CHAMONIX’S SHRINKING SEA OF ICE
There are 7 major glaciers and several minor ones in the Chamonix valley. The Mer de Glace (i.e. Sea of Ice) is the second largest glacier in the Alps (the largest being the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland), and it’s right on our doorstep. So today we went up to see this incredible spectacle, but not before taking the time to check out the views from Le Brévent.
We woke to yet another beautiful morning here in Chamonix, though clouds were building and the weather forecast was predicting a wet afternoon.
Keen to make the most of the weather while we could we spent the morning up at Le Brévent, one of the mountains in the Aiguilles Rouges range that stands opposite Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi.
The cable car up to Le Brévent leaves from the outskirts of Chamonix so we were soon being whisked up to 2,525m by the Brévent cable car.
The main reason we wanted to go up to Le Brévent was to enjoy views across the valley towards Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi. We were not disappointed!
With clouds building and no time to waste we scooted back down the mountain by cable car and made our way across town to the Montenvers train station, from which the tiny rack-and-pinion train bound for Le Mer de Glace departs. Ever since 2 English explorers, William Windham and Richard Pocock, first discovered the Mer de Glace in 1741, it has become one of the world’s most visited glaciers. The area became accessible by mule from 1802, but it was the opening of the Montenvers train in 1908 that really opened the site up for casual visitors like us.
The train climbs up behind Chamonix to 1,913m altitude. From there you can either catch the cable car down into the glacier valley or walk the 2km down. We chose to walk down and were rewarded with some great views across the valley to the surrounding mountains and the glacier below.
On the way down there were markers indicating where the glacier used to reach. The sheer amount of ice that has disappeared from the Mer de Glace alone is staggering! And it was obvious form the markers that the rate of ice melt has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Whether the effects wrought by climate change are man-made or not, there can be doubt that the rate of change is increasing, and nowhere is that more apparent than here, where the shrinking of the glaciers is so obvious.
They have an exhibit up at the Mer de Glace that explains how glaciers are formed and showed how climate change is affecting the glaciers of the Chamonix Valley. There we learned that, up until the mid 1800’s, it was still possible to see the Mer de Glace from Chamonix itself! So large was the glacier that at one stage it was encroaching on the valley below and threatened to destroy the villages there. Church records show that local bishops were called to exorcize the demons in the ice to keep them from devouring forests and crops! Since about 1820, however, the glacier has steadily retreated until it is now a fraction of its former size (today Mer de Glace is just 7km long and about 1km wide; the ice is only about 200-400m deep).
The main attraction at Mer de Glace is the man-made ice cave carved into the glacier. This grotto has to be dug out every summer since the glacier moves about 70m every year, and gives you a chance to see the glacier up close (without needing crampons, ice picks, or other ice-walking gear). It’s all pretty touristy, but very interesting and worth the visit.
The ice cave not huge, but it’s still large enough that we got to feel the cold of the glacier around us as we walked through. The ice was incredibly blue, though we couldn’t really see the actual colour of the ice most of the time as they had multi-coloured disco lights illuminating the cave and painting the walls various colours (Why? Surely the spectacle of nature is enough?!).
They have been carving ice caves* into the Mer de Glace since 1946, but the glacier has shrunk so much that in recent years a cable car was added to help get people down to the glacier’s edge and back up to the train again. As mentioned before, we walked down into the glacier valley, but as the clouds had well and truly closed in by now and it had started drizzling, we chose to catch the cable car back up.
*Seems 1st September is our favourite day visiting ice caves – it was 2 years ago to the day that we were in the ice cave at Jungfrau in Switzerland!
Not long after we were back on the Montenvers train and heading back down the mountain, bound for Chamonix and a warm hot chocolate. We’re back in town now, watching the sky darken and the drizzle turn to rain. Conditions can change so quickly up here in the mountains; we’re just counting ourselves fortunate to have been ahead of the worst of the weather. Warm and dry back here in our hotel room, it’s actually quite nice watching the rain fall and enjoying the cool change. It’s been so nice having these few days up here in the mountains, but given that this rainy weather is set to stay (and turn to snow later in the week!), we’ve decided to move on tomorrow and head back down to warmer climes. Join us then blog fans to see where our wandering soles take us next!