Mountain Guides & Climatic Change
An Inquiry into Possible Effects of Climatic Change on the Mountain Guide Trade in the Bernina Region
Geography Major Dissertation
carried out at the Geographical Institute of the Universities of Berne and Zurich
If we compare the comments of mountain guides to the changes of the natural environment at hazardous spots, to changes of routes, about the reasons why some routes are used less and about seasonal changes concerning particular fields of activity, it becomes evident that the objective hazards and alpine-technical difficulties have been the central feature for the last few years.

The danger of rockfalls, followed by the danger of falls into crevasses has been increasing the most. Simultaneously mountain guides are confronted with these two hazards most frequently. The decrease of hazards in the region of the survey is, according to a general inquiry, insignificant compared to the increase.


 The principal causes of these changes are glacier shrinkage and the thawing of permafrost.

 For about half of the mountain guides it was not clear, whether extreme wheather conditions which affect the demand for mountain guides negatively, have been occuring more often in the last few years.


Based on the climate scenarios of the IPCC, permafrost and glacier shrinkage scenarios suggest that these changes will continue and probably even accelerate in the future.


 In the opinion of the majority of the mountain guides questioned the demand for tours in the Bernina massif has dropped.

 They attribute this decrease in the first place to the recession and the high exchange rate of the Swiss franc in relation to the German mark. In the second place they mention changes of the natural environment.

 Among the changes of the natural environment bad route and weather conditions are generally refered to most often. Also particularly mentioned are the increasing danger of rockfalls and the increasing with blank ice.


 If we look at the difficulties in detail, the alpine-technical requirements have increased considerably and the requirements concerning fitness have remained about the same.

From this can be concluded that the requirements regarding the alpine-technical qualifications of the guests and the mountain guides have increased.

The majority of the guests today climbs between the III and IV difficulty level, which coincides with the difficulty range of the most frequented routes in the Bernina region. Should the difficulty of the routes increase in the future, then the potential of the guests which will meet the requirements for certain climbs will decrease. For the mountain guides this means a decline in the demand. Within the scope of this paper, a case study was done in order to try to quantify the decline based on an increase of the difficulty. The route from the Tschierva cabin across the Bianco ridge up to the Piz Bernina was selected. It became evident that the demand for mountain guide services for the Bianco ridge will decrease by 18%. How strongly the changes of the natural environment influence the demand for mountain guide services altogether could not be quantified exactly, since a detailed clarification would be necessary for each specific route.


 A knowledge of the preferences of the guests is essential in order to better estimate the influence of climatically conditioned changes on the demand. From this follows that changes of the natural environment partly directly or indirectly affect the most important needs of the guests:

The results show that the majority of the guests can be satisfied with combined mountain climbs in the II and III difficulty level of six to nine hours duration in the high mountain region of the Alpes. What is feared most by the guests is the danger of rockfalls.

In this context the criteria of selection of a particular tour are also of importance. In the first place good tour and weather conditions are mentioned and also levels of difficulty which correspond to one's abilities.

Other important criteria for visiting a mountainous region are a beautiful, interesting landscape with a good range of tours available and not too many people.

An additional clue for the preferences of the guests are adaptive measures that have become necessary during the last few summers which have been very hot: preventive measures which the guests can take themselves are not considered impediments by the majority. But the guests react very sensitively to crushes, increasing risks and increasing alpine-technical difficulties.


 The need for safety is by far the most important reason for engaging a mountain guide. Also important are experience, local knowledge and the fact that, with a mountain guide, even difficult tours are possible without an increased risk. Therefore it is essential for the continued existence of the mountain guide trade, that the mountain guides can continue to satisfy these important needs of the guests in the face of increasing objective hazards and alpine-technical difficulties.

After safety considerations the need for instruction is the second most important reason for engaging a mountain guide and presents an alternative to problematic activites.


 At the present time the most important area of activity for the mountain guides are combined mountain climbs. This mountain-sport activity, which takes place exclusively on glaciers and in the permafrost zone, has been, aside from ice face climbing, particularly affected by changes of the natural environment during the last few years. The scenarios show that the conditions for this important source of income of the mountain guides will continue to detoriate in the future. Also, the findings from the case study and the negative effects on the preferences of the guests indicate that the demand for mountain guide services in the high mountain regions will continue to decrease. But compared to the tours without mountain guides, the number of guided tours will rather increase.


A great majority of the mountain guides have reacted to this new situation by abandoning hazardous routes. Most strongly affected are various north and ice face routes.

 Additonally the season was adjusted to the new situation, especially for activities such as ice face climbing, combined mountain climbs, ski, and high mountain ski tours respectively.

 Some reacted with more flexibility and short-term planning to the new situation, which became necessary because of routes that had to be changed more frequently as a result of increased hazards. It was stressed that the responsibility and the difficulties of finding an optimal solution had increased.


 In this situation, considering the different options, a mixture between a greater diversification of activities that are affected less by climatic changes and preventive measures in the sense of restoring the terrain are being recommended.


The observations of the mountain guides in the Bernina massif clearly indicate increasingly negative conditions for tours in the area of the survey. They can be related to changes of the natural environment affecting rock, permafrost and glaciers.

 In how far the changes observed indicate a global change of climate can only be guessed and will show in the future.

For the mountain guide these questions are less important compared to the fact that a trend towards increased risks and difficulties can be detected and that changes in this direction are taking place. On the basis of the climate scenarios of the IPCC one has to at least expect a progression of these changes, since the CO2 emissions will increase in the future with great probability.

 The best option in such a situation therefore is to adjust to this trend optimally with suitable measures. Optimizing is the motto of the moment , and waiting in the hope that the former conditions will be re-established is the worst possible strategy and, considering todays knowledge about climatic change, contains more risks than does adaption.

 Especially mountain guides should have recognized that nothing lasts and everything flows on the glaciers in the high mountain regions....This should not make us sad, but encourage us to accept new challenges and to meet them with new innovations. The way is the end!


The work of diploma can be ordered at the following adresses:
Dario-Andri Schwörer
dipl. Ski- und Bergführer
CH-7320 Sargans
Tel. 079 336 90 91
Michael Illien
dipl. Ski- und Bergführer
CH-7304 Maienfeld
Tel. 079 636 66 81