Steven (‘Stevo’) McDonald, a snowboard instructor and owner of White Room Snowboarding, has been living in the French Alps for over a decade. This Autumn, along with a group of other instructors and guides, he signed up to participate in a Clean-Up day on the Tignes glacier. Already increasingly aware of the destructive impacts of the warming climate on the local mountains and economy, this experience shed new light on yet another grim aspect of the shrinking ice…
In Tignes, the Mountain Guides are among the few who spend time on the summer glacier away from the groomed and maintained ski lanes. Taking clients out to experience glacier walking, they explore the flatter terrain below the crevasses and seracs of the north face of the Grande Motte. When they do so, they’ve increasingly been finding large amounts of litter and debris in this area. The cause? Long-buried waste emerging from the glacier ice as it melts.
There are two main sources of this. Back in the early eighties, a new ski tow was constructed directly below the steep face of the Motte, lasting barely a year before being destroyed by a large serac fall and avalanche. Most of the larger debris (pylons, wheels and lift stations) were then removed by helicopter. Smaller parts, such as the lift cable, guide pulleys and innumerable fixings nuts and bolts remained behind, buried metres deep in the ice. Furthermore, nearby, and out of the path of the avalanche, once stood a restaurant called the Panoramique, now removed and replaced with a new restaurant at the top of the funicular. In the area where the restaurant’s bins were once located, large amounts of waste have been revealed as the ice has melted.
For those of us who had volunteered for this Clean Up, our job for the day was to remove as much of this debris as possible, transporting it by hand back up to the funicular station. I spent several hours perched precariously on a spine of ice between two crevasses, picking shards of glass and rusted tin cans out of the ice. Working on down the hill, we found a plethora of ski debris, including a functional-looking ski which dated back to at least the early seventies.
The most daunting task was tackling the lift wreckage – a tangle of interconnected heavy steel tow cables weaving in and out of the snow. Using heavy-duty bolt-croppers to help, we pulled sections of cable out of the ice where we could; others, still solidly-encased, were cropped-off to await a future mission. We formed dog-teams of six or seven to drag each heavy cable section up the steep slope back to the top station. All the ski detritus and construction debris would then be transported down on the funicular and across to the local recycling centre for disposal.
Being on the glacier at this time of year, with the snow cover at its late summer minimum, has been an eye-opener. Discussion with other locals and photos on social media all draw attention to the fact that the glacier is shrinking, with the economic effects of the visible in the glacier’s changing summer schedule. When I moved to the valley fourteen years ago, Tignes was billing itself as a resort where you could “Ski 365 days a year”, but shortly afterwards, it was forced to begin closing in the Spring.
Today, the glacier opens only briefly for June and July, after a brief transition shut-down in late May. It is then closed till mid-October, when the pre-season period starts again. Ski race teams, including the French national team, have moved their summer training programs elsewhere. Tignes even seriously proposed the construction of an indoor snowdome in order to recover some of this lost trade.
What has been very clear to me throughout my years in the valley has been the change in the summer climate. Ten years ago, an Alpine summer felt not too different from a decent summer in the UK. Now, however, we get scorching hot, near bone-dry weather from mid-June to mid-September, with rainfall only in the form of intense but short-lived thunderstorms, often bringing destructive quantities of water within their short time-span.
During the heat waves of 2019, temperatures in Bourg Saint Maurice hit record highs, coming close to matching these again in summer 2020. The storms as these heatwaves broke resulted not just in the cancellation of two stages of the 2019 Tour de France, but also in destructive mud-slides, which blocked roads around the valley and destroyed bridges in and around Bourg Saint Maurice.
Glaciers are particularly vulnerable to increased summer temperatures, which can swiftly overcome the restorative effect of a ‘good’ winter. And, as the ice retreats, more and more detritus is disgorged from the glacier. The area available for summer skiing continues to shrink and the quality of the snow keeps on diminishing. Huge areas of polished rock lie where only a few years ago, there was ice. As we worked, a new lake was visible, unseen in previous years.
The future of summer glacier skiing in Tignes looks doubtful. It has already been cut back to the economic bare bones and any further shortening of the season must surely result in its final cancellation. And one thing is certain: as more and more trash is revealed beneath the melting ice, we will continue to need volunteers to help rid the glacier of this debris.
Written by Steven (‘Stevo’) McDonald. Images by Steven McDonald / members of the Glacier Clean-up Team.