WITNESSES TO THE CHANGE: Daniel Silbernagel adventuring in the Alps
Daniel Silbernagel is a Swiss mountain guide who has spent 300 or more days for each of the past 20-plus years in the Alps, hiking, climbing and guiding. Our 2010 Alpine Adventures brochure highlights the mountaineering gear Silbernagel used during a long weekend in Switzerland’s Gruben Valley where he was doing repair and maintenance on the Underi Bächli-Licken, a moderate alpine route that has sections in constant need of attention in order to keep it safe due to the Gruben Glacier’s retreat.
Below is the essay Silbernagel wrote for the 2010 Alpine Adventures brochure in which he shares his personal observations of the impact global warming has had on what has essential been his backyard for the past 20-plus years.
To request a copy of the 2010 Alpine Adventures brochure, email our customer service crew at email@example.com and they’ll send off one asap or you download the PDF of the brochure by clicking here.
Witnesses To The Change
By Daniel Silbernagel
The melting of glaciers has left its mark clearly in the Alps’ gruebenkessel for the last few years. Large sections of the Grueben Glacier have entirely disappeared and the remnant ice cover is now thin. The alpine bowl will probably be denuded of ice within 10 years. This is a disturbing perspective. Not only the landscape changes, but the demands on climbers increase, too. Of special concern to climbers are, as everywhere, the transitions from ice to rock. The Underi Bächli-Licken used to be an easy alpine traverse through a notch from the Grueben Hut to the Baechlital Hut. Now the glacier has lost thickness and there is no longer a comfortable snow passage to the rock ledge that leads to the col. Smooth, talus-covered rock slabs, a large bergschrund and loose rock passages block the way. It’s my goal to equip this traverse in a way to make it better, and more importantly safer, to use for climbers.
Luxuriant fall colors and snacks of huckleberries accompany me on the way into the Gruebenkessel– a gift of nature! In my backpack: crampons, ice axe, harness, rope, headlamp, carabiners, ATC, bolts, drill and food. Peace and quiet seems to reign up here. The Grueben Hut sits at 2300 meters on a rocky spur like an eagle’s eyrie above Grueben Lake. A righteous piece of the earth.
At 6:30 the next morning, it’s still cool outside, the toque goes on and I start in the headlamp light; first downhill over rocks and moraine terrain—witnesses to the glacier’s retreat—and onto the Grueben Glacier or whatever is left of it. The glacier gets slippery, crampons and gloves go on, and on to the col past some crevasses on the bare glacier. In the heart of the glacier the dramatic retreat of the ice has torn a large piece of the glacier away—the ice there has disappeared. Here, too, smooth polished rock slabs are showing. Ice chunks bar my way, an image like Antarctica.
By now the first rays of the sun have come and my gaze goes up toward the Underi Bächli-Licken. Where might the best route be? Close to the rocks, which are very loose in places, I put my helmet on. It won’t be much good against chunks like those sitting here, but it gives me the certainty of a bit of protection. At the bergschrund my luck is in: the snow bridge has collapsed, but it still makes some kind of bridge to the rock slabs. Sand and small pebbles act as ball bearings on the glacier-polished slabs. I access compact rock above and bolt a fixed rope over the dangerously loose terrain. On the ledge to the col I push small rocks and boulders to the sides. A small path grows. There are enough rocks for cairns and after all the work the first rays of the sun hit me in the col. A warm, well deserved rest before I head down.
Back at the Grueben Hut I write down on a sheet of paper the route of the re-established Underi Bächli-Licken I built—but for how long will this variant be viable? If the glacier recedes further, more rockfalls are likely and the trail work will start anew…
Daniel Silbernagel is a Swiss mountain guide and caretaker of the Grueben Hut in the Bernese Oberland. He has spent virtually his entire life in the Alps, be it climbing, hiking, exploring or guiding.