Friday, November 04, 2022

A Reality Check: An Interview with Zeit on line.


At the back end of August the European Climate Agency asked me if I would be interviewed for the German News paper Zeit.  

The aim of the article was to get me to explain how the summer heat was effecting the mountains and the work of mountain professionals.

The original article can be found by following this link Zeit online

Other wise the English transcript is below:

Interviewer: Christian Spiller

30 August 2022

Zeit Online Mr Seaton, you have been working as a mountain guide in Chamonix for roughly 30 years. How did the mountains change in that time?


It has been dramatic change, a change that you can see in front of your eyes. What we found is that this part of the Alps is heating up two or three times faster than other parts of the world. It's beyond bad. The situation has been terrible for years, but this summer has been apocalyptic. It has become too dangerous to hike on the glaciers, mountain huts have to remain closed and the impact on the mountain economy is having a huge impact on the region.

Zeit Online What are the main problems?


The main issue that we have is twofold. One, there's a dramatic disappearance of the glaciers, which you can almost see in real time. And then the other thing that is also probably more important is this problem with the permafrost disappearing. The permafrost is the glue that holds the mountains together. As a mountaineer, what you want is lots of snow and ice that glue the mountains together. If it is heating up, things get super serious, because you have rock falls everywhere. Only yesterday a mountain hut fell off the side of the mountain, because it wasn't attached to the ground anymore. When I lay on my bed in Chamonix at night, I can actually hear massive rockfalls from the mountains nearby. The biggest danger is in the higher mountains above 3000 meters. But we have also had rockfalls in the valley. Something that we've never seen before. 

Zeit Online How does that effect you as a mountain guide?


What serious mountaineers coming to Chamonix want to do is to climb big, high mountains and the mountain they want to climb, more than any other mountain is Mont Blanc. Now, the issue is, if you want to be able to climb it safely, you have to have an overnight freeze. It's got to be cold. Its got to have frozen. Now, at the moment, the temperature at night is not going below zero, even at 4.500, 5000 meters, which is catastrophic. Now you can't justify going out to the mountains without a hard freeze because you have to walk on the glacier and you're going to sink in about your knees. Its not safe anymore. So that's one of the major challenges. 

Zeit online How do you deal with it?


What I try to do is to steer my clients to other objectives, which is got to be the goal in the future, because, generally speaking, mountain guides, they are there to take people up certain mountains. But like a in a restaurant where the sommelier suggests a good wine we should suggest other mountains if Mont Blanc cant be climbed like right now. But the general population are just obsessed with numbers of heights. They want to climb the biggest, the highest. That's just not going to work. Because all you end up doing is just coping or dealing with other people's disappointment. 

Zeit online Is it true that if you still want to climb Mont Blanc, you have to put a deposit of €15,000, including 5000 for the funeral? 


This is the mayor of St Gervais, he is a very good self publicist. He loves being at the forefront of of the news. There is some degree of sympathy with his idea, because the people who are turning up to climb Mont Blanc, some of them are just so totally under equipped that it is staggering. On Mont Blanc the police would stop and advise people on their equipment. But they had no right to say you cannot go. So the Mayor put a decree in place, which means the route is closed and now the police can actually physically stop people. 

Zeit online Are there some other ways to enjoy high mountains in times of climate change?


Yes, we're going to have to de seasonalise. Traditionally the climbing season ran from mid-June until mid-September. But this year in the traditional time of July and August, it did not work. So we maybe do it in spring and fall. But that is a big challenge, because we are reliant on the infrastructure. The huts, the hotels the cable cars etc.

Zeit online At Marmolada in Italy there was a big, big accident this summer. 11 people were killed, and 13 had to be rescued from Matterhorn, too. How are you dealing with these risks? 


I try to go to a different and safer area. There are some “red flags” that you've got to observe as you're out on the mountain. If you find water running down the cracks in between the rock thats a sign that its melting obviously. Sometimes you hear this grating sounds in the rock, which is sort of unnerving. And then sometimes you can hear rumbling noises, you know, like an upset stomach. These are clues, really. 

If you're talking about heat, for example, it does not only mean that the rocks are getting less solid. It also means that if you are if you're a climber or a trekker out in the mountains, you are more exposed to sun and higher temperatures. 

It is brutally hard work because of the heat. And it is always one of the reasons why we we try and set off for an early start and finish. That is the mantra. But, you know, sometimes if people get tired and they're slower and they get slower, you can just find yourself being fried alive by the weather and that is very, very hard. 

Zeit online So if you put all this together, there's one question appearing: Does climate change force us to have a different view on tourism and the mountains? 


Well, there's two questions there, because the majority of people coming to Chamonix are not going anywhere near a mountain. Chamonix is a "shopping destination." This is a terrible, terrible, terrible form of tourism. The Aguille du Midi is one of the biggest generators of cash in France, and it just sucks people in to the town and there are  queues on the roads and this is just a catastrophe in my opinion on how to organize tourism. But Chamonix is also the world capital of mountaineering. Its, if you like the micro tourism that I am part of. And that definitely needs to have a mindset change. We as mountain guides got to take the responsibility of educating people that climbing mountains is not all about how high you've been. 

Zeit online How hard is that?


Very. You know, people who have come here to climb Mont Blanc and they’ve been told they can't climb Mont Blanc, but are given another option to climb another mountain with nobody on it, with beautiful views, they say no, forfeit all the money and rather go home.

Zeit online What's your message to people who still doubt climate change?



They need to come and see the Mer de GlacĂ© in Chamonix. As you walk down to the glacier, there are plaques on the rock saying where the glacier was in each year. When they built the train to Mer de GlacĂ©, you got off the train and the glacier was 20, 30 meters below you. It is now at least a 40 minutes walk down hill to the glacier. It's difficult to talk about it because it is quite upsetting and you feel totally powerless to do anything about it.