Climate Change is Disrupting Climbing in the Alps

It has been a long, hot summer in many parts of the world, including Europe. Numerous countries have seen record-breaking temperatures, with the mercury routinely climbing above 40ºC in places that have never experienced that level of heat before. This has caused numerous disruptions to life across the continent, forcing Europeans to seek refuge from the hot weather in any way that they can.

The heatwave has had a profound impact on the Alps, in particular, causing peaks that usually have snow all year round to expose their summits for the first time in memory. Glaciers across the mountain range have been in rapid retreat throughout the summer, completely changing the landscapes there. The situation has gotten so difficult, in fact, that climbing in the Alps has become nearly impossible, leading to some iconic mountains getting completely shut down.

climbing in the alps
Photo Credit: Ldh98 via WikiMedia

Classic Climbs are Off-Limits

The unusually warm weather began in May but has continued throughout the summer. Several significant heatwaves rolled across Europe in June and July, and the forecast for August promises more of the same. The hot temperatures have even caused problems at altitude, which is particularly unusual. This has led to an unprecedented melt-off on some of the world’s most well-known mountains, prompting guiding companies to cancel trips at the height of the busy tourist season.

Climbing in the Alps has always been a popular activity for adventure travelers, but right now, some of its most prominent peaks are off-limits. Both the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc are closed to guided climbs and they aren’t likely to reopen until the fall. On the Jungfrau in Switzerland the situation is so bad that guides have canceled climbs for the first time in a century.

After two years of COVID shutdowns, the guide services in France, Italy, and Switzerland were looking forward to a return to normalcy in 2022. Unfortunately, the hot weather has not improved their fortunate, as they now face renewed challenges of staying in business as the mountains swelter in the heat.

climbing in the alps
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Unsafe Conditions

The warming of the upper slopes of peaks like the Matterhorn and the Jungfrau makes this incredibly unsafe. With the snow and ice gone, the mountain is more prone to rock falls and avalanches, making even the classic climbing and hiking routes more unstable. A collapse of the Marmolada Glacier in Italy in July resulted in the deaths of 11 people. That tragic event is directly linked to warming temperatures.

The traditional guiding companies that operate in the Alps recognized these dangers early on, with some canceling tours as early as June. But that hasn’t stopped some alpinists from continuing climbing in the Alps. Many are heading up into the mountains on their own, without a guide at all, despite dire warnings from the locals and the potential of being fined.

The situation has become so dangerous that the mayor of one French town issued a press release condemning the actions. He even took the unusual step of closing two of the most popular mountain refuges in the entire region to prevent unprepared and ill-equipped “pseudo-alpinists” from attempting a climb.

An Anomaly or the New Norm?

For decades, climatologists have been warning us about the impact of climate change and global warming. For years, many people dismissed those concerns as overblown hyperbole. Even today, there are plenty of individuals who still don’t see climate change as a threat to the planet, despite plenty of data that suggests otherwise. With that in mind, the big question is whether or not this summer is an anomaly or will become the new norm.

There is no question that the planet has started to get warmer. Data collected by scientists across the globe from a variety of weather stations have been recording subtle—but undeniable—upticks in temperatures over the past two decades, with many of the hottest years on record occurring in the past few years. That would lead many experts to suggest that the heatwaves that we’re experiencing now are likely to be more frequent in the future, with temperatures continuing to rise, too.

What we do know at the moment is that climbing in the Alps has become completely disrupted and isn’t likely to go back to normal until late fall at the earliest. It is sad to watch this happen to the birthplace of mountaineering, but something tells me that alpinism on these iconic mountains is about to change in some dramatic and profound ways.

Kraig Becker