Switzerland is renowned for stunning vistas. Let's be honest; when you are blessed with a mountain range featuring the who’s who of alpine A-listers, including the Matterhorn, the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monte Rosa, which it shares with Italy (to name just a handful), it is safe to say hikers' jaws will drop when trekking here.
Nothing, however, quite prepares you for the scale of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Aletsch Glacier. Resembling a huge frozen snake stretching almost 23 kilometres, the Aletsch is the largest glacier in the European Alps. If that is not imposing enough, its peak depth plunges to almost one kilometre.
We’re hiking a four-hour route from Eggishorn Peak, where we first spot the glacier in all its glory. It is summer and the slate-white ice has been thrust into sharp relief with the dark rock of the surrounding snow-free mountains. Jungfrau’s pearly peak stares down at us from the distance and the glacier forms a winding driveway leading to its pure white fortress. Mark Twain once wrote, “It’s a good name, Jungfrau – Virgin. Nothing could be whiter; nothing could be purer; nothing could be saintlier of aspect.” He’s not wrong.
We pass mountain lakes and cascading waterfalls en route. Around each gorge the scenery becomes increasingly captivating. It is only once you are up in the Alps that you can truly comprehend the magnitude of the mountains. I’d never call myself a hiker but I now understand the appeal. Time is lost taking in the views and, as we round a glass-still lake and pass the lonesome Restaurant Gletscherstube, a little wooden hut nestled between hills, we can see the glacier in the distance. We make a deal to celebrate our icy hike with a beer here on our return journey and head down to the monolith’s edge.
Staring up at a 20-metre-high slab of ice offers a daunting perspective. We tie ourselves together and our guide Henri takes the lead at the top of the rope. With a couple of slips and a combined group effort the eight of us manage to scramble to standing position. The virgin Jungfrau sits proudly to our right and to our left looms the unmistakable Matterhorn, its peak teasing us with the perfect snapshot between moving clouds.
Crystalline floe crunches below our feet as we make our way over the glacier. It is lunar in colour, and while walking on it is unsteady it is not as slippery as you might expect. There are mini waterfalls and rivers rushing through deep blue ice channels below us. Sometimes thrill seekers ride hydroboards down the channels of running water created by the summer sun. An activity for the next trip, I dare myself. Henri explains the alarming rate at which the glacier is disappearing, shrinking almost three kilometres since 1870, due to ever-increasing thaw. “I’d like to see the climate-change deniers explain that,” he says with disdain.
We find a flat, almost gravel-like plain in the middle of the glacier and sit down for lunch. The Alps tower over us on either side and an endless freeway of jagged ice leads to the Matterhorn.
“Can you feel us moving?” Henri asks. I am glad to say I can’t. The glacier flows almost 200 metres a year, he explains, and with climate change it’s moving faster. A child born today might even see the end of the Aletsch Glacier’s days.
It takes almost 10 years for a metre of snowfall to create a single centimetre of glacial ice. The fact that at one stage we were standing on ice almost a kilometre deep makes the celebratory beers at Gletscherstube somewhat bittersweet.