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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The true story of the world’s most famous ski run and why it’s at risk of disappearing

Both routes involve a killing skis-on-shoulder climb in ski boots – up 580 metal steps to the cable-car base station or 40-minute trudge up a steep snowy mountainside. The vertical ascent is particularly gruelling after negotiating the challenging off-piste descent and is increasing each year as the fast-melting glacier thins – 80 steps were added to the frequently-cursed metallic staircase last year alone. 

The Mer de Glace has retreated 1.5 miles (2.5km) since 1850, a third of which has occurred in the last 25 years. Accelerated glacial melt in the last decade means France’s largest glacier is now losing between five and 10 metres’ depth a year. Despite this, from winter 2023/24, skiers tackling the Vallée Blanche will be able to ski directly to the new gondola, no steps involved. For the glacier curious, visiting the future Glaciorium will provide a rare and precious opportunity to explore and understand the melting world of glaciers up close.

“We want to help visitors understand the fragility of this environment, and there is no better place to do this than right here on the glacier,” explained Mathieu Dechavanne, chairman and CEO of lift operator Compagnie du Mont Blanc. For him this ‘international glacier and climate interpretation centre’ will be ‘the best in the world’.

The glacial trek I took with a guide to the future cable-car top station recently was a shock. To see the Mer de Glace bare, without its majestic winter coat is deeply disturbing. Despite the sand and rubble and constant menacing sound of trickling water, the high-altitude hike required crampons. Ugly plastic sheeting partly shrouding the sun-blasted entrance to Chamonix’s popular ice grotto screamed ‘Stop melting!’. To my left, glacial blocks that once filled the valley protruded grotesquely out of miserable-grey moraine like a sinister shipwreck. As we walked we stopped to identify an alien cluster of delicate violet flowers pushing out of the barren trail. My guide told me that he had grown melons and cucumber in his garden at 1,088m for the first time this summer. 

Glacial melt has dramatically altered the course of the Vallée Blanche and threatens other phenomenal descents such as Pas de Chèvres from Grands Montets to Mer de Glace – completely un-skiable for the past two seasons unless you are capable, like bionic Jean-Franck, of abseiling with skis down 200m of hairy vertical moraine. The Vallée Blanche’s previously treacherous Séracs du Roquin, at the junction where the Géant and Envers du Plan glaciers met, is now an unchallenging slope across smooth snow-covered moraine: the deadly field of agitated ice blocks, pinnacles and crevasses literally melted away in the mid-1990s when both glaciers receded.  

“The one real worry we had skiing the Vallée Blanche in the 1970s and 80s was the snow conditions at the Séracs du Roquin which could be very tormented, extremely complicated,” Jean-Franck explained. “But global warming has completely removed this section and it is now a large piste with a few bumps and zero crevasse danger.” Warmer temperatures also mean that frozen ice falls Jean-Franck regularly climbed in summer are now perilous verticals of unstable, crumbling rockface.

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