Sunday, 13 April 2014

Miage, April 2014


Awesome week of fieldwork!  This time last week, I was just approaching the mountains after a dull AutoRoute drive through France for the previous 6 hours, not fully prepared for the wonderful sights of Courmayeur, Val Veny and the Miage Glacier.

The week was a clear contrast between long days of hard work and physical exhaustion (at least on my part) and more chilled days where we recovered our feet from 12hours or more of climbing, walking, standing and ,of course, skiing in rigid plastic boots and organised ourselves for further fieldwork.. all under the comfort of warm spring sunshine.

The first day was occupied with obtaining our rented skis which the gentlemen at the rental shop seemed to have trouble correctly sorting the bindings (I grew to hate the delicate precision of attaching my feet into those bindings!).  Secondly, we had to venture to the storage of more temperature loggers stored at the Fondazione Montanga Sicura above La Palud where our hotel was.  By the time we had lunch at 2pm, we thought we really should do some work... and with temperature loggers programmed by an incredibly slow notebook laptop, we drove ourselves to the Brenva Glacier road and attached our feet to some nice lightweight 600 euro skis.  With skins on our skis and with the snowsled in tow, we hauled the tripods, radiation shields and temperature loggers several kilometres to a suitable site to again test the temeprature readings under snow conditions (more on that next time) before beating the sunset back to the town.

The second day was dominated by a reasonable amount of rain and poor visibility as we had seen on the forecast, and therefore was a day we had set aside for other work and prepping for the rest of the week.  However, what we hadn't fully accounted for was the increased instability of the rock face above the small town of La Palud where we stayed, and the whole place had to be evacuated that morning.  Realising that equipment had to be stored at the Fondazione for summer, it was a slight race against time, in the opposite direction to traffic to store this equipment before the town was blocked to almost all access! It felt a little like a scene from a movie at one stage... Unfortunately, the siren didn't sound as they promised...that would have added to the Hollywood feel.

Wednesday was our first day onto the glacier, although with some effort.  We managed to elect the help of local restaurants and businesses in the valley who operated snowmobiles to transport food and equipment to ski lift areas in the valley en route to the glacier (Val Veny).  Then we collected the equipment from Monday's adventure and pulled the snow sled up some even greater inclines.  Some more locals helped with another old skidoo (snowmobile) which I jumped on eagerly and held onto the snowsled which raced behind us and almost ripped my arm from its socket.  Only until the route became much thinner and steep sided and the skidoo went over with me and the driver on it.  He spoke no English, and I, no Italian beyond the very basics... but we organised ourselves to lift the heavy skidoo, dig it out of the snow and turn it around.  After waiting for the rest of the party, we stashed the sled, took a tripod each and climbed the 200m moraine to get the first real glimpse of the full glacier!  After installing 3 stations on the lower glacier I undertook my first proper downhill skiing session through the forest at the tongue of the glacier... not the easiest experience and after several struggling attempts to mess with my bindings I was tired and ready for a pizza!  We got back to the Brenva road at 9pm, 12 hours after leaving.

The following day was the largest ascent, utilizing the local snowmobiles once more as far as possible, collecting the remaining equipment we stashed the previous day and getting onto the glacier from the far west side of the tongue past the Lac du Combal.  I realised quickly that I was the best at going uphill.... downhill, lets not talk about that so much.  With 3 more stations installed, the ski downglacier commenced.  The parts where I could stop myself were reasonably good fun I must admit, the steeper parts... less fun for me.  I donned my climbing helmet due to the covered debris which i would likely fall onto at some stage in my downhill venture.  But the whole experience was fantastic and great to witness some snow on the glacier before the melt fully encapsulates the surface and the full display of debris becomes apparent.

The final day was an organisation of the notes made, pictures taken and packing and cleaning the van before returning back to the UK + relaxing in the sun with a beer and messing with the time lapse equipment (non of this on the glacier just yet).

I will most definitely share a greater level of detail of the 'science' in a post soon, but for now:


The massively retreated Brenva Glacier, visibly restricted to a fair sized ice fall, with the debris it initially deposited acting as a nice little obstacle to climb before entering the valley toward the Miage.

Snowsled pulling toward the calibration site on the first day (~4pm).

Calibration test at the bridge just before the small settlement of La Visaille. 

Snowmobile ride back to calibration site 2 days later.

As we stashed the sled (well hidden!).  

Just after the moraine climb on Wednesday, tricky to walk in ski boots, glacier view almost in sight.

The view toward the tongue of the glacier.  Patchy sow and thick debris underneath... interesting skiing.  

More station set up... clearly having fun.  

Next day, western moraine ascent, me up top.  

Toward the upper part of the glacier, heading for highest site we placed until June.  In the distance are the tributaries of the La Tete Caree, Bionassy, Dome and Mont Blanc Glaciers.  

Skiing down glacier :) 

Back to the lower glacier for a data download (we forgot the cable on the previous day), helmet for safety around 'radiation' shields.  

Would like to mention a great thanks to April's wonderful field assistants:

Ingeborg Pay (oh Deer)

Saskia Gindraux

 (Photo not representative of fieldwork Saskia, I just think it's funny :) )

Clare Webster

(At least en route to fieldwork)

And special thanks to:

Dr Philip Deline (Université de Savoie)
Dr Ben Brock (Northumbria University)

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