text and pictures by Azzurra Muriti
The more it thawed, the more we covered it
The more it shrank, the more we dug
The mutation began towards the end of the 18th century. The superstitious fear that Alpine peaks struck into the chamoniards’ hearts did not hold foreigners back. Some of the first to climb up to the Mer de Glace were explorers and so-called ‘cristalliers’ in search of valuable smoked quartz. As soon as the earliest rack railway of Montenvers appeared, a mountain-inn style hotel was overlooking the glacier tongue. At first, the town [of Chamonix] opposed the railway, claiming the revenue from haulage on the mule-tracks. The astonishing figures sufficed to dispel any doubt. Today, the journey is comfortable, but the destination has become disappointing. Below the small Alpine station, once lying on a sea of ice, a barren 1000-meter slope is to be found. The experience sounds haunting, at least verbally: the attractions now open to the public are the Ice Caves, the Crystal Tunnel, and the majestic Temple of Nature.
To the more than three hundred thousand annual visitors, the end of the world is observable. That dying world, artificially recreated, is visitable. Yet it only upsets us when it is our own world to die. From the keyhole that humans are peeping at the planet through, global warming cannot be perceived; all you can feel is the heat and the cold, the dry and the wet seasons. Until, all of a sudden, reality crumbles over personal vested interests and nature-based tourism. After chasing the retreat of ice for decades and building new facilities, relocating the existing attractions is now considered a possible option. That would mean to divert the flux of tourists to other destinations, and to inaugurate a monitoring center. There may be nothing left to see – literally. All that remains are light shows and ice sculptures subject to careful daily maintenance which might allow them to last forever.
Appearances are not so shocking yet. Rain precipitation seems regular and snow still falls. And tourists actually love looking at the ice.
So there is no clear picture of this issue. There is an awkward iron staircase nailed to the rock. There are rusty signs informing visitors about the ice shelves receding over the years. From up there you get a commanding view of the whole valley, a parched gorge receiving only rivulets of water from the thawing ice. There is a lot of noise, though. Unfit tourist are panting, stomping up the steps, holding on to the handrail. A Spaniard overlooking the quarry is shouting sarcastic comments. He is leaning out, looking down, laughing at his slower fellow trekkers, just making fun of them. The cave is a bit quieter. You can hear the sound of drop after drop falling inexorably while your feet are wading puddles. Slippery, heavy tarps line the interior in an attempt to hold the water.
The visitors, wrapped in waterproof cellophane, are moving in circles with outstretched arms. They are taking pictures of each other’s shiny head, suspended in a pale blue glow. Color photos of the glacier can be seen set into its sides and lit by LED lights. The guards urge us to follow the crowd to get onto the last telecabine. It is getting so stuffy in here. To distract myself from nausea, I shall look at the bare rock wall. Upon arrival, I try to take a picture from the terrace of the flow of ice down the slope. All around are man-made structures, steel beams and a concrete shell. All I can do is enjoy the panoramic view, take a selfie among chattering people, and just have a good time like everybody else. This cannot be the end of the world. Seated on the benches of the little red train, I am smiling at the hands waving us goodbye from the mountain inn which lies at the edge of the woods. The weather will be better tomorrow.