Speleology in the cold

Since the first explorations on the Alpine glaciers, alpine climbers and experts have observed the spectacular display, which is both fascinating and frightening, of glacial sinkholes. Moulins were seen as bizarre natural anomalies, that drew attention and fear, due to the depth that at times could not be measured, and because of the violence with which the waters seemed to be sucked into the glacier’s stomach: for over a century many wondered about the origin of these structures and the invisible course of water within the glaciers (the first recorded explorations  date back to the end of 1800 on the Mer de Glace in France), however it is only since the Eighties that technical progress enabled direct exploration of  glacial sinkholes, in safe conditions and relatively easily.
And so a new discipline has evolved, glacial speleology, which unites exploring and sports activities and scientific research. Thanks to the work of glaciospeleologists, we now are beginning to understand the mechanisms that give origin to glacial caves and the importance of studying them in order to understand glacier behaviour, and particularly how water circulates inside the glaciers. Many explorations have been performing on the immense and spectacular glaciers in Iceland, Svalbard, Patagonia and Greenland (it was here, in 1998, that a glacial lake was found at a depth of 203 m on the bottom of the spectacular moulin in the Malik ice-cave , the deepest ever to be explored), but since a few years even the most modest Alpine glaciers are drawing greater interest, specially due to the possibility of carrying out repeated studies over a number of years.
Every year, during a short season, that stretches from late spring to the first autumn snowfall, the main moulins are descended, photographed, measured, marked with stakes, in order to capture, in the variations that are monitored, some elements that might enable a better comprehension of their future formation and evolution. Besides scientific research, which is still at the very beginning, what makes this discipline particularly stimulating for those who practice it, is that the descent in a moulin is one of the most thrilling experiences the mountain can offer, and surely is one of the last exploration frontiers. Because of the water, only the moulins and a small part of the cavity front are practicable, while the rest of the system remains inaccessible for direct explorations: only hypothesis may be made about the structure, using particular methods, as for example, sending coloured tracers inside. The horizontal caves that open on the glacier fronts, that apparently do not involve risks and do not seem to require particular precautions and equipment are explored: often, in fact, these are large environments where it is possible to walk on the rock substratum.  Actually it is not advisable to venture into these environments as they are structures that are subjected to the enormous thrust of the glacier mass, and can be extremely unstable.
The collapses of blocks of ice and stones, falling from the surface above, are frequent, specially during the warmer hours. Therefore if there are no precise indications or a guide of the place, it is advisable to admire these cavities from a distance. Instead, notwithstanding appearances, exploring glacial sinkholes is less dangerous, on the condition, of course, that you have suitable equipment and a sound  technical know-how. In this case the usual techniques for climbing on vertical ice are not adopted (such as piolet traction), but a mix of mountain climbing and caving is used.  In fact climbers go up and down hanging on ropes, like those used by cavers, with equipment that is typically used for exploring caves, while the tools derived from mountain climbing are the tubular ice pitons, crampons and a short ice-axe, that facilitate vertical climbing and also movement when the bottom is reached. The risks are connected with water, which flows from outside with a remarkable flow into the active sinkholes and the stones that at times impend over the edges. For these reasons it is opportune to carefully choose the period of the year and the time of the day, when planning a descent, in order to minimize the risks and make this spectacular activity as safe as possible.

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