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Dr. Grauer's Column - Teen Crisis High Up On Mont Blanc Glacier

Dr. Grauer's Column - Teen Crisis High Up On Mont Blanc Glacier

Teen Crisis High Up On Mont Blanc Glacier

1. A Glacial Crevasse

In 1974, my first year as a fulltime teacher, I won a football pool and, with the winnings, bought plane and train tickets bound for the Alps where I had plotted out a month of ski destinations. 

True confessions, I also plotted a course of Swiss international schools to visit nearest the slopes, one of which I ended up working at.

On my travels, I soon got wind of a ski run at Mont Blanc called the Vallée Blanche, the highest, longest ski run in Europe and one of the most renowned off-piste ski runs in the world. I knew I had to go. 

As an aside, an even higher ski run or ski lift, the highest in the world, was "La Rinconada" in the Chacaltaya Ski Resort, located in the other hemisphere, near La Paz, Bolivia at an extremely high altitude of around 5,300 meters (17,388 feet) above sea level. But my Austrian heritage tended to connect me to Europe, not South America.

Dr. Grauer's selfie on the South face of Mont Blanc - April 2023

So, Mont Blanc's summit reaches an elevation of approximately 4,808 meters (15,774 feet). It is the tallest peak in Western Europe. Eventually I arrived there, ready to make the ascent to the summit, called the Aiguille du Midi. To ascend, I boarded the cable car, and then climbed into two consecutive aerial lifts. At last, at the top of the three lifts, I crawled out of the gondola and entered straight into a long, wood and steel tunnel that led to a surreal, blue ice tunnel. Emerging, it being a clear day, I looked over the classic little town of Chamonix down below, and beheld the glorious French Alps and beyond. 

It was amazing. The time it took to complete the epic descent on skis depended on various factors like weather conditions, snow, experience level, and pace, none of which I had any idea about. I had only heard it was a cool run. But it was known to take 4 or even 6 hours of skiing from summit to valley. 

I clicked into my skis and headed down from the winding massif in long sweeping traverses so as to experience the most of this fabled ride, taking in the vistas all around, like a fly over. The initial descent from the Aiguille du Midi summit involved traversing a narrow, sharp, often windswept ridge known as the Arête. With sheer drops on either side and incredible views, it was an exhilarating start of the run.

The typical ski route from there took you next to the storied Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”). Skiing this gigantic glacier involved navigating steep and exposed terrains, crevasses, and potentially icy conditions. Skiers often needed to use mountaineering equipment, such as crampons and ice axes, to safely navigate certain sections. To avoid those, the descent normally required careful route selection, by guides and mountaineers experienced in managing changing conditions and potentially hazardous obstacles. 

Grauer Senior Lana L. '24 in an ice tunnel - April 2023

None of this meant anything to me because I was in my early 20's. At that time of life, still in my adolescence physiologically and already a naïve survivor of hurricane surf, my sense of out-of-bounds adventure had grown in inverse proportion to my prefrontal cortex: it was ski first, discover later. Now that I have survived, these adventures all seem good, because they enabled me to gather deep, challenging experiences such as I am now able to recount. Plus, it has helped ground me in the infinite preciousness of the wild, the greatest lesson of them all.

Having a protracted (some might say permanent) adolescence also helped me as a teacher who has had insight into and patience for the teen mind. An adolescent is just as much a force of nature as Mont Blanc.

Once reaching the next section of the descent, the glacier called the Mer du Glace, I stopped to talk to a guide who happened by with his group. The guide told me, essentially, you don’t ski this mountain alone, especially the Mer du Glace. A wrong turn and they’ll never find you. “Ski with us.” 

Skiing on a glacier offers a unique sensation of gliding over expansive ice. It's a rare opportunity to experience skiing in a remote and pristine environment--rarer than I could have dreamed, and it seems like a dream to me now.

The glacier provided a beautiful slope, clean and wide. The guide took off and I took off right behind him, so he accelerated, me on his tail. Gone were the muffled, softer sounds produced on fresh powder above. The glacial snow was more granular and icy. I loved hearing the scratchy sound when skiing over it. 

