Skip to content

Cookies 🍪

This site uses cookies that need consent.

Learn more

Zur Powderguide-Startseite Zur Powderguide-Startseite

Language selection

Search PowderGuide

snow of tomorrow

Snow of Tomorrow | Ski touring like in the old days?

Climate change is changing the mountains

by Gerhard Mössmer (ÖAV) 03/20/2023
Warm, dry winters, perfect grip on the rock: what sounds like a dream for sport climbers is a nightmare for enthusiastic freeriders and ski tourers. Yes, there used to be heatwaves and dry spells - in summer and winter alike. And yes, they still exist, the winter days with minus 20 degrees and fat powder, when you suddenly feel like you're in Hokkaido.

But the fact that the earth is nevertheless continuously warming up and that we are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change - especially in the high mountains - is unfortunately a fact, not a fake.

In summer in particular, we experience first-hand that the mountains are on the move: We all still have the images of the terrible ice fall on the Marmolada, as well as the rockfalls - including a crashed bivouac box (1) - in the Mont Blanc massif in front of our eyes. Last summer, the Gouter hut was also closed for safety reasons. The edge crevasse on the Dachstein could only be climbed by experienced alpinists with the appropriate equipment. The latest news about the Tuoi hut below the small Biz Buin on the Swiss side being closed due to the risk of rockfall unfortunately also fits perfectly into this picture.

Admittedly, in view of the changes we are facing due to climate change, these "luxury problems" seem truly negligible for non-mountaineers. For us skiing and mountaineering enthusiasts, however, the consequences of global warming and the associated, increasing risks in the (still) glaciated regions are sometimes dramatic.

The opportunities we have as mountaineers to make a contribution against global warming are complex (unfortunately, mountain sports are often motor sports) and would go far beyond the scope of this article. In the following, we will "only" shed light on how mountain sports in the high mountains are changing and how we must react to the changes before and during the tour in order to continue to pursue our passion with an acceptable level of risk.

To do this, we will take a closer look at the proven key factors "terrain, conditions and people":


Unfortunately, sayings such as "the mountain will stand for longer" and "the terrain won't change anyway" are no longer true in times of climate change. The zero-degree limit is also rising in winter, the permafrost in the high mountains is dissolving, and rockfalls and rock slides in summer are the result. This changes routes and paths have to be closed - even at short notice. We are currently seeing this problem at Piz Buin, where both the approach from the Tuoi hut and the area around the Kleiner Piz Buin on the Vorarlberg side are at risk of rockfall.

Crossing areas at risk of rockfall - as can be seen impressively here on the example of the Grand Couloir on the normal route of Mt. Blanc - is becoming increasingly tricky due to the dissolution of permafrost:

The melting of the glaciers is also making it increasingly difficult to reach them. In summer, debris, mud, moraines and glacial lakes make the route more difficult or even block it: for access to the Hofmannskees on the Heiligen Bluter side of the Grossglockner, it is now highly recommended to take a rubber dinghy with you and even in winter, skis have to be shouldered on the Kals side between Ködnitzkees and Adlersruhe, as the steep ascent has been eroded and can no longer be done on skis.

But we are also dramatically confronted with the decline of the ice giants when it comes to freetouring in glacier ski areas: for example, the popular freeride variant on the Rettenbachferner has de facto melted away in just a few years (see map sections below in the picture gallery). On the other hand, it is little consolation that you no longer have to maneuver through the icefall on the freeride descent from the Pitztal Glacier via the Taschachferner. But although the fracture has almost disappeared, the danger of falling through crevasses remains. Due to the winters - and especially summers - with little snow, the crevasses are less covered with snow, which also leads to an increased risk of crevasse falls in winter. Mountain crevasses and edge crevasses are also more difficult or even impossible to overcome. Unfortunately, we will have to get used to unpacking the rope more and more on ski tours and freeride descents over glaciated terrain, even on the descent, in order to ski down safely.

