Mike Wells describes a recent visit to Western Europe’s longest glacier, the Aletsch. Here, he describes the two day trek along the entire length of the glacier.
I have walked on glaciers in various parts of the world: a few years ago in New Zealand I joined a guided walk up part of the South Island’s Franz Joseph glacier, while in Norway we roped-up to descend the Staggered glacier from the summit of Galdhøpiggen, Scandinavia’s highest mountain.
But the Aletsch is rather different. From its source below the south face of the Jungfrau in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, it takes a sweeping curve south-west to its current snout, overlooked by the Bettmerhorn some 20km away, making it the longest mainland glacier in Western Europe.
By stepping out from Europe’s highest railway station on the Jungfraujoch it is possible to follow the ice for 14km as far as Marjela.
Experienced glacier walkers can rope-up and make the journey unaccompanied, while those with less experience can make the same journey by taking a guided trek organised through one of several adventure companies in the Bernese Oberland or Aletsch Arena.
Two-day guided glacier walks are limited to small groups of between five and eight people. Participants are advised that no special skills are required, although a good level of stamina is needed. A busy schedule meant that the only time we had available was a four-day window at the beginning of August and to secure this date we booked a tour many months in advance. This was something of a gamble as weather conditions are notoriously fickle in the high alps of the Bernese Oberland and it can, and often does, snow in July and August. When this happens, treks are liable to last minute cancellation. In fact, participants need to phone the organisers after 14.00 on the day before the tour to confirm if it is going ahead, with payment not being taken until this confirmation is given.
We were due to fly from Heathrow to Switzerland on Monday, walk the glacier on Tuesday and Wednesday, then fly home on Thursday. The week before our trip I consulted the long-range weather forecast every day. It did not look good; it snowed or rained every day and although the temperature was slightly above normal, this inclement weather was forecast to continue for the period of our visit. We considered cancelling, but in the end decided to go to Switzerland anyway, there being many other two-day walks at lower altitudes that we could make if the Aletsch trip was called off. In the event, we need not have worried as the weather improved and we had two warm, sunny days, although there was a thunderstorm overnight while we were safely ensconced in a Swiss Alpine Club hut.
Getting to the glacier
We flew to Switzerland and spent the night in Grindelwald, immediately below the north face of the Eiger, before catching an early morning mountain railway train to the Jungfraujoch.
This spectacular journey, which climbs steeply to Kleine Scheidegg then enters a long tunnel that continues ascending inside the Eiger and Mönch mountains, with two intermediate stations where we could peer out of windows cut into the rock face, is one of the greatest train journeys in the world.
Our fellow passengers were international tourists: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Americans and assorted Europeans. Looking at them it seemed likely they would all be making the return journey by train and we were the only ones that would be walking down. At 10.40 we met our guide, Lutz, and the other three members of our party in the coffee bar of the Jungfraujoch station. After getting acquainted and being given crampons to pack in our backpacks for use on the second day of walking, we made our way out onto the snow-covered saddle between the Jungfrau and Mönch peaks, 3454m above sea level and the starting point of the Aletsch glacier.
Looking down we could see the full length of the glacier descending ahead of us, with two other parties that had started earlier picking their way over the ice like tiny ants. We had a safety briefing then put on harnesses and roped-up to begin walking. Our first day target, the SAC Konkordia hütte, 7km and 4hr away, was invisible to the naked eye but gave away its position on a bluff 200m above the glacier by flashing an occasional glint in the morning sunshine.
First day’s walk, following the upper glacier
Although I am fit, I immediately felt the effect of altitude and was pleased that Lutz led the way, travelling slowly to spot and avoid frequent crevasses in the ice. I think he was trying to give us confidence when he told us that he had fallen into crevasses only twice in 15 years of guiding. I was far from reassured by this, twice is two times too many for my liking.
The first quarter of the Aletsch is permanently snow covered, with each year’s snowfall packing down to create fresh ice, thus enabling the glacier to continue to grow. This snow provides walkable cover over narrow crevasses, although in mild weather, as had been the case for several days, some of this snow melts, revealing the cracks in the ice. At first these were narrow and easily stepped over, but as we descended the gaps became wider.
Once clear of the permanent snow, melt water run-off from the surface was finding its way down into the cracks, widening them until eventually we were walking beside a huge crevasse several metres wide with a rushing torrent of meltwater in its bottom. Lutz, who had walked a similar route the previous week, told us that this crevasse was previously narrow enough to step over. Now we had to make a detour downstream to an amazing sight, where the torrent plunged into what looked like a bottomless sinkhole in the ice.
The ice at this point is 800m thick and the water drops to the bottom to join an under-ice stream beneath the glacier.
If the mild weather continued, we were told, within two weeks other crevasses in this area would have widened like the torrent we had followed and future trekking groups would need to detour considerably to the west to follow a longer, but more stable, route.
Overnight in the Konkordia hütte
We were now on the Konkordiaplatz, a broad, flatter part of the ice where three glaciers merge. Looking up we could see the Konkordia hütte refuge (2850m) high above us. When first built in 1877, it was beside the glacier, but 140 years of glacial retreat has left the 155-bed refuge (the largest SAC hütte) perched on a ledge 200 metres above the current ice level. To get there we had first to scramble over the ice and rock detritus of the glacier’s lateral moraine to reach a vertical cliff.
Here, an open zig-zag metal stairway led up to the refuge, its 467 steps bolted to the cliff-face looking like the ancient fire escape of a tenement building.