The guide was a terrific skier who could do flips and tricks and after one stop to gather the group, he looked at me and said, “Follow me for this next section,” then took off, fast. He rounded a couple turns and I lost sight of him around a bend. I accelerated in pursuit and then, horrified, I saw I was sliding right towards and perhaps into a gigantic crack in the snow, I dug my edges into the granular, glacial snow which held beautifully, and skidded to an emergency stop. 

The guide, a young, wavy-haired fellow with the body of an acrobat, jumped out from behind a rock, belly laughing, and said, “You almost skied into a crevasse! Hahahahaha!” 
“A what?”  
A crevasse is a large crack in a glacier, and every year people ski into them and experience terrifying rescues if they are lucky. Crevasses can be narrow and dark, and the fall may leave a person disoriented and confused. The walls are often sheer ice, making escape without proper equipment virtually impossible. It is a descent into a hazardous if not traumatic or lethal experience. Of course, I am here to write about it. And to verify that glacier skiing can serve up some potentially hazardous conditions. Get a guide.
From there our group, including me, stuck more closely together as we glided down Mount Blanc, past aiguilles (jagged rock spires) and otherworldly ice formations that seemed like “waves instantaneously frozen in the midst of a violent storm” as William Coxe described it in 1777, and we skied all the way down to softer snow and the charming Chamonix village, the longest and most fascinating ski run of my life. As I walked over to my hotel, on the sidewalk a little French man in a black beret passed a little girl he knew, pinched her cheek, and said, “Mon petit chou!”  (“My little cabbage/my little creampuff"). Still high from an epic mountain descent, I thought I was in an old, Alpine fairytale.
2. A Necessary Shift

Before diving back into the story, let's pause for an important point. Despite extensive scientific consensus, some still question if humans are driving climate change. As an educator, a surfer, and a skier, I find this denial alarming.

Grauer students overlooking the Mer du Glace glacier - April 2023

Decades of research confirm human activity, mainly burning fossil fuels, is the main contributor to global warming (along with undeniable contributions from deforestation, industrial agriculture, urban sprawl, etc.), heating the oceans and mountaintops alike. The odds of this happening naturally? Less than 1 in 100,000. If you're unsure how to approach this topic, resources are available, like this NYT Climate FAQ.

Some think the planet will self-correct or humans will magically adapt. To me, it’s sort of like skiing towards a crevasse and claiming that everything that happens is up to the abyss, not you. As teachers our role is to provide students with challenges to replace such myths with facts, reason, and, above all, action.

So, what would an emergency stop look like? Transition to renewables, boost energy efficiency, protect forests, adopt regenerative farming, manage waste, and promote green transportation.

To the list scientists are making, I will add my own medicine, as a teacher: Go to high and pristine places and love them. To me, this last one is by far the best teaching method in addressing the above issues and a motivation to share places like the Mer de Glace with our students. Here are three concrete realities I'd share with them, first hand:

  • Melting glaciers and ice caps.
  • Increasing extreme weather events (and their influences, such as forest fires).
  • Changing sea level, rain and snow patterns affecting resources.

We have a duty to prepare the next generation for the reality ahead and inspire them with great stories that spark action. Now, back to the story.

3. Returning With My Students

50 years went by. It did not seem to me to take all that long, but that time has been enriching far beyond my 1970's imagination. And so, in my last year as a fulltime teacher, I returned to Mont Blanc this year with a group of twelve Grauer high school students. I had bright snowy slopes in my eyes, and long, high traverses. 

Students on the remains of the Mer du Glace, which was covered in snow 50 years ago - April 2023

After a jet flight and bullet train, we drove into the mountains and arrived in Chamonix. I looked for the little man in the beret and, of course, he was nowhere. The town was beautiful but more grown up and with more streets and density. At the base station of Mont Blanc, still there, we boarded the old tramway to the first of three stations. We switched to the aerial lift and soon arrived at the second.

There, however, we disembarked. There was no going up the third lift to get to the summit. The summit lift and ice tunnel I had skied out of was going to remain a fairytale in my mind. I was concerned and disappointed, but still of course being stoked with my students, as we were arriving at their summit, not mine. 

