Exploring Switzerland’s Largest Glacier: A Journey in ‘Last-Chance Tourism’

A group of seven of us, equipped with hiking poles and crampons, trek across the Aletsch glacier in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps under the guidance of our tour leader, David. We take turns stepping from rock onto the marbled grey ice, feeling a slight hesitation as it feels disrespectful. It takes a few minutes to trust that our crampons will hold us steady, but soon we get used to the crunching rhythm and the occasional tug of the rope that connects us. The summer sunshine warms us, but we can feel a coldness radiating from below. We have a six-hour hike ahead of us to reach the hut where we will spend the night.

The Aletsch glacier is the largest and longest glacier in the Alps, stretching 15 miles long and up to 800 meters deep. From a distance, it appears uniform, but up close, it reveals its creases and contours, speckled with shades of brown, black, and grey. Deep crevasses offer glimpses of a striking turquoise hue. Two parallel lines mark the glacier’s downhill journey, acting as conveyor belts for rocks and rubble.

Throughout the morning, we follow the glacier upstream. Previous mountaineering experience is not required to walk on the Aletsch glacier, but we can only access it through guided tours, partly for the glacier’s protection, and partly for our own safety. The climb is almost imperceptible, but the repetitive trudge and the vastness of the whiteness play tricks on our sense of perspective, making the journey unexpectedly demanding. We take a short break for lunch, untying from the rope and enjoying bread and cheese in the midday sun on the edge of a crevasse.

At one point, we all jump in surprise at a sudden, thunderous roar coming from beneath our feet. David explains that it is just chunks of ice shifting inside a crevasse, but locals used to associate these noises with “poor souls” trapped within the glacier. According to folklore, they would emerge from the crevasses at midnight and touching them meant certain death.

Eleven thousand years ago, the Aletsch glacier was so deep that only the tips of the surrounding mountains were visible. During the 17th century, a cold spell known as the little ice age caused the glacier to advance and threaten the farms below in the Upper Rhône valley. In response, German-speaking Catholics from the village of Fiesch began an annual pilgrimage, praying for God to halt the glacier’s advance. It may have taken 300 years, but their prayers seem to have worked.

However, since the late 19th century, the Aletsch glacier has lost nearly two miles of its length, and it is predicted to shrink by another eight miles by 2100, reducing its mass to a tenth of what it is now. This is not an isolated case – nine out of ten glaciers in the Alps are expected to disappear by the end of the century. Throughout the morning, David points out marks on the valley walls that indicate the extent of the ice in 1850 or 1950, appearing as grimy brown stains resembling residue on the side of a bathtub. The scale of the loss that has already occurred is incomprehensible, let alone what is yet to come.

In 2009, the people of Fiesch sought permission to modify their prayer, asking God to protect the glacier. However, it seems that their plea came too late. The others in my group are all Swiss and have grown up with glaciers as their neighbors, witnessing their steady disappearance throughout their lives. The woman roped in front of me was born in 1995 and shares how she has watched the Morteratsch glacier near her family’s summer house retreat over the years.

In addition to regulating local climates and providing a year-round water supply, glaciers hold immense cultural and identity value for Switzerland. The thought of a country without glaciers raises questions about its future.

I cannot help but ponder whether our hike on the Aletsch glacier is a representation of “last-chance tourism.” Similar to visiting the Antarctic or the Great Barrier Reef, it carries the risk of contributing to the destruction of already endangered places. However, according to glaciologist Dr. Matthias Huss, the impact of our hike on the glacier’s melting rate is negligible compared to other sources of heat, such as carbon dioxide emissions from traveling.

Finally, we reach Konkordiaplatz, the highest and thickest part of the Aletsch glacier. This area is a maze of crevasses that appears impassable, but David navigates through them with ease. For the first time, the ropes that connect us feel like a reassurance rather than a hindrance. This is where, in 1926, four young climbers seemingly disappeared, only for their remains to resurface in 2012, six miles further down the valley, after 86 years beneath the ice. Perhaps the legends of “poor souls” find their origins in such tragic events.

We leave the glacier and climb the valley wall on a precarious metal staircase. Finally, we reach Konkordia Hut, managed by the Swiss Alpine Club, where we enjoy a meal of salty pumpkin soup, spaghetti, and chocolate cake, accompanied by beer and schnapps coffee. The atmosphere is lively as other hikers and climbers join us, shaking the ice off their boots and sharing stories of their mountain adventures. As the sun sets, the sea of ice to the south turns electric blue, framed by the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. In that moment, it feels inconceivable that all of this could one day cease to exist.

The next day, we retrace our steps back down the glacier, starting in rain and continuing through sleet and a blizzard. It is oddly reassuring to see the snow fall on the glacier, temporarily transforming its grey hue to white. It creates an illusion of permanence and renewal. However, future travelers to this valley will walk on rock, bearing witness to what has been lost.

Glacier tours with Aletsch Arena are available from one-day circular hikes for CHF99 (£88.50) to a two-day hike for CHF370 (£330), including a night in Konkordia Hut. The season runs until October 7th.


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