Inside the Heart of a Glacier

Right now it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m sitting on the side of the road with my friend Nick. Along with Manjari, who is out exploring, Nick and I are in the small French town of Chamonix, situated in a valley in the Alps, about two hours outside of Geneva.

Chamonix is a beautifully odd mixture of idyllic European facades and touristy trinket shops. Cafes and chapels are interspersed with ATMs and hotels. The Tourist Center has a line dedicated to Japanese visitors, although far more come from China. And the music in restaurants is entirely in English, even when none of the waiters speaks the language: The Beatles are especially popular.

The unmistakable golden arches of the fast-food empire are easily visible from the bus stop – which is where we are right now. But the McDonalds logo is dwarfed by Mont Blanc, rising regally in the background.

Nick and I are waiting for the 5:00 bus back the Geneva after a weekend full of sightseeing. Since yesterday morning, we’ve hiked along the Alps, walked on a glacier, and ridden cable cars up to Aiguille de Midi, “Needle of the Noon”.

Today we woke up early and took the first train to the glacier, Mer de Glace. In French, Mer de Glace translates as “Sea of ice”, but the name is a vestige of the past. In the 1800s, the glacier was clear white, and easily visible from Chamonix. It was regarded as one of the world’s foremost natural wonders, and was the subject of many paintings and photographs. Since then, the Sea of Ice has receded hundreds of meters and lost a third of its thickness. Deposits of stone and earth, called moraines, have also diluted the crystal color of the glacier.

The first thing you see when you arrive is a vast cavern; previously filled with ice; now almost empty. As you walk down into the depths of the trench, you pass signs marking the levels of the glacier in past years -1820,  1890,        1920,                   1937… the distances between signs grow longer while the years grow closer together.

At the bottom lies the main attraction – an ice cave dug into what is left of the glacier. In the past, Mer De Glace inspired paintings. Now the glacier itself is the canvas. The artwork is framed only by the Earth’s crust. It moves with the glacier at a rate of a centimeter per hour, so every summer it must be entirely re-sculpted.

Sadly, when we got to Mer de Glace, the ice cave wasn’t open. We couldn’t bear to miss such an opportunity, so the three of us snuck in! Descending the last few flights of stairs, we walked along a blue carpet into the mouth of the cave.

The cave itself is an incredible sight! It is about 10 feet across, and penetrates deep into the glacier. The cavern is roughly cylindrical, with smoothed ridges along the walls, like the inside of the tunnel of a wave. Lights line the walls, each one striking the ice slightly differently, creating its own shades of translucency.

More surreal even than the cave are the sculptures inside it. The cave is composed of multiple cavities, each representing a room in an archetypal house. One cavity contains ice sculpted to look like beds. Another mimics a living room, with chairs, couch, and coffee table. A third contains a giant faucet, representing a bathroom.

Walking through the cave, I was struck by the strangeness of the juxtaposition. Why was such a beautiful natural canvas covered with the quintessentially human? Why did the artists model their creation after a house? Did the sculptures change each year? Out of all that is left of the glacier, the cave is the closest we can come to experiencing and appreciating the Sea of Glass. It seems like adding artificial sculptures would detract from that experience.

A part of me thinks that the sculptures are meant to symbolize the age of industrialism overtaking Earth. Maybe the sculptors are saying that humanity has clawed out the heart of Mother Nature, the same way they carved out the core of the glacier. The rest of me feels like it is just a product of proximity to the often incongruent Chamonix.

At its current rate of shrinkage, Mer de Glace could soon be gone. Living in Saint Genis for the summer, which is in the same country, I had to take two buses and a train, and sneak past tour guides to gain entry into the ice cave. In a few weeks, I’ll be back in America, a continent away from Chamonix and the Alps.

I may never again get to walk in the tunnel of translucent ice under France’s largest glacier. I hope to enter the cave once more before it vanishes. But in the meantime, I’ll be imagining a true sanctuary, an ice cave cleared of sculptures.