His aim is usually to stand on mountain peaks. Even for Dani Arnold, starting a climb with a descent into the darkness was a new mountaineering experience. Follow Dani’s adventure in the depths of the Plaine-Morte glacier and his climb back to daylight with an ice axe.
Glaciers are not compact masses of ice. Their crevasses are both known and feared: if you cross over one on a snow bridge, the darkness below gives you an impression of the hidden depths under your feet. However, this mysterious underworld is quickly forgotten almost as soon as you pass the crevasse. This had previously also been the case for Dani Arnold. Ice is his world - and where else can you find an environment formed entirely from ice?
After the speleologists Fred Bétrisey and Hervé Krummenacher made details of their ice cave explorations on the Plaine Morte publicly accessible in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, Dani Arnold’s interest was aroused. The largest plateau glacier in the Alps barely flows and, other than on its northern tongue, has no crevasses. On the one hand, this makes the Plaine Morte an unspectacular glacier with no crevasse areas. However, this also means that there is less tension in the ice in comparison with a strongly flowing glacier - and therefore less risk of falling. This allows a relative safe descent through glacial potholes, into which millions of liters of meltwater flow each summer.
"We rappelled vertically into the depths for around 50 meters - arriving in a spot where no human had ever stood before."
However, when we set off in the middle of December, we were skeptical - as a lot of snow had already fallen. Many of the entrance holes were blocked. There was just one place where it looked as if the snow had not yet compacted as densely. Dani cautiously attempted the partially snowed-up hole. A dark chamber opened up in front of him. According to Fred and Hervé, who know the Plaine Morte better than almost anyone else, this was the first time this glacial pothole had been accessible. We rappelled vertically into the depths for around 50 meters - arriving in a spot where no human had ever stood before. Below us, the alleyways continued horizontally: we crawled in narrow chambers over paths carved out by meltwater in summer - when we suddenly came to rock. We were surprised to find rock so soon at a relatively low depth of around 60 meters. “Bearing in mind that glaciers lose meters of their thickness each year, it probably won’t be too much longer until you can run here in sneakers,” commented Dani.
The Plaine Morte is up to 200 meters thick in places and the point at which you encounter rock also depends on the topography below the ice. In other places, you can follow a path through glacial potholes 100 meters below the surface, which was what Fred and Hervé had previously done. And even this is not the final destination as the rock is located even deeper. However, the progressive movement can then mean that you are swimming through water-filled alleyways in a diving suit.
But our goal was the route to the surface: steep ice-climbing in unyielding glacial ice. An ice-climbing tour that looks different every year - and is also becoming shorter, as the Plaine Morte is one of the fastest melting Swiss glaciers. As the largest plateau glacier in the Alps, it has no collecting basin and the winter snow no longer lasts throughout the summer. Glacialists from the University of Fribourg estimate that the eternal ice will have disappeared by 2100.
Text: Dominik Osswald
Photos: Severin Karrer