Travel By Glacier

“There were three skulls and their teeth were so white!”

That’s how my mountain guide began our hike onto Aletsch glacier—by recounting with excitement and detail the condition of three dead bodies he had seen laying on the ice the day before.

A British couple had happened upon them while exploring the glacier and my guide Kilian was then hired by police to go investigate.  What they found was a mystery of CSI proportions.

“There were three skeletons total—they had their clothes and snowshoes, old-fashioned leg wrappings, nailed boots, binoculars, and a pipe for smoking. In their pockets were nine Swiss francs—old money from the 1920’s.”

Kilian could not get over how white the dead men’s teeth were and how well-preserved the items that had emerged from the ice. He kept moving his finger across this own smiling teeth and exclaiming, “so white!”

The mysterious find is still under investigation, but Kilian believes the bodies are part of a four-man climbing crew that went missing in March 1926. Three of them were brothers from nearby Lötschentahl and had not been heard of since.

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The icy ridges of Aletsch Glacier (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

“Anything could have happened—they could have fallen into a crevasse or been trapped in bad weather, fallen asleep and frozen to death.”

Such was an ominous kick-off to my own adventure on the ice. Crunching with crampons through the first kilometer of thick white ice of Aletsch Glacier, I could not help but imagine falling into one of the great cracks that we were hopping across, then getting stuck down there for decades, mummified in pure blue ice until one day, the natural thaw of summer spit me out on top of the glacier, just like those poor souls from Lötschentahl.

The term “adventure” is far too overused nowadays, but by my personal definition, real adventure involves the real threat (and thrill) of mortal danger or at least major mishap. Hiking the longest glacier in the Alps fit the bill because as wonderful and beautiful as it was, making a wrong move can be fatal.

I felt safe because I was doing it right, with the right gear (crampons, ice axe, harnesses and ropes) and with a guide, Kilian Volken a local alpinist with more than 35 years experience in these mountains.

He first climbed this area in 1959 and as I followed him on the ice, I was amazed at how Kilian navigated the bumps and hills, drops and cracks in the glacier, winding us safely upwards an altitude of more than 3,300 m (10,000 ft).

We stopped for a water break and Kilian pointed out the spot.

“That’s where the bodies were—right over there.”

He brought up the white teeth again, the strange, old-fashioned implements that were scattered on the ice, a strange kind of alpine archeological site, released by the ice.

On average, the Aletsch glacier travels about 200 meters (656 feet) per year. If the found bodies were in fact those of the lost climbers from 1926, then they spent 86 years trapped inside the glacier, traveling about 12 km total from where they were lost before popping up on the surface. The notion alone was an eerie illustration of how glaciers move and just how large and powerful they are.

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Between Aletsch and Fiesch glaciers in the Bernese Alps, the permanent ice is more than 3,000 ft thick. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Walking with crampons, it took me two and half days (and two nights) to hike the 40 km (25 miles) of pure ice, up the Aletsch glacier and then back down Fiesch glacier. What amazed me most was how quickly the ice changes and how loud it can be—the cracks and fizz, the tumbles and pops and then the thundering sound of ice calving and breaking off. Every once in a while, a boulder would slide and collapse, the ice having melted just enough to no longer support the weight of the rocks.

As I traveled the length of Aletsch glacier, I realized that I was only one of the many moving objects clinging to the ice—there were rocks and stripes of sand, veins of rivers and little lost objects, a dead sparrow from a season or two ago, frozen like a framed picture of some long lost feathered dinosaur.

Mine was a real adventure, where Kilian tested each snow bridge before we crossed it, where I had a few good slips on the glacier that could have ended badly if I wasn’t harnessed with a rope.

What made it all worth it was the destination—the high glacial sweep of the mountains north of Fiesch truly reminded me of Antarctica—the entire world was white and the endless slopes looked like a Sahara of snow.

Silently, the two of us kept hiking through the lonely and gargantuan and icescapes in the highest part of the Bernese Alps. I soon found that I was too busy to think about dying inside the glacier and becoming one with it for decades.

Instead, I focused on where to put my feet, which cracks to avoid and watching Kilian’s back carefully. My mountain guide took me to places I would never go on my own and that was the whole point: to travel by glacier is to go where few humans can ever visit.

The secret is to move faster than the ice. Also, not to fall asleep. “That’s how you freeze to death,” explained Kilian, very matter-of-factly.

I made a mental note of it—don’t fall asleep on a moving glacier—and then smiled back at my guide, showing him my whitest teeth.

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Experienced alpine guide Kilian Volken carefully navigates the crevasses of Fiesch Glacier. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)