Your very own spa

Text Claude Hervé-Bazin / Photo David Carlier
Date of publication Winter 2019-2020

Glaciers are everywhere in Zermatt. Their icy forms tumble down the sides of the region’s 38 summits over 4,000 m, almost entirely surrounding the station that’s tucked into the heart of the valley. Here we ski well into the summer.

No less than 22 glaciers surround Zermatt. Small ones, large ones, and one very large one: the Gorner Glacier. At 3,131 m, looking down from the sun-soaked terrace of the Gornergrat train station (just a short, 33-minute journey from Zermatt aboard a cute red train), one sees a landscape of white grooves and folds, that envelop the shoulders of Monte Rosa’s massif like a majestic, silken scarf. On the left lies the Gorner Glacier, while the right side is dominated by the Border Glacier. A clear view is never guaranteed, as fog often sweeps into the valley, obscuring the landscape, before a breath of wind lifts the veil. Stretched out over 12 km, and 1.5 km at its widest point, the Gorner Glacier is Switzerland’s third longest glacier and the second largest in terms of surface area (53 km2). In the same way that a river absorbs many streams, the Gorner Glacier pulls in many other glacial tongues from the sides of the Breithorn, although the Trift Glacier and the Lower Theodul Glacier no longer connect to the Gorner Glacier, largely due to climate change. Losing a record 30 m per year (with a record loss of 290 m in 2008), the Gorner Glacier is still among the most fortunate glaciers in the Alps, even if it has retreated more than 3 km since the end of Little Ice Age around 1860. Back then, the seracs enveloped the Im Boden alpine pastures. A similar fate has befallen the Furg and Theodul glaciers (where one can ski year round), as they too have retreated with time. Zermatt, thanks to its high altitude, is faring better than the rest of the Alps as its largest, most robust glaciers continue to resist. But their future is less certain. A study published in October 2019 by the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences revealed a 10% loss of cumulative glacial volume across Switzerland in only five years. By 2100, two thirds of alpine glacial mass is expected to have disappeared (or 90%, if one goes off the most pessimistic estimates). This loss is bound to trigger a radical shift for ecosystems and humanity, especially for the many men and women who live at the base of these great, icy wonders.