The Last Days of the Ice Giants
by Mercedes Catalan
I’ve been living in Switzerland for almost two years, and I’m still as fascinated by this country as I was when I arrived. It’s hard to believe that you can find so much raw beauty in such a small country! The Alps, the pristine alpine lakes, the forests… I find myself going back to the mountains every weekend, always eager to explore and know more of the magical Swiss landscapes, and spending the rest of the week planning my next adventure.
Since I arrived in Switzerland I have hiked in a lot of different landscapes around the country. But there are some that amaze me more than any other. Glaciers! Before arriving to Switzerland, I always thought about these ice formations as something far far away, up in the north, in remote, frozen, inhospitable regions in Iceland or Greenland. Having them so close now has given me the opportunity to explore and learn more about them. In the last two years I have visited a few of them in the Alps. I hiked by the Great Aletsch Glacier, I walked on and inside the Rhône Glacier, and I visited the beds of other glaciers that melted long and not so long ago.
But there is a glacier area that fascinates me more than any other. There you can find all kinds of glaciers, some are still huge ice formations, but others are just a shadow of what they were just a few years ago. I am talking about the valley of Zermatt, in Canton Valais. This region is mainly known for its famous mountain, the great Matterhorn, dominating the valley, and its ski slopes. But it is also home of other great peaks and glaciers, like the Gorner Glacier and its tributaries, that flow around the Monte Rosa massif (the highest peak in the Swiss Alps).
In this gorgeous area, there is a hiking route, not as famous and crowded as the ones with lakes reflecting the Matterhorn. This route goes from the Schwarzsee (the Black lake) at the foot of the mighty Matterhorn, surrounds the East side of the mountain and ends at the Trockener Steg ski station. Along the route, you walk beside the old Furgg and Theodul glaciers.
I like to think about these two glaciers as two old ice giants, gone not long ago, living in the highest summits of the Valais Alps. In the past, these giants covered huge extensions. Their power was huge. You couldn’t see them moving, but they did, slowly. And in their step, they transformed the landscape, breaking, splitting and grinding the stone they found on their way. But the giants were also vulnerable. The sun and the heat defeated them, and they retreated and shrunk until becoming what they are today.
The most impacting thing about these two glaciers is that they didn’t melt centuries ago, but very recently. Since 1850, these two glaciers have retreated more than 3km. And they left behind a stunning landscape. It is a fascinating experience to see how the glaciers have sculpted the landscape, the traces they leave behind and how slowly life begins to grow where, until recently, there was nothing but rocks under tons of ice. The hiking trail passes along the devastation caused by the almost melted Furgg Glacier, at the east foot of the Matterhorn. It is an incredible landscape that reminded me of some Icelandic volcanic views, where everything is rocks, sand and melted ice and only tiny flowers grow between the rocks, with the majestic Matterhorn dominating the views. The trail continues between tiny lakes, result of the melting Theodul Glacier, and a more devastated and reddish martian landscape until it reaches the Trockener Steg ski station. From there, a difficult trail goes back down to Schwarzsee, where there are beautiful views of the valley Matter and Zermatt, as well as views of two other glaciers in the area, the Gorner and the Grenz Glaciers, and the highest peak in Switzerland, the Dufourspitze or Monte Rosa. This is such a beautiful view and, at the same time, different from what people are used to seeing in Switzerland. Green pastures are rapidly replaced by devastated colorful landscapes, small lakes of incredibly milky colours and the feeling of the cold and pure air from the glaciers on your skin in summer. But it is also very sad to see how fast these glaciers are melting.
This hike is one of those that impacts visitors, but not only by the beauty of the sights. It makes you experience in first person how global warming is affecting the landscape and, specially, the glaciers. It may sound as something that it is happening far away, in the Poles, but here you see how fast everything is changing right at your doorstep. In a country like Switzerland, where preserving the environment is very important, it makes you wonder what else we can do to help. Since I visited these two almost extinct glaciers, I started to think on my photos as not only a way to show the beauty of the country where I live, but also as a way to express my concern for these endangered great natural formations that, probably, future generations won’t be able to admire. Maybe I can even inspire others to think about how they behave and how they can help to prevent this.