The Great Aletsch Glacier

Exploring and appreciating the disappearing heart of the Swiss Alps.
By Julian Mattocks
Photographs Courtesy Julian Mattocks

There can be few sights in European nature as formidable and awe-inspiring as the first glimpse of the Great Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss canton of Valais. As I emerge from the gondola on the Moosfluh high above the village of Riederalp, a seemingly eternal fissured river of ice winds its way down the valley through towering snow-capped peaks that rise against the blue sky. An empty wooden bench beckons me to take in the breathtaking view of the moraines and crevasses of the frozen stream flanked magnificently by the mountains. While most visitors will first encounter the 20 km (12.4 mile) long glacier—the largest in the Alps—from its top at the Jungfraujoch, here at its closest viewpoint I have a front-row seat.

Formed during the last Ice Age over 18,000 years ago by the confluence of three firn streams (the Great Aletschfirn, the Jungfraufirn and the Ewigschneefeld) descending from the northern wall of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks, the sheer magnitude of the mighty glacier is mind-blowing. Encompassing an area of almost 80 km² (30.8 mi2), it weighs an astonishing 10 billion tons and is 800 meters (2,625 ft) thick at Konkordiaplatz, its deepest point and the crossroads where the three glaciers converge. The mass of ice flows down towards the Rhône Valley at just under 200 meters (656 ft) per year from this intersection, which is named after an Englishman, J. F. Hardy, who likened the glacier’s famous junction to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It is estimated that if it were to melt, the glacial giant could supply each citizen on earth with one liter (1 quart) of water a day for four years.

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