It is the highest mountain in the Alps, but deep inside the icy slopes of Mont Blanc are hidden lakes. A secret waterworld that is stunningly beautiful but deadly. A hundred years ago, one of the mountains hidden lakes burst forth. Sending away, crashing down toward the villages below. Nearly 200 victims were caught by surprise. Unable to outrun the flood. Two days later, rescuers were still plucking bodies from the mud. Dozens were found inside buildings, ripped off by the deluge. The chapel which was damaged but survives today bears witness to the horrors that took place.
Here, historian John Paul Gay looks for clues to a tragedy that no one fully understands. Ice experts has also come to solve this hundred year old mystery. They try to gauge the internal forces at the ice to predict when the next flight will occur. They’re descending into frontiers never explored.
“It’s an unknown risk that could kill people if a hidden lake were to empty all at once.” said Luc Moreau (Glaciologist)
It may be only a matter of time before Mont Blanc faces another disaster.
Mont Blanc towers above Europe—the apex of France, Switzerland and Italy. But after 200 years of exploration, this mountain is still untamed. It’s a vertical landscape where ice laid down in the last Ice Age carves a path through sheer bedrock. These frozen rivers are known as glaciers, but their uneven surfaces filled with teetering ice blocks only suggest the greater dangers that lie within.
Luc Moreau, is a glaciologist who lives and works on Mont Blanc. He knows the mountain inside and out.
“We’re facing one of the great natural wonders of the planet. This mountain makes you realize just how small we humans really are. It’s alive, ever-changing, always surprising.” Luc Moreau added.
Luc is joined by Carsten Peter, an ice climber from Germany, who travels the extreme landscapes of the globe, exploring, photographing, and mapping the world’s most extraordinary ice caves—some of which are found here.
They’re searching for a specific ice cave that the French call a moulin, a water well or deep shaft formed by flowing meltwater on the surface of the ice. Their goal is to descend into this water and penetrate as far as they can go to search for a hidden lake. No one knows how deep, how large, how destructive these hidden lakes can be, or how many there are.
They land on France’s largest glacier, the seven-mile-long Mer de Glace to conduct their research.
Today, Luc and Carsten will make their first descent below the slick surface of the glacier to the waters deep within. They’ll camp on the ice for several days, but it’s not exactly roughing it. Their food has been flown in by helicopter. Meals are orchestrated by Luc’s wife, Evelyne, a professional chef.
Luc calls himself a glacionaut. He’s well aware of the risks.
“Here, we have two kinds of risks: first there are subjective dangers, based on the skill of the climber, then there are objective dangers from the environment itself. To minimize those risks, we’ve adapted some precautions taken by cavers with crampons, ice axes, ice screws, and a helmet, because once you’re inside, there could be ice or falling rock, rushing water, so we need to be, always be, totally alert. “ Luc Moreau explained.
Sixty feet wide at its mouth, the water well is a vertical cave, tunneling 85 feet down to a deep reservoir fed by two waterfalls. From here, we see the inner workings of a glacier.
Seventy thousand years ago, one large ice cap covered most of the mountain, but now Mont Blanc has about a dozen smaller glaciers that change with the seasons. Since the last ice age, Mont Blanc’s glaciers have grown several times, but today they are receding due to climate change. Small fluctuations in the size of a glacier can cause avalanches, mudslides, and ice-fall, endangering the towns and villages below.
But the ultimate danger may be from a hidden lake. They are undetectable under the ice, and the only way to find one is to travel inside the glacier as far as is humanly possible. On the Mer de Glace, the ice is 1,000 feet thick.
Glaciers grow from the accumulation of snow, which transforms into ice and slides downhill under its own weight. The snow melts under the sun’s rays, and the meltwater circulates down through cracks and crevasses. On some glaciers, water will find a fault in the surface and plunge downward through the weakness, carving out a deep shaft. These are water wells, and they act as the starting point for tunnels of meltwater that flow inside the glacier.