The “Combe Maudite”: its secrets revealed in time lapse

Interview with Luc Moreau – Glaciologist – Partner and friend of Enlaps

A unique place of installation!

Luc Moreau, glaciologist associated with the CNRS Edytem Laboratory, and always passionate about the natural movement of glaciers, has chosen an incredible spot to install one of its Tikee cameras.

A rocky peak, overhanging the “Combe Maudite”, a wild place, a real “dead end” in which the overflow of ice from the famous Mont Maudit flows in a cascade of seracs. This combe then feeds a large part of the Bossons glacier which flows under the effect of its weight and the slope towards the Chamonix valley.

The Tikee camera contemplates a breathtaking panorama.

Luc during the Tikee pose (photo Pascal Tournaire)

Luc during the Tikee installation (photo Pascal Tournaire)

Tikee installation site seen from the CMBH helicopter during a refuelling of the refuge.

Tikee installation site seen from the CMBH helicopter during a refuelling of the refuge.

In winter at 3100m of altitude, the temperature can drop below -25°C.

The 220° field of view of the Tikee camera allows us to enjoy (from left to right) the Aiguille du Midi, the three Monts (Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc) and below on the right, the Grands Mulets refuge. Ludovic the guardian of the refuge welcomes from mid-March to the end of July the mountaineers who come to discover this majestic site.

From left to right: Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc

Will you be able to find the 2 climbers on this picture, which gives an idea of the titanic scale of these places 😉 – From left to right : Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc

1 year of rich information time lapse

The camera took pictures for a year to visualize the flow of the glacier over the seasons …

Observe on the video time lapse the vertical ice flows, which come, under the effect of their weight, to feed, from the high cold altitudes where they are made, the cursed coomb. These are “cold glaciers” located above 4000m in the Alps, with negative temperature at their base, which adhere to the rock (-15°C at the top of the Mon Blanc). But due to global warming, some cold glaciers close to the melting point around 3700m can become slippery and are monitored by glaciologists. If the base of the glacier warms up, they become “temperate” at their base, and can be dangerous for people like the nearby Taconnaz glacier.


Outil de comparaison d’image avant/après de l’application MyTikee

Before/after image comparison tool of the MyTikee application

The movement of the glacier: its weight and the slope!

The Bossons glacier is temperate, and it is clearly seen in the images that it slides as a block, but it is deforming on its edges where friction on the rock slows down the glacier. The visco-plastic ice deforms but also fractures and crevasses open up as it flows. Its deformation occurs mostly on its edges and at depth, or in slope breaks.

The flow velocity is therefore the result of the mass of the glacier sliding down the slope and its deformation.

The movement of the glacier digs the valleys of the mountains!

Glacial erosion can be observed at the edge of the glacier: the flowing mixture of rock and ice wears away the rock. This erosion has formed over the course of time and the great glaciations a ridge on which the refuge of the Great Mules is located today. These are crystalline shales (or gneisses), while the right bank of the glacier is made of granite. The cursed combe hides the limit between these two rocks which goes up to the summit of Mont Blanc which can be seen at the bottom and far above the combe .

The concept of the timelapse is particularly adapted in glaciology. It highlights the flow of glaciers under the effect of their weight, a movement invisible to the naked eye but revealed by these images, variations in length, surface condition, snow melting. The cameras record for us what we miss between two visits!

The historical anecdote

Above the ridge of the hut, you can see the pyramid-shaped “Happy Return” Rock. On 08 and 09 August 1786 during the first ascent of Mont Blanc, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard bivouacked after their legendary ascent at the foot of this famous rock which was so named. This ridge and this rock form a “Nunataq”, an Inuit word meaning rock in the middle of the ice.

Rocher de l’heureux retour et à sa gauche au fond le Mt Blanc, et le Dôme du gouter à droite

Rocher de l’heureux and on its left in the background the Mt Blanc, and the Dôme du gouter on the right.

The effects of global warming

The hut is accessed by passing to the right of the ridge (to the right of the hut in the photo). The hut closes in mid-July in the middle of the season because the number of visitors is cruelly decreasing, the access road becoming too cracked. It is rather the winter and spring itinerary for the descent of Mont Blanc on skis!

The melting of our glaciers is fast, very fast, and we didn’t think so in 1980 when they were growing up ! However, they are now losing the equivalent of one to two meters of ice over their entire surface each year, which means that they will not last very long.

Vital observations

Observing glaciers through these long-term images helps to better understand the flow of the mass and its variations over time. But of course annual in situ measurements are essential to understand these variations and the glacial risks for the safety of populations and infrastructures in high mountains in this context of climate change. As the zero degree isotherm rises, cold glaciers warm up and become temperate glaciers, suspended glaciers are more easily detached, temperate glaciers shrink very quickly and their moraines or glacial deposits collapse. These changes are responsible for ice falls, increasingly frequent and important stones following the melting of ice in the fractures of the rocky walls of high mountains, this famous “permafrost”, which is degrading.

These time lapses are an aid to understanding, visualizing and remembering the rapid changes taking place in front of our eyes, to anticipate and simulate what is ahead of us .

But let’s not forget the aesthetics of these fragile and moving environments that have captivated us since the dawn of time, and let’s try to avoid their disappearance for they are the source of the vital water cycle that keeps us alive every day!

Never walk on glaciers alone or badly equipped, always be roped up long, and have a minimum of security notions (see the website of the association La Chamoniarde).

Thanks again to Luc for these aesthetic, scientific and educational images!

Article written by Antoine Auberton-Herve – CEO: Enlaps unlimited time lapse solution

Let’s dream together of wide open spaces in this period of confinement… discover this majestic site of the “Combe Maudite” in timelapse, 1 year of shooting with a Tikee camera. A big THANK YOU to Luc Moreau for sharing his knowledge and images of this unique place.