The combination of altitude and frequent deviations to avoid crevasses had exhausted me and by the time we had climbed the steps I was on the point of collapse.
Boots off, then into the bar where a welcoming pint of draught beer soon revived me. Sarah and Christoph, who have been hütte gardians for several years, live in the refuge from March to September with their three young children (all under five, two of whom were born here), their dog Cibo and three seasonal staff. The Konkordia is a very remote refuge with neither road nor cableway access, and all stores including water have either to be carried up the glacier or flown in by helicopter. As a result, prices are high, but worth it for the awesome location looking up three glaciers and down another, with 4000m peaks visible in every direction.
There were three other groups and a few individuals overnighting and everyone sat down for a four-course meal at 18.30. The refuge makes its own bread, and as it was 1 August – Swiss national day – the chef had baked individual bread rolls with a cross cut in the top to replicate the Swiss flag. These accompanied soup, salads and a main course of Cervelat (the Swiss national sausage) and Bratwürst, followed by dessert. Several hours of socialising, then to bed by 22.00 as we had an early start on the second day.
Second day’s walk, on the middle glacier
Up at 06.00, breakfast at 06.30 then away at 07.00 as it was important to complete the walk in the morning before large amounts of meltwater made passage difficult. The first hour was along a rock ledge overlooking the glacier then descending on a rugged aided path with fixed cables, ladders and pegs to reach the moraine 500m downstream of the refuge. Once across the lateral moraine we roped-up again and put on crampons. Below Konkordiaplatz, the Aletsch has two medial moraines carrying rock debris from points where the glacier is undercutting its side cliffs. These appear from above as dark parallel lines on the ice and we headed across the glacier to follow one of these lines of rock.
As we progressed the ice became increasingly uneven, with large rounded mounds of ice looking like seaside sand dunes pilling up against each other.
Like sand dunes, these were steep to climb up and over, with the crampons providing grip on the slippery ice. Progress was further inhibited as we twisted, turned and occasionally backtracked along the crests to circumvent deep crevasses between the mounds. On the way we were overtaken by Sarah from the refuge, with a young child in a special carrier on her back, accompanied by her sister and Cibo the dog, following a parallel and apparently faster route on the other side of the medial moraine.
After five hours’ walking we reached a point where a valley on our left marked the place where the now extinct Marjela glacier had once joined the Aletsch. We headed over the moraine for one last time to reach the entrance to this valley and suddenly we were among crowds of day visitors who had come up from the Rhone valley by cable-car and easily walked a 4wd track to see the glacier and make short walks on the ice. We sat on a rock shelf beside the glacier overlooking an ice cave that disappeared under the ice. This cave alternates between being a cave (as we experienced it) and being an azure blue meltwater lake. As the meltwater in this lake builds up, pressure eventually becomes great enough to break through the ice and the water disappears under the glacier, leaving a cave. In mild weather this begins to fill with fresh meltwater and the process starts again.
Back to civilisation
Below Marjela, the glacier becomes too broken to be safely walked, so we un-roped and took off our crampons. After one last look back along the Aletsch all the way to the Jungfraujoch, we headed up a rough path to the Marjela hütte beside a small dam, then followed a 4wd track through a 1km-long rock tunnel, cut to take water from the dam down to a hydro-electric generating station in the Rhone valley. Another 3.5km of good track contouring along the mountainside high above the Rhone took us to the small ski resort of Fiescheralp (2121m) for a welcome beer and late lunch. A cable-car ride into the valley and two trains, the second through the Lõtschberg base tunnel under the high mountains of the Bernese Oberland, took us back to Spiez on lake Thun for an overnight stop, before flying home to Britain the next day. Altogether an exhausting, but exhilarating, four-day trip.
We organised our trip through Grindelwald Sports, Dorfstrasse 103, Grindelwald 3818 (+41 33 854 12 80). A complete package, including rail and cable-car transfers within the Bernese Oberland and Rhone Valley, two days’ guided walk with a qualified guide, equipment (crampons and harness) and half-board accommodation in Konkordia hütte costs CHF488 (£377) per person. There is a small discount if you are an alpine club member and a larger one if you hold a Swiss railways half-price card. Trips run three times a week from mid-June until the beginning of October, with a group size of between five and eight participants. No special skills are required, just a good level of fitness and stamina.
After booking, final confirmation is not given until 14.00 on the day before the walk. At this time payment is required and this can be made at Interlaken Ost, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen or Wengen BOB (Berner Oberland Bahn) railway stations when collecting the inclusive railway ticket.
BA, EasyJet, Ryanair and Swiss all fly from the UK to Basel, from where direct trains run hourly to Interlaken. Discounted rail tickets can be purchased from Swiss railways.
The night before the trek can be spent in Interlaken, Grindelwald or Wengen. From all three places, early morning trains allow you to reach Jungfraujoch in time to meet your guide at 10.40.
Backpack weight should be kept to a minimum. Dress in layers with a waterproof top layer and take a change of clothing for use in the refuge. Good walking boots and walking poles are required. Sunglasses are essential and factor 50 sun cream is recommended. Konkordia hütte is a remote but modernised SAC refuge in a fabulous location. Sleeping is in small dormitories and toilets are chemical. The water supply is limited and there are no showers. Half-board accommodation includes a substantial four-course dinner and a basic continental breakfast. Take a lightweight sleeping bag liner; sleeping bags are not necessary as the refuge has duvets and blankets.