A Cap on Climbers at Mont Blanc

As another scorching summer in the Northern Hemisphere comes to an end, alpine hikers are preparing for an unfamiliar tourism restraint on Mont Blanc, the Alp’s highest peak, beginning next climbing season. The mountain, which straddles France and Italy, faces a cap on climbing issued by the French government. This new policy intends to permanently limit the number of mountaineers ascending the 4,810-meter summit from the Royal Route, Mont Blanc’s busiest climbing route which begins in France.

Pointing at the 3842m height of Mont Blanc (Source: Masin/Flickr).

As reported by The Telegraph, the Royal Route is currently used by three-fourths of the adventure seekers who attempt to reach the peak each year. Starting next summer, the French government will half the number of climbers, allowing only 214 climbers per day. This decision was made after a surge of adventure seekers, some ill-prepared for the alpine challenge, resulted in sixteen deaths this past summer. The deaths were largely caused by avalanches and rockfalls during the final ascent, with such hazards likely to increase under the current global warming trajectory.

Mont Blanc, with its magnificent glacial sceneries and relatively climbable, well-marked trail, has become the center of modern alpine tourism since the first ascent of the mountain in 1786. Today it remains one of the most popular climbs in the world, with thousands of tourists traversing its trails and visiting its campgrounds each year. But among landscapes, alpine and glacier environments are increasingly fragile under changing climates. Mont Blanc is not an exception, with the effects of climate change progressively more noticeable.

Arnaud Temme climbs Mont Blanc from a harder route to avoid the “traffic jam” on the overcrowded Royal Route (Source: Arnaud Temme).

“When I repeated climbs [in the Alps] after more than a decade, these changes were very clear,” Arnaud Temme, a geographer at Kansas State University and an experienced climber, shared with GlacierHub. “It is sad when beautiful bright ice is replaced by wide expanses of rock and rubble.”

One of the most popular attractions on Mont Blanc, the glacier Mer de Glace, sits on the northern slope of the massif. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist, recently told The Guardian that the glacier “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years alone.” A visible consequence of the retreating Mer de Glace snout is that 100m of ladders have been fixed against newly exposed vertical rock walls for hikers to climb down the glacier.

The Mer De Glace has retreated at least 80 meters in depth over the years. Climbers now have to ascend steep ladders to reach the icy areas (Source: Theodore/Flickr).

As a seasoned climber, Temme talked to GlacierHub about the impact of the changes he has witnessed on the mountain. “I’ve climbed in the European Alps for decades, and there is no doubt that climbing and high hiking routes are getting more dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been in tight spots several times due to glacial retreat or permafrost degradation, and have experienced declines in the quality of routes much more often.” He added that it takes more energy and attention as a climber to cross fields of loose rock than to cross a glacier.

According to Temme’s research and his own experiences of “getting into trouble” on the mountain, the conclusion is clear that conditions are becoming riskier.

“Since the 1990s, guidebook authors and their informants have started describing conditions that are more dangerous for climbers. Increased levels of rockfall were the main culprit— directly linked to climate change and permafrost retreat. Many routes are no longer even described in guidebooks, to prevent climbers from risking their lives on them,” he said.

It is indisputable that the rapid glacial melting and frozen ground thawing are causing a shrinkage of the snowy landscapes. In alpine areas, glacial retreat is always accompanied by more rock exposure. As the stability of the glacier is reduced as it melts, the chance of rocks falling and posing deadly threats to climbers increases. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 570 rockfalls occurred on the Mont Blanc massif, with the number of people killed increasing each year.

Given these risks, the future of alpine tourism looks bleak. Temme thinks glaciers will continue their retreat to higher altitudes. “Glacial tourism in some lower locations will become impossible, and it will become more expensive in others. Alpine climbs involving glaciers will have to be adapted, rerouted and, in some cases, abandoned like others already have,” he said.

Raoul Kaenzig, a climate researcher from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told GlacierHub, “Mountains are spaces of freedom and should remain so as much as possible. I would focus on the prevention and the education of the tourists instead of prohibiting access by law. Restrictions measures should be kept only for extreme cases, like Mont Blanc.”

The fragile dynamics at Mont Blanc are also at work in other mountain ranges, Temme warned. For example, the Olympic Mountains in the U.S. state of Washington and the Southern Alps in New Zealand, both popular with climbers, have a great deal of glacier ice and are experiencing substantial climate change. As the planet warms, climbers to the world’s highest peaks will have to adapt to new mountain landscapes and the rising risks associated with glacier retreat.

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Villagers in Bhilangana Valley Satisfied with High Tourism Rates

New research in a section of the Himalayas popular with tourists shows that villages are generally more satisfied with their visitors than was thought. The paper by R.K. Dhodi and Shivam Prakash Bhartiya, published in the South Asian Journal for Tourism and Heritage, describes the positive impacts of tourism on the villages of the Bhilangana Valley, and the satisfaction of the villagers. Both Dhodi and Bhartiya belong to the Centre of Mountain Tourism and Hospitality Studies in Gharwal Central University in Northern India and have conducted extensive research on the impacts of tourism-related activities in the region.
Hikers on Khatling Glacier (Source: travelroach.com/Pinterest).

