Gorner Glacier we discovered, surveyed and photographed three giant systems, which will no doubt be in totally different places next time round.  However, seeing how vast and extensive these moulins can be just goes to show how much water they take during the summer months and thus leading to rapid increase in the rate in which these glaciers move and shrink in size. Sadly, it seems, it won’t be long before we are without glaciers in Europe. 

I couldn’t help notice rocks and pebbles of varying sizes wedged in the roof of the moulins, some over ten meters up, partly exposed and partly trapped in the ice. I wondered how long it would be before they dropped out and come crashing to the ground.

Robbie Shone

Robbie Shone is a British adventure, cave and travel photographer based in the scenic alpine town of Innsbruck, Austria.  Whilst completing a BA in Fine Art and Photography, Sheffield, UK, Robbie pursued his love of the outdoors.  He developed a strong interest in caving, and in particular the challenges that cave photography has to offer.

Robbie’s exciting expedition photography has taken him to the remotest areas of China, Papua New Guinea, Borneo, the Picos, the Alps and Crete.

Find out more via his website: www.shonephotography.com or follow Robbie on
Twitter @RobbieShone

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