This summer, mountaineering turned upside down by global warming

The news fell just before this first weekend of August: the refuges of Goûter and Tête Rousse, which allow the ascent of Mont Blanc, are closed until further notice. The decision was taken by Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of Saint-Gervais (Haute-Savoie), to prevent “urban climbers”as they call them, to attempt the summit of the Alps despite the prevention messages that it delivers in unison with the guide companies.

For the past few weeks, successive heat waves that have not spared the high mountains have made alpine races very dangerous. “The Alps are warming up twice as fast as the planetary average, explains Ludovic Ravanel, member of the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix and geomorphologist in charge of research at the CNRS. This summer, we are facing two problems. First of all, the glaciers are in a catastrophic state. The June heat wave having eliminated the snow which sent back the sun, the latter directly hits the ice which is melting at high speed. Some glaciers become unstable, others experience very open crevasses. Around the glaciers then, the degradation of the permafrost causes many rock collapses. Multiple routes have become impassable. »

Routes are disappearing

The mountaineers’ sports ground, which is shrinking, is nothing new. The Aiguille Verte, by the easiest route, hasn’t been done in summer for years. In September 2018, the collapse of 44,000 m3 of rocks at the Trident du Tacul had gripped the alpine community, and the sector is still not stabilized. Same misadventure in the Drus for the famous Bonatti pillar in 2005, a historic route in the Mont-Blanc massif. “I worked on the routes listed by Gaston Rébuffat’s reference guide in the 1970s, and since then around a hundred alpine routes have disappeared or been affected, the easiest being the most affected, laments Ludovic Ravanel. This increase in dangerousness therefore requires a very strong change in seasonality. »

Thus, the guides adapt, basic data of their profession. “For a big decade already, the season has tended to shift, but what is striking this year is the precocity of the phenomena, from July, points out Dorian Labaeye, president of the National Union of High Mountain Guides. We therefore encourage our customers to come from May-June, or even, depending on the winter, to do some shopping in February-March when there is little snow, attempts that were previously reserved for experienced mountaineers. »

No longer quite the same sport

The current drought is not without consequence on the level of technicality necessary for the practice. “The conditions require a rather extensive mountaineer’s toolbox, since you have to adapt more often, to circumvent a fragile ice bridge for example. The crampon capacities must also be greater,” warns Dorian Labaeye. National Technical Director of the French Federation of Alpine and Mountain Clubs, Luc Thibal also considers that “Global warming will make access to the high mountains more technically complex: summer races classified as easy or not very difficult risk seeing their rating change. It won’t be quite the same sport, actually.”.

Perhaps, hopes Luc Thibal, who at the beginning of August went to seek better luck on the Ramsau glacier in the Austrian Tyrol, there will be “a before and after summer 2022 in terms of awareness. Within our clubs, we must in any case think about new practices. We can no longer be satisfied with wanting to “climb” like in the 1980s and 1990s”.

This change of direction, Dorian Labaeye wants to see the positive effects. “Yes, we must mourn the conditions of yesteryear, he lets go. The mountain changes but it remains beautiful, and more than performance, we need to offer an experience, an emotion to feel. To run a race is to become aware of our vulnerability. It is also a better understanding: hearing the mountain move during the night, it allows you to realize the impact of global warming. As guides, we can certainly be dizzy in the face of the speed and acceleration of change. But we can continue to play the scouts, the smugglers. »


Studies still needed

“The public authorities are becoming more and more aware of the consequences of global warming on the mountains, but a lot of data is still lacking, and studies should be intensified on many points”, underlines the guide and geomorphologist Ludovic Ravanel. Especially since the researcher is worried about the weeks to come on the summits of Mont-Blanc. “The conditions at the beginning of August already correspond to situations that we normally experience in September. With the extreme temperatures that persist, how will the walls react this fall? We are in total blur and we are entering the unknown. The danger is more relevant than ever. »


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