The Bhilangana Valley, located within the Gharwal Region of Uttarakhand in India, is part of the Northern Himalayan chain, with some of the highest mountain peaks in the world including Kairi, Draupadi-ka-Danda and Janoli, all over 5500 m. The region draws many adventurous hikers who seek to traverse the valley to reach the spectacular Khatling glacier. Despite being a rather pristine valley, the Bhilangana draws a steady stream of tourists annually. In 2012, the region was visited by 56.7 million domestic tourists (mostly pilgrims) and 1.6 million foreigners.

From the base camp, Guttu, there are villages interspersed throughout the 42 km glacier hike. These communities rely and invest in nature-based tourism as they believe in the economic and social benefits it begets. “Locals are involved in eateries, restaurants, and tea stall businesses through which they can provide the taste of local cuisine to the tourists. Transport, guiding, and porting services are also provided by the host community members including the facility of homestays, hotels, and guest houses,” Dhodi explains. “Besides, rural areas are rich in natural and socio-cultural resources as they have large diversities of flora and fauna, pilgrimage places, fairs and festivals, and traditional agricultural practices which they can showcase to the tourists.”

Hikers gather around a fireplace in a village hut to dry their shoes (Source: bikeadventures.com/Pinterest).

Hiker Tejas Damle, who participated in the glacier hike in May 2011, told GlacierHub, “The local homes were basically furnished with all essentials from a hiker’s perspective – food, firewood, water and a good place to sleep. Locals of the villages were totally friendly and very interactive. Little kids would gather around saying ‘namaste mithai’ and the happiness they displayed is priceless.”

In fact, this satisfaction goes both ways. Based on 500 surveys conducted by the authors, all of the communities were reportedly very satisfied with their villages’ current level of engagement in tourism-related activities. The top three perceived positive impacts were an increase in employment opportunities, improvement in living utilities and infrastructure, and enhanced preservation of the physical environment.

Yet, Dhodi also warns that “tourism development should only be taken as a tool for community development but not as a goal,” implying that communities should not aim to solely rely on tourism for social and economic progress. While nature is used as a major selling point in nature-based tourism, it is also its greatest threat. Communities are vulnerable to changes in climate which are beyond their control. Currently, a rapid warming trend that surpasses global averages plagues the Himalaya mountain region. Glacier retreat, glacier lake expansion and halving of glacier depth were observed in the region.

View of some Himalayan Peaks during the glacier hike (Source: Instagram via @traveller_ted).

Apart from the slow disappearance of their main tourist attraction – the Khatling Glacier – the villages of the valley may also need to deal with other hazards associated with high mountain living such as flash floods, landslides and debris flow. This raises questions about the sustainability of relying on nature-based tourism. An occurrence of a single disaster is enough to turn tourists off. 

As Michal Apollo from the Department of Tourism and Regional Studies of the Pedagogical University of Krakow told GlacierHub, “The effects of climate change in the Himalaya have been shown by many scholars and may have significant impact on mountaineering in the future. Climate change is already affecting the length of the climbing and trekking season. Although some areas are responding positively to climate change and are becoming easier to traverse, the changing climate also makes some routes unpassable, especially those requiring glacier travel on the way to the summit.”

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Photo Friday: Jotunheimen National Park

Jotunheimen National Park in southern Norway contains more than 250 mountains, including Norway’s two tallest peaks, Galdhøpiggen (2469 metres above sea level) and Glittertind (2465 metres above sea level). Its name means “Home of the Giants” and it is located within the Scandinavian Mountains. Its glacier-carved landscape is a popular camping, hiking and fishing location, as the park’s official website explains. With up to 60 glaciers, the spectacular scenery and diverse wildlife – including reindeer, elk, deer, wolverine and lynx – make it a popular tourist destination.

 

Galdhøpiggen is Norway's tallest mountain and a popular destination within the park (Source: Tore Røraas / Creative Commons)
Galdhøpiggen is Norway’s tallest mountain and a popular destination within the park (Source: Tore Røraas/Creative Commons).

 

The park contains more than 60 glaciers, making glacier hiking a popular activity (Source: Creative Commons).
The park contains more than 60 glaciers, making glacier hiking a popular activity (Source: Creative Commons).

 

Besseggen Ridge, running along a glacier-carved valley, is one of the most popular hiking trails in Norway (Source: Espen Faugstad / Creative Commons)
Besseggen Ridge, running along a glacier-carved valley, is one of the most popular hiking trails in Norway, attracting more than 30,000 visitors a year (Source: Espen Faugstad/Creative Commons).

