Plaine Morte – In icy depths
The ice surfaces of the Plaine Morte
The Plaine Morte plateau glacier lies at about 2800 m above sea level, embedded in the valley end of the Simmental and visible from the village of Lenk. This huge sea of ice covers an area of 7.32 km2 (2016), equivalent to about 1000 football fields. It is 4.5 km long, has a maximum thickness of 235 m and an average thickness of 96 m (2005).
Thousands of years ago the whole Simmental was covered by ice. Today, unfortunately, little of it is left. Nevertheless, the ice masses still seem enormous to us. Below the Plaine Morte, at about 2500 m above sea level, the Trüebbach rises from the glacier and flows over several rock faces down to Rezliberg, where it joins the Sibe Brünne to from the Simme. The Sibe Brünne and the Trübbach are partly fed by glacial water from the Plaine Morte through underground channels running through the rock.
The fascination of the largest plateau glacier in the Alps
The Plaine Morte glacier is the largest plateau glacier in the Alps, which is why many researchers are very interested in it. Even if the white surface appears rather monotonous, appearances are deceiving. Inside the glacier is a maze of channels through which the water eats its way through the glacier. Fred Bétrisey and Hervé Krummenacher, accompanied by journalist Dominik Osswald, were able to explore this fascinating underworld at the beginning of winter 2016. Incredible pictures of the inside of the glacier were taken in the process. The film in the header was produced by journalist Dominik Osswald. Let yourself into the depths of the glacier and read the article in the Tagesanzeiger (in German): Tagesanzeiger in eisigen Tiefen (in Germans)
Lake Faverge and the flood
Climate change does not stop at the Plaine Morte glacier either. Unfortunately, when temperatur rises in summer, this glacier also melts. Due to the intensive melting of the glacier in recent years, smaller and larger lakes have formed from the meltwater around or on the huge ice surface. One of them is Lake Faverge, which is located at the edge and partly on the glacier.
The lake fills with meltwater during the summer. When a certain level is reached, the water eats its way out of the glacier through huge canal systems, thus emptying the lake underground. This leads to a rapid rise in the level of the Simme, which in turn becomes a danger for the village Lenk. After the first draining in 2011, an early warning system was therefore set up to inform the population about the impending water masses in good time. The sudden spill of the Favergesse, especially in the summer of 2018, overwhelmed the course of the Simme stream, causing flooding in parts of the village. Meadows were flooded and basements and garages were under water.
After this event, safety precautions were taken on the glacier in the spring and summer of 2019 to increase safety for the village. The development of the safety measures was a large, novel project and an absolutely new experience for everyone involved. Due to the uniqueness of the project, various researchers were interested in it.
From Rezliberg to the waterfall Simmenfälle, the forest on the right and left side of the Simme was cut down to prevent the trees from being swept away during floods. On the glacier itself the meter-high snow was cleared with snow groomers from the glacier ice and with a walking excavator an 800 m long channel was dug into the ice. This adventurous project in the Lake Faverge reaching a less high level and the lake emptying earlier and less quickly. In recent years, this has allowed the meltwater to flow off in a controlled manner and eased the situation for the inhabitants.
The Swiss television SRF has filmed an impressive documentary with background information about the project: Documentary SRF Einstein (in German)
Information about the project on the glacier can be found on the website of Ingenierusbüro Theiler: Theiler Ingenieure AG (in German)
The local mountain enthusiast Hans-Ueli Hählen was responsible for the monitoring station on the Plaine Morte for 9 years and also accompanied the construction work closely. In his book «Plaine Morte and its glacier lakes» he writes about his experiences around the surveys and investigations oft the Favergesse and the glacier.
Close to the glacier
Mountain trails lead from Lenk to the vicinity of the Plaine Morte glacier. From the waterfall Simmenfälle to the Wildstrubel (no official hiking trail from Fluehsee) or from Iffigenalp to the Wildstrubelhütte, the glacier is within your reach. Seeing the Plaine Morte with your own eyes from so close is a tremendous experience. It is also possible to cross the glacier but be careful – alpine dangers prevail on glaciers. Even if the flat glacier does not look necessarily dangerous for mountain walkers, the outer impression is deceiving. Glaciers are constantly in motion, crevasses open and close continuously. Snow bridges can look sturdy but be dangerous thin. With a mountain guide you can be very close to the glacier and cross it – an experience that will never be forgotten!