A Sunday’s ascent of the Marmolada, the largest glacier in northern Italy’s Dolomites, should only serve as a warm-up for Filippo Bari and his friends before an even bigger challenge comes this weekend.
The 27-year-old climber was so happy on the glacier that he sent his brother a selfie. Hours later, the father-of-a-child from the Venetian town of Malo was among the first victims to be identified after a huge mass of glacier broke off and an avalanche of ice, rocks and debris thundered down the slope and onto a popular hiking trail.
“He was a great man, so young, full of life and passion for the mountains,” said Lino Re, president of the Malo entity of Cai, the Italian mountaineering club of which Bari was a member. “We had planned a trip to Monte Rosa, the second highest peak in the Alps after Mont Blanc, for this weekend, and Filippo and his friends were preparing for it.”
Bari was on the Marmolada with a group of four climbers. One was injured in the avalanche, the other two are among the 13 still missing.
A tragedy that has rocked Canazei, the town closest to the Marmolada, has so far confirmed seven dead and eight injured, two of them seriously. Many of the 2,000 residents were well aware of the rapidly changing glacier but never expected such a catastrophe.
“It’s hard to put into words what happened,” said Pietro Planchenstein. “To know that these people died so close is horrifying. The glacier has changed a lot; I used to ski on it as a child – in the summer – now it’s no longer possible.”
Known as the Queen of the Dolomites, the Marmolada has lost more than 80% of its volume over the past 72 years, with the rate of its retreat increasing over the past decade. Italian scientists warned in 2020 that the glacier could disappear within 15 years due to global warming.
Rescuers resumed their search for the missing on Tuesday morning, an operation hampered by thunderstorms over the past 24 hours, though hope of finding them alive has faded.
Victims identified so far include Tommaso Carollo, 48, and Paolo Dani, a mountain guide. Some of the bodies can only be identified by DNA testing due to the nature of their deaths. They were taken to a makeshift morgue at an ice rink near Canazei, where relatives of those still missing are desperate for news.
Among those reported missing are Italians, three Romanians, one of French nationality, another from Austria and four from the Czech Republic. Two of the injured are from Germany.
Everyone had ventured onto the Marmolada on a bright sunny day. “The terrace was full of people,” said Lucia Novak, who works at Rifugio Marmolada, a mountain refuge and restaurant overlooking the glacier.
“I heard a noise around 2pm and when I looked up I saw the avalanche but didn’t know what it was at the time. Everything changed within five minutes – we had this beautiful sunshine, but then it got dark, cold and windy. I could see people walking down the slope, then nothing. I immediately called emergency services. I’ve been working here since 2003 and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
The Marmolada has been measured every year since 1902 and is considered the “natural thermometer” of climate change, but according to Aldino Bondesan, geophysics professor at the University of Padua and member of the Italian Glaciological Committee, there has never been a detailed study devoted to the risk of detachment, since falls of these species have never been registered.
He said a friend went to the glacier on Saturday and snapped photos near the area of the tragedy. “Looking at the photos, you don’t see any evidence of large fractures, which would suggest it was in a more dangerous state than at other times,” Bondesan added.
Experts believe the heatwave that has swept Italy since May, bringing unseasonably high temperatures for early summer even in the normally cooler Alps, helped cause the top of the glacier to break off, and at an estimated speed of nearly 200 miles per mile hour fell down the slope (300 km/h).
The winter was also unusually warm and snowfall was significantly lower than in the previous winter.
“It’s clear that when it’s hot, there’s a greater risk of floating pieces of glacier breaking off,” says Claudio Smiraglia, a glaciologist at the University of Milan. “There have been many cases on Mont Blanc, but there are areas on Mont Blanc, particularly those that are popular with climbers, where there is continuous surveillance. The most conspicuous sign is a widening of the crevice, but it is not always so easy to detect that it is perceived as a danger and the mountain is closed. But this warming has put glaciers in crisis and requires the utmost attention.”
Re, who has been climbing mountains for over 30 years, has seen the Marmolada develop at an alarming rate. “The glacier had already been reduced to very sad levels and has progressively deteriorated over the past decade,” he said. “Sunday’s event was exceptional; We can hope that there will be few such extraordinary events, but unfortunately more are to come.”