 

The park has more than 250 peaks, giving it the highest concentration of peaks within Northern Europe (Source: Marcin Szala / Creative Commons).
The park has more than 250 peaks, giving it the highest concentration of peaks within Northern Europe (Source: Marcin Szala/Creative Commons).

 

Glittertind, Norway's second highest peak, is also located within the park (Source: Anders Beer Wilse / Creative Commons).
Glittertind, Norway’s second highest peak, is also located within the park (Source: Anders Beer Wilse, National Library of Norway/Creative Commons).

 

The park is also a popular location from cross country skiing (Source: Den Norske Turistforening / Creative Commons).
For those who are more adventurous, the park is also a popular location for cross country skiing (Source: Den Norske Turistforening/Creative Commons).

 

The park attracts thousands of people every year, ranging from those looking for easier hikes, to those seeking thrilling adventures, as can be seen in this video.

 

 

Check out more photos of Jotunheimen National Park here.

 

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Teaching Geology Through Climbing

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A map of the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province in Italy (Source: Gigillo83/Creative Commons).

Learning by doing can be an effective educational tool. Irene Bollati et al. discovered this to be true while researching climbing as a way to educate students about earth science in the glacier-rich Italian Alps. Their findings were featured in a recent article in the Journal of the Virtual Explorer, in which they describe how climbing teaches young people about processes like weathering and glacial retreat.

For their research, Bollati et al. looked specifically at the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola Province in the western Italian Alps, where there is a long tradition of mountaineering. As the most northern province in Italy’s Piedmont region, the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola is located in a subduction zone in which the Eurasian and African plates collide. Mountain chains like the Alps are an ideal location for education, because they contain geosites, places where many geological and geomorphological processes are exposed in a relatively small area. By finding these locations on which to climb, younger generations can be inspired to learn and become more invested in the preservation of the site’s features.

Finding geosites typically has one of two goals, according to Bollati et al. The first is geosite conservation when the site is rare and at risk of degradation. The second is earth science dissemination in cases where the site is valuable for educational purposes. In the latter, it is important that the site’s usage for educational purposes not put its scientific integrity at risk. In their study, Bollati et al. focused on methodology to find the most valuable geosites which meet both goals.

Specifically, the researchers focused on a pilot educational project, in which they assessed 100 13 and 14-year-old students from four schools about 80 km from the study region. The project sought to identify the most suitable climbing locations and best mountain cliffs on which students could learn about earth science and geoheritage. According to Bollati et al., geoheritage includes earth features and processes that should be sustained, conserved or managed for their natural heritage value. To determine these regions, Bollati et al. relied on eight major criteria including accessibility, rock cliff quality, and the presence of evident and active hazards. In total, they analyzed 59 crags using the eight major criteria, further dividing those crags into sub-locations.

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The subduction zones in Europe (Source: Woudloper/Creative Commons).

In total, the study pinpointed 14 sub-locations or “geodiversity” sites in the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province best suited for hiking and climbing. Subduction-collision zones like the Alps are excellent examples of geodiversity sites due to the many different types of rocks found within narrow areas. “Geodiversity,” a term first introduced in 1993, can be understood as the equivalent of biodiversity for geology, according to a paper by Murray Gray. It includes all geological, geomorphological, and soil features. It also encompasses their properties, relationships, and systems, according to Bollati et al.

The researchers defined three categories of geodiversity: extrinsic geodiversity (geodiversity of a region in comparison with other regions), regional intrinsic geodiversity (within a region), and geodiversity of a single site. The best examples of these processes and resulting features are called “geodiversity sites.” The most valuable of these for geoconservation are referred to as “geosites” and form the “geoheritage” of a region.

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A view of the Italian Alps (Source: A. Duarte/Flickr).

In the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province, students can observe several important signs of glaciation. For example, rock slopes along the Ossola Valley and in the tributary valleys demonstrate glacial modeling. In addition, the researchers used rock samples and virtual methods to introduce the students to the three major rock families, igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary, as well as the geomorphology of the cliffs.  

Bollati et al. also used videos of climbers along three selected routes to help students learn where climbers were finding foot- and hand-holds. The hope was that students would become curious and ask questions about how the rocks formed. However, the authors found that the videos served better as support than as a substitute for the hands-on learning about earth science that climbing provides. By physically climbing the peaks, students learn first-hand how different climates and rock types impact the Earth.

In their study, Bollati et al. confirmed that students can more effectively learn by doing, understanding earth science better by identifying the more suitable locations on which to climb. Their findings encourage future generations interested in geology and conservation to find inspiration while climbing mountains.

 

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Photo Friday: Around Ausangate

About 100 kilometers southeast of Cuzco sits the majestic Ausangate mountain, which is surrounded by herds of alpaca and communities of llama herders. The mountain was considered a deity by the Incans and today backpackers enjoy the Ausengate circuit, a hike that circles the mountain in five or six days. Here is a selection of photos from along the route, courtesy of Flickr users Rick McCharles, Tim Farley, Josh, Indrik myneur, and Aaron Korr.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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