Also, formerly glaciated crossings that were still easily passable a few years ago are becoming a problem. This has been taken into account on popular routes, such as the one from the Breslauer-Hütte to the Wildspitz via the Mitterkar-Joch, and a via ferrata has been installed. If there is no steel cable insurance, you have to abseil down: As a result, many classic ski mountaineering traverses will no longer be possible without this maneuver.


The conditions are changing even more dramatically than the terrain due to the rise in temperature: Rockfall and icefall will become constant companions, and bare glaciers will become the norm in summer. Accordingly, the seasons for our activities will shift forward. The ski mountaineering season will shift to March and the mountaineering season will begin in May and be history by the end of July. In the past, climbing the north face of the Eiger in winter conditions was exceptional, but nowadays it is an absolute must due to the risk of falling rocks in summer. In addition, we must always keep an eye on the zero-degree limit - even in winter. The tried and tested saying "The early bird catches the worm" is more important than ever. However, if it doesn't freeze through overnight, even the earliest ascent is of no use, because then snow and crevasse bridges no longer carry snow. Glacier streams also carry a lot of water 24 hours a day and are almost impossible to cross without artificial bridges.

Continue on the next page -->

1) The Fourche bivouac was the starting point for the ascent of Mont Maudit via the Kuffner ridge - one of the great classic tours in the Mont Blanc region. The box collapsed into the valley in the summer of 2022 along with a rockslide.

The current conditions on the mountain are of even greater importance than before, especially when it comes to planning.

Due to the massive changes in recent years, up-to-date information - especially about the condition of the glaciers - is more important than ever. We no longer get this information from printed guide books as we used to, but rather from internet portals, such as, from social networks (although this information must always be critically questioned), or by calling the Alpine Club hut.

When using analog maps, it is important to pay attention to the most recently measured glacier status. Caution: GPS tracks that lead over glaciated terrain should also be treated with caution if they are already a few years old!


Not only the mountains, but also the equipment we carry with us has changed: While the rockfall helmet used to be ridiculed on ski mountaineering and alpine tours, today it is (almost) standard. Due to installed via ferrata routes, an appropriate set is already obligatory on some tours. In the meantime, abseiling is also required on some formerly glaciated crossings, which in turn requires the appropriate equipment (abseiling equipment, etc...) and, in particular, the appropriate know-how. When traversing mountain slopes, edge fissures and ever steeper glacier upswings, you are sometimes glad to have a second ice axe.

Careful climbing to avoid falling rocks in glaciered flanks is just as important as the appropriate climbing technique in the "split scree". A prime example of this is the "Eisleitl" (it will be interesting to see how long the name lasts) on the Großglockner, which was once covered in firn and ice. Basically, we have to be more careful on tour and avoid areas at risk of rockfall by keeping our distance from these areas or - e.g. when traversing - passing them as quickly as possible.

With regard to the human factor, the increasingly hot summers should not be ignored: High temperatures - even at high altitudes - and intense radiation, coupled with arduous scree terrain, put a strain on our bodies. In the past, people used to flee to the high mountains on hot summer days, but in times like these, it is important to have the heat on your radar, even at altitude.

Dissolution of the permafrost means that rockfall events - such as this one here on a high-altitude tour in Zillertal - are becoming more frequent.


We will certainly continue to experience great days in the high mountains. However, we also need to be aware of the increasingly greater objective dangers and face the fact that some tours will become more challenging, some will only be feasible within a small time window and some tours can no longer be undertaken with an acceptable level of risk.

We need to pay even more attention to the fact of change in our planning and deal even more intensively with the key factors of terrain, conditions and people in this regard. To this end, it is imperative that we obtain up-to-date information during the planning stage. Printed guidebooks and maps (3) can no longer do this for some tours, as the mountains - especially glacier forefields and glaciers - are unfortunately changing too quickly.

3) However, this does not mean that we no longer need these sources of information: They provide us with other, important information.

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

Show original (German)

Related articles