Ischmeer: Melting Like an Ice Cube

In the heat of chasing glaciers in the Bernese Alps, I rounded the bend on the northeastern slope of the Eiger and entered what I have personally dubbed “The Cathedral.” It is a basin upstream of Grindelwald, ringed by 4000-meter peaks, containing a few significant glaciers. What is somewhat unusual about the place is that the entrance to the basin is smaller than the inside, which is how it got my name for it.

As I was circling tightly, getting better views of the base of Obers Ischmeer and Ischmeer proper, I was trying to get some perspective on a large waterfall with glacial discharge, while also taking in a particular stirring depth of glacial texture. Beneath the firn line of Ischmeer (“Sea of Ice” in Swiss German), there is a remarkable amount of blue ice with deep crevasses as it works its way to the steep valley below. 

In an environment like that, where I am close to terrain on three sides, with high vertical variation, there is a concern over a combination of katabatic winds and misjudging distance. Since there are no humans, buildings, or trees, it is easy to presume that I am a safe altitude above the glacier, or that I have plenty of room to escape. With such stimuli coming at the pilot at a rapid pace, it is possible to misjudge just about everything: if the glacier is ascending or level, how much lateral space exists, and how much vertical space exists. On top of it, getting so close to such ice on a hot summer day can mean the presence of katabatic winds, which are Arcurrents of cold, heavy, descending air.

All of that means that the primary focus is to pull off the flight safely and return home to contemplate the majesty of what was just discovered. I had no real time to study the textures of the base of Ischmeer, though I was able to photograph it, which is effectively the essence of the mission at play that repeats itself: freezing a remote glacier in time captured in motion for later study.

On that August day in 2019, it was particularly hot in Switzerland. Glaciers were spewing thundering waterfalls in response to the heat. At the time, I was new to the glacier chase in that neck of the woods, so I did not realize that such “thundering majesty” was, in fact, rapid glacial recession happening before my very eyes.

At any rate, it was also the first and as of early 2021, the only time that I have seen a glacier melting like an ice cube. The scallops in the feature photograph of this article seem to indicate that the glacier was melting in place. It was not a process of size reduction as it worked its way down the mountain; rather, it was like someone put a chunk of ice or snow out in the sun on a summer’s day and watched it melt.