What is Permafrost?

"Suddenly melting Permafrost became very real for me." - Heike Schmitt, Norrøna Ambassador and certified UIAGM Mountain Guide

Words by Heike Schmitt

It‘s the 21st of September 2018. I find myself moving on perfect granite along the golden walls of the satellites of Mont Blanc. I am high up on a beautiful line called ‘Bonne Éthique’on the Trident du Tacul. It has been a long summer guiding season for me, so when a friend of mine asked me to go for some alpine multi pitch climbing, I happily agreed.

The summer had been quite hot, so I didn’t mind the few clouds on this particular day. Climbing went smoothly, I just had placed a perfect friend and it shouldn’t be long anymore to reach the anchor. I was absorbed in the cosmos of fine cracks and tiny crimps. Deeply immersed in solving the puzzle everything around me went hazy. I was just concentrating on the next move when a piercing, metal chirping, gloomy sound instantly set off a shock wave on me, paralyzing my body to an absolute stop.

“It was an unearthly uncanny sound incomparable to anything I have ever heard before. Like an immensely huge something shifting inside this mountain. A vibrant energy, alive or not, terrifyingly real. ”

My guts froze, my instincts arose, telling me there is something terribly wrong. Adrenaline fired through my veins, forging me as I’m racing to the end of the pitch. I quickly build up an anchor, fix myself and start belaying my partner up. While my hands are doing the rope work I breathe deeply in and try to calm myself. It had been a long guiding season and, yes, I was very tired. Yes, my nerves must have truly thinned out and I am making an elephant out of a fly. It has probably just been a rock flying by, which I have heard but accidentally not seen. No big deal!

When my friend arrives we exchange a deep look. “That was strange” he said. “Yes” I said as he proceeded without further comment on the wall. There were just two more pitches to go. I wouldn’t let my stressed out nerves stop me from the summit. We finished the line without any further incidents. In the last light of the day, I turned once more to have a last look at the majestic spire of the Trident, before I marched up the final snowy slope to the Torino hut.

Another beautiful day passed in these unique mountains.

Three days later, I received a call from my colleagues. The whole lower part of the Trident had collapsed. My partner and I were with high probability the last team to have climbed Bonne Éthique.

Suddenly melting Permafrost became very real for me.

Permafrost can be defined as ground, talus slopes or rock walls, which hold temperatures below zero degrees for at least two years. It is defined purely by temperature and can be found in all materials independently by its ice content. Above the true permafrost body lies an unfreezing layer, which is active. It can be a few centimeters or a couple of meters. In the Alps, this unfreezing layer is usually around 1-6 meters. Permafrost can be found in a depth up to 80 meters.

The presence of Permafrost depends mainly on the air temperature. In the Alps, this correlates strongly with the elevation and exposure. The Alps have a quantitatively bigger area covered with Permafrost than glacier terrain.

Permafrost can be seen as alpine glue and an indicator for climate.

It contributes significantly to the stability of rock walls or steep slopes. With rising temperatures the ice – rock mixture becomes “softer”, which means that the mixture begins to deform plastically.

Often small rises in temperatures are already enough to initiate rockslides or slope movements. Maybe the most famous ones within the last 10 years were the rockslide at the Piz Kesch in 2014, and the rockslide at Piz Cengalo in Augustp of 2017.

The melting Permafrost caused by climate change is creating a new reality that Alpinists have to face.

Classical routes like the normal way up Mt. Blanc by the Gouter Hut is threatened by rockfall, so that the Mayor of Saint Gervais found himself to react, announcing the closing of the line this summer.

The classical ridges of the Matterhorn have been considered dangerously exposed to major rock slides so that the local guides didn’t recommend climbing them in the heat of this summer.

Alpinists have to start evaluating these new realities in their decision taking. With the glue of classical mixed terrain starting to melt away due to high temperatures lots of classic summer routes have to be looked upon under the aspect of rockfall.

Next to the dangers of glaciers turning into hazardous risk (due to much bigger crevasses compared to previous years), rockfall caused by Permafrost is the major risk caused by climate change.

About Heike

Heike is a certified UIAGM (Union Internationale des Associations de Guides) Mountain Guide and Norrøna ambassador since 2019. She grew up in between South Africa and Germany, but traveled the world to climb more than 1000 icefalls including a lot of WI 6. However it is not the grade, which is significant to her, but the experience itself and in which way it transformed her!

Get to know Heike

1 thought on “What is Permafrost?”

  1. Thank you a lot for your story. It s a very good description of landscape and of yours feelings. It’s dramatic and I share your opinion . Take care …

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