There, from the top of station two, we looked out and up upon the Mont Blanc massif, and it was not a slope as I remembered it. I beheld deep, deep, 800-foot-high mountain walls sloped all the way up and down the sides of Mer du Glace. Glacial snow had hugged high up on these walls when I had last been here with the laughing mountain guide. 800 feet of snow was gone. I tried to show and tell this difference to my students but I was short for words, and distraught.

Next, I tried to explain to our guide about my visit 50 years prior. I recounted my story, from skiing out the ice tunnel at the summit all the way down to the village. The storybook. Mon petit chou! 

And here is what happened: He denied it. “In the 80's you had to first climb and rappel 80 feet down from the top in order to get onto that glacier. You could not just ski right onto the slopes,” he claimed.
“No,” I pleaded, as though he were denying the truth of climate change. “I skied here in the 70's. We skied right out the tunnel back then and straight out onto the slopes and the glacier. No rappelling. From the top, we skied all the way down into the Chamonix village below. It’s all gone!”

He was a 40-something, extremely skilled and knowledgeable mountain guide who probably could have skied me into a crevasse and then carried out the rescue, but he looked blank. He simply ignored my experience.

And he was the guide. How would I ever impress my students with the facts? Was this what climate change denying looks like up close? This vast bowl of rock and scree that was barely skiable now was a thick, glacial snow bowl back in the day. It was the longest ski run in the world. I know because I skied it.

4. A Lost World

From the top of station two, our students and guides began our decent down the 550 steps we now needed to take to get down to the new, 2023 level of the snow. Once again, from the lift at station three, the actual summit, there was no longer any way to even get on the snow other than expert mountain climbing. 

My students and I descended the steps and, along the way, the local mountaineers had set "glacier benchmarks" or "glacier ablation stakes." They are used to track the changes in glacier mass and ice melt over time due to climate change. The point where we stood at the top was where the snow was when I was there in the early 70's, but there was no marker—long term monitoring had not occurred to people yet. After a hundred or so steps down, we reached the first glacial snow level marker, from 1985. In another hundred or so steps, we reached the glacial level in 1992, and then 1998, then 2006, then 2015. 

Students on the remains of the Mer du Glace - April 2023

At last we reached the end of the steps and descended onto the pitiful remains of the magnificent Mer de Glace I had at last returned to. Our school expedition leader Frida LeBreton said, “It resembles more a quarry of tainted rubble than a transparent sea of ice.” It was April 23, a perfect time for spring skiing. We donned our snowshoes and made our way across mashed potato snow and broken up slate and limestone, up toward the remains of the glacier. There were a few skiers in the slush, skiing the short run that was left. There was no way to ski to even 4000 feet vertical above the village, the glacier and snow down there was completely melted. You could only hike it or take the lift back down, and then board the cog rail Bahn back to town.

We made a lovely snowshoe ascent to a rock outcropping a few hundred feet up and, it being lunchtime, we sat and pulled out our lunch packs. I sat with my students and pointed up the valley to where I had skied, wanting to tell my story, but I was in another time, another story.

I could not believe how disheartening it feels when you are trying to explain an inspiring, essential time to students but you feel more like an old fogey. 

How could I impress upon them that I was not talking about the good old days? I was talking about the future. Their future. I implored, “This whole high mountain valley was completely filled in with snow, when I last saw it, I swear, many of these rock walls were not even visible! I skied it, 800 feet above where we are standing!” and my arms made crazy motions trying to illustrate this fact, this lost world, that felt too big to express. 

Grauer Seniors Brahm and Aiden near the Mer du Glace - April 2023

One student nodded. We were looking up and seeing completely different mountains, times, and worlds. We ate our sandwiches to the random, muffled clatter and rumble of rocks no longer bound in by glacial snow, separating from the steep valley walls high above and tumbling down. 

Getting teens to care about the future or the past can be a complex issue. No matter how important teachers believe issues to be, teens are often preoccupied with forming their identities, and dealing with immediate concerns like school, friends, and peer pressures. They are still developing the ability to consider long-term consequences, as I had been when last at this place. Anxiety or fear regarding uncertainties like climate change can even to lead some teens to disengage from thinking about the future, opposite the intended impact teachers and parents want to have. 

