Adaptation, high mountaineering and the climate change in the Alps

In the 25 years that I have lived in Chamonix, I have never experienced such a hot and stable weather summer as this year, 2022. And unfortunately, I have never seen the high mountain change as much as I have during these past 3 months.

Words and images by Minna Riihimaki

The ski season ended abruptly in the first week of May, as if the ground (or snow) was taken under one’s feet. The temperatures fired up in the sun, increasing the 0°C level up to 4000 meters. Even the nights became warm. The thin snow cover from the dry winter didn’t last long, melting fast and revealing again the brown layer of Sahara sand snow, and gradually, the glacier ice.

“Even though my motivation was high, I had to admit that the steep skiing period was not going to happen and exchanged ski boots to climbing shoes with a bitter taste of frustration.

Adaptation will be the word of the future for all high mountain activities in the Alps. And all over the world in places where these activities take place on glaciers or where permafrost is involved.  It has become evident that climate change is real and severely affects the high mountains.  In the French Alps, the annual average temperature has increased by about +2.0°C since 1950 (1), while it is only 0.85°C at the global scale between 1880 and 2012 (2).  

In the second week of May, I had some time off and the plan was to keep on skiing at high altitudes, above 3000 meters.  After a few attempts from the Aiguille de Midi lift in Chamonix, and the Skyway in Courmayeur – both which allow quick access to various ski routes with or without overnight stays in huts– the ravages of the starting heatwave didn’t need to be outlined. Wet snow slabs were crawling down any slope steeper than 35 degrees and rock and ice debris were piling at the bottom of many faces. The couloirs didn’t look welcoming at all, and skiing seemed like a very foolish idea.

Normally at this time of year, it is easy to mix activities, combining alpine mixed routes (ice, snow and rock) and skiing. But now it was difficult to barely observe any compact ice left or safe access to steeper terrain. It was time for something more “solid”, like pure granite rock climbing.

Luckily the Mt Blanc range and its numerous peaks around the famous Vallée Blanche and Aiguilles de Chamonix offer a wonderful training ground for rock climbing, both on bolted routes and on trad climbing.

Philippe, my climbing partner, and I decided to spend some time on the orange granit, visiting multi pitch climbs on classics like the South face of Aiguille de Midi, Eperon des Cosmiques, Pointe Lachenal, the mighty Grand Capucin with the highest compact granite wall of 450 meters and some other climbs in the Combe Maudit.

All these summits have a reputation of being geologically solid, but they still are dependent on the permafrost, which acts like an ice-cement, holding together massive pieces of rock that shape up the peaks. This cement needs to stay permanently frozen, all year around, otherwise the ice will melt and turn into water, fragilizing the structure. Many other summits have been classified unstable and potentially dangerous by scientists like Ludovic Ravanel, a man who has dedicated his career for studying geomorphological changes in high altitude.

La Tour Ronde North Face, August 2022

We packed the gear and moved out for a few days of camping on the border of Italy and France, at 3400 meters above the sea level. As the huts are crowded at this period, our choice was to enjoy the tranquility and coziness of a tent that we set up on a flat spot of the glacier, avoiding crevasses.

We had a multiple choice of summits and routes in head crossing over the Vallée Blanche and observing the conditions from the Panoramic lift between Aiguille de Midi and Helbronner. We were shocked by the lack of snow on this huge glacier and the abundance of ice and crevasses making the surface look like a labyrinth from a distance. We started doubting the accessibility to the start of some of the routes. Glacier retreat can create abysses between the rock face and the glacier surface, making it impossible to reach the rock, or can cause an additional height to climb. In many places, a new pitch of about 25 meters is needed to start the climb, in comparison to the late 1980s, changing the historical route (3).

After a first day on the Pointe Adolphe Rey, our main objective was to visit a rarely climbed trad route on the beautiful and unique Grand Capucin. We woke up at 3:30am. With the coffee water boiling while preparing gear and memorizing some crucial lines from the guidebook for route finding. We had chosen Sourire de l’Eté, the Summer Smile in English, hoping that we would come back with that smile. At sunrise, we were standing at the bottom of the perfect granite wall, with 14 pitches separating us from the summit. 10 hours later, we were back at the bottom, changing climbing shoes to alpine boots, with smiles and ready to enjoy dinner at the tent after a short walk across the glacier.

“Standing on that summit together with Philippe after climbing such a beautiful, variable, and demanding route was a special moment of simple pleasure.

We had more days to climb and visit some classics on the Combe Maudit. To our big disappointment – and even more so, astonishment – we witnessed significant glacier retreat in many places, contributing to increased danger at the start of the climb due to unstable terrain. The drying up of the mountains and disappearance of the ice and snow cover result in a growing number of itineraries that are not possible to climb in summer anymore (4).

The what-used-to-be summer high mountaineering and climbing period is shifting towards spring or autumn, or even to winter, when the snow and cold temperatures help to stabilize the rock. This adaptation is the only way to avoid accidents and to be able minimize the risks when up there. Alpinists and climbers also need to learn to “listen” to the mountain, as Ludovic Ravanel has explained, there are small warning signs that can announce a destabilization of a rock face: creaking rocks, an increase in the frequency of rockfalls in an area that used to be stable, water flow in the cracks, change of width of a crack etc.

The climate is changing, we must adapt to it and most importantly, we need to think ahead on the impact we can have on the environment and react accordingly.

(1) Einhorn et al., 2015
(2) Stocker et al., 2013
(3) Mourey et al., 2019

My Gear List:

Gore-Tex Paclite Jacket
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flex1 Pants
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superlight down850 Jacket
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hiloflex200 Hood
A weather-protective and wind-resistant ski/snowboard midlayer.

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40L dri Pack
A durable waterproof mountaineering 40L pack.

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15L Pack
A versatile and lightweight 15 L outdoor/hiking pack.

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mid weight Merino Socks
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down800 0C sleeping bag 170
A versatile and lightweight sleeping bag for spring, summer and fall.

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About Minna

“I came to the Alps already as a teenager to visit and to ski. I have always been attracted by the high mountain (which doesn’t exist in my home country, Finland) and I love winters.”

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