Ice-Cold Exploration: High in the Swiss Alps, Robbie Shone Joins a Team of British Scientists Exploring, Mapping and Photographing the Network of Moulins and Ice Caves That Riddle the 14-Kilometre-Long Gorner Glacier

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Towering above the Alpine villages of Switzerland, Italy and France, the imposing peaks of the Matterhorn and its neighbours have long been a Mecca for mountaineers and explorers alike. Today, while cable cars and a mountain railway transport hordes of tourists to the more accessible areas, pioneering exploration continues, not on the surface, but far out of sight in the icy depths of the second largest glacier system in the Alps.

On the eastern side of the tourist town of Zermatt, two big glaciers fall into the deep on either side of Monte Rosa, the highest mountain in Switzerland and the second-highest in both the Alps and western Europe. To the left is the Findelen Glacier and to the right is the 14-kilometre-long Gorner Glacier.

At the end of October last year, I joined a seven-person British team that was returning to the Gorner Glacier for its second expedition exploring, mapping and photographing the sub-glacial world of moulins--well-like shafts through which meltwater drains from the surface of the glacier--and the ice caves that they help to create.


We arrived in Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, late in the evening, heavily laden with equipment and enough food for a week's stay on the glacier. By now, the three members of the advance party should have been tucked up in their sleeping bags, perched on the edge of the glacier, awaiting our arrival the next morning.

The weather seemed calm and benign, but that evening, considerably more snow fell than had been forecast and the next day, the Gornergrat mountain railway--which would transport us up to the glacier--was closed. Up on the mountain, the advance party was completely snowed in, with only the tips of their tents sticking out of the fallen snow.

So, a day later than planned, we took the railway up the mountain and reached the station from which our hike along the footpath and down to the glacier would begin. When we alighted from the train, however, we discovered an expanse of knee-deep snow. It would be impossible to cover the three-kilometre traverse down to the advance team that afternoon, especially without snowshoes, so we set-up camp close to the station.

The following day was clear and we began digging out a path from our camp down towards the glacier. Meanwhile, the advance team was heading back towards us. …


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