I felt a little hopeless. At that very moment, humans were not just melting a French glacier and causing a fire outside of LA, but willingly and radically altering the planet’s climate, melting the whole Arctic, and bringing 6000 wildfires burning down 60,000 square miles across Canada. What can I say to my students until climate hell reaches their back doors? Next month, when we get home, will be the hottest week in recorded history, showing up all around: in New England, in Maui, in China, in the Greek Islands. 

My main strategy so far? I tell them to stop using plastic. Or at least reuse.

They don’t. Or they do a little.

The past few generations including the current one are stuck in an educational gridlock. We are neither teaching, learning, nor doing enough to preserve the earth for the next generations. We have to teach a sense of caring, not easy with teens, who care a lot, but mainly inside their own social circles and teams.

Schools, businesses, and governments would all have to work together and take those concerted global actions that can slow down the rate of warming and reduce the severity of climate impacts in order for us all to combat climate change. It will have to include surfers who care about sea-level rise that is easy to observe at Swamis surfing break if you have surfed there for the past three or so decades, as I have. It will take all the skiers who have skied down massive, scoured-out glacial hollows, once filled with magnificent snow.

I feel charged with helping my students. I think that connecting lessons about my own life, history, and the natural world can help them foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for these concepts, and so I hope they will read this story. I hope they will feel my despair at the loss of a ski run, the worthlessness of all those Swiss-German names for snow I learned in my years in the alps, the joyful yodels that now feel like dirges when I sing them (to myself). 

Whatever I do, I now know my work will be inadequate. What are the students in my group supposed to do, not be teens? They are innocent. What would I have done, back then, if I had known the glaciers of the world were about to start a retreat that would go on for a half century? What will my students find in 50 years when they are around my age?

Before and after photos of the Aiguille du Midi

After lunch, snowshoeing back down to the steps, we pass a substantial crevasse. We all peer into the fearsome, deep gash in the ground. Was that the bottom of the one I almost skied into, so funny, so long ago? Should I tell them that story? Don’t they have their own crevasses?

The guide wants them to experience the crevasse. He sends them over to its rim, one by one, I wait for the edge to cave in and for one of them to slide down in, and I think about the phone calls.

Chacaltaya Ski Resort is 4000 miles south of here. The glacier that once supported the highest ski resort in the world has receded dramatically. The ski lift had to close its operations in 2009. "Cariño!” the Bolivians say in the valley below.

From the bottom of the steps, I look up at the mass of Mont Blanc, maybe for the last time in my life. If I hadn’t known what it used to be, it would have been incredibly beautiful up there on the dwindling glacial scree, and I want my students to experience the beauty of now. Must I tell them this apparent beauty is actually terrible? I think about all the majestic technologies that heated the planet for the past 50 years, and the habitat and species loss, and This—this empty bowl that reminds me of a depleted industrial farmland. Over 509 small glaciers gone extinct in the past 50 years [1] along with hundreds of animal species. Are we masters of the universe yet?

Could we maybe, later on, with these students, have some open dialog and perhaps connect the natural tragedy before us to some real teen experience or emotion, or maybe some connection to something immediate that could spark them like a crush? I don’t know if I’m up to it. [2]

We finish the snowshoe trek together and begin the slog back up to the summit of the second lift, 550 steel grate steps, stopping every few flights to rest and take in the wide-angle vistas. This is a lot of steps up, especially after you’ve been snowshoeing, and it seems unseasonably warm. I strip off a layer. As I climb, the thought of skiing all the way down in that lost world is so beautiful it is almost desperate to bear, and I am at a loss to express that to my students. It makes me think the future could be a long, hard slog or that I would have needed to be a much better teacher. 

[1] 509 glaciers in ‘Third Pole’ disappeared in last 50 years, Down to Earth, August 19, 2016.

[2] French heat wave worries Mont Blanc climbers with increased risk, Reuters, August 23, 2023.

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Dr. Grauer's selfie on the South face of Mont Blanc - April 2023

Grauer Senior Lana L. '24 in an ice tunnel - April 2023

Grauer students overlooking the Mer du Glace glacier - April 2023

Students on the remains of the Mer du Glace, which was covered in snow 50 years ago - April 2023

Students on the remains of the Mer du Glace - April 2023

Grauer Seniors Brahm and Aiden near the Mer du Glace - April 2023

Before and after photos of the Aiguille du Midi

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