The AGP In The 1970s

Ed Bramley was part of the original Alpine Glacier Project Expeditions. Here he shares memories and images from the 1975 and 1976 seasons.

The sunlight is just catching the tops of the valley, and we want to be out early on the ice today, before breakfast, so that we can make come crucial ablation measurements.  Down the track, across the river and then back up past the Prise, to the snout of the glacier.  There’s still a light but gnawing wind off the glacier, and my wool shirt and pullover are only keeping the worst off.  At the snout it’s crampons on, out with the ice axe, on with the Dachstein mitts and up onto the main glacier. 

DNC Ascending Gornergletscher in 1975

As I ascend, the ice crunches satisfactorily under my crampons.  Not always the pure white or clear that I’d originally envisaged, but multi-coloured and often dirty from the moraine debris.  With cryoconite patterns dotted here and there.  As the glacier nears the plateau, it’s steepened up over a rock step, so there are some small ice walls we can try our ice-climbing techniques out on. 

Now on the glacier itself, we head out to a line of ablation stakes, to measure how much melting there has been over a number of ice ridges and furrows.  The equipment is home-made and crude – a length of wood with a series of holes in it to mark the measurement points, a steel pin to slot through the hole and use as a depth gauge, and a builder’s level and tape to complete the set up.  Along with a notebook and pencil to jot the crucial measurements down.  Once that’s done, we wander across to our weather station to check it’s all ok.  Over the last few days, the boulder the instruments are on has showed distinct signs of sliding off its icy base.  The boulders on the surface look secure, but everything is inexorably moving, whether it’s the whole glacier, or ice cones protected under rocks.   The old charts need to be taken off the drums, new ones put on, clocks wound, and pens re-inked.  A tedious job at the best of times, but the hands have to be out of gloves and the glass nib has to be carefully recharged with ink that is really viscous at these temperatures.  But it’s either that, or we miss out on crucial information.

Weather Station, 1975

At last, our morning chores are completed, and we return to the tunnels for a late breakfast.  No surprises here – it’s porridge (nicely congealed), with a goodly dollop of Golden Syrup, all washed down with a mug of tea.  We can sit outside on the logs in the sun and enjoy the scenery, with distant glimpses of Zermatt, and the work progressing on the new cableway they are building up to the Kleine Matterhorn.

We can take the rest of the morning easy, and for Neil hair washing is the priority.  One disadvantage of those longer 1970’s hair styles.  With water heated on the hotplate and bucket at the ready, the terrace outside of the tunnels doubles as the hair salon.  As the weather is decent, spare clothes are brought out for similar bucket treatment, with the nearby boulders doubling as handy drying devices.  It’s only when you clean your clothes or have a top to toe wash yourself do you realise how much the smell can build up in clothing, and it’s not nice!  The morning break also gives us chance to give our equipment the once over, and one of Mervyn’s crampons is showing signs of distress at the join.  Ever the resourceful type, he makes use of the handles of one of our tin openers to fashion a replacement, and they’re back, good as new.

Lunch time, and the delights of Healthy Life biscuits, with sild – at least it’s the tomato sauce and not the oil version, with half a Mars bar to round it all off.  And it will be the same on most days, apart from occasional forays down into Zermatt to the Migros and scavenging from the half abandoned tourist meals, or a pint in the Walliser Kanne.

Water sampling in 1975

The afternoon sees us collecting the samples from the sampling machine at the bottom of the snout, a Heath-Robinson contraption comprising 24 sample bottles and a clockwork mechanism to trigger the sampling.  All driven by vacuums in the flasks, which requires a serious amount of hand pumping to set up.  Fine sediment blocking the sampling lines is a perennial issue, but a few days ago we had a different scale of problem.  Large boulders moving around in the outflow stream had damaged the sampling head, which then required emergency bankside repairs.  Not always easy when there are 24 sets of pipes to contend with, but the pipe has to be sampling the main flow, otherwise it runs the risk of not being representative.  Each sample bottle is then emptied individually into the filter jar, pumped through the filter, and all the filters then carefully bagged for analysis back in the dry. 

We finish this in reasonable time, so there’s time to head back to the tunnels and catch an hour reading, before dinner.  In the 70’s everybody had raved about Lord of the Rings, but I’d never managed to get beyond the first few pages.  Now, in a tunnel inside a mountain with snowy peaks all around, and a small group for company, the book took on a new meaning, and I could absorb myself into their adventures.  Some of the team were busy either processing their experiments or starting to work through their dissertations.  It seems strange now to look back on this age before digital.  Instruments were manually read and then recorded in our notebooks.  Simple statistics were performed on calculators, although it was only the top end ones that allowed you to do scientific calculations.  The bones of dissertations were similarly crafted on sheets of paper, ready for their eventual typing up and submission – two carbon copies please.  And not even a Walkman for some background music.  Communication with the outside world was invariably by letter, collected by one of the group on a regular basis from the Post Restante in Zermatt.  One of the treats to beat the routine.

DNC at Basecamp, 1976

And then it was on to the finale of a day at base camp – evening meal.  Most evenings, it was one of three varieties of dehydrated meal – chicken supreme, chicken curry, or beef stew.  This was generally accompanied with rice, which one of us had carried up in a large sack from Zermatt.  And to add interest, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper or paprika from Dave.  Despite the basic nature, somehow we always enjoyed the evening meals, and everybody was always keen to ensure that helpings were equal.  Woe betide the person who left ‘scrapings’ for themselves in the bottom of the cooking tureen.  Inevitably, we used to fantasise about food a lot.  Not for anything extravagant, but just for the basics which we hadn’t experienced for weeks, whether it was corn flakes at breakfast time, or fish fingers in the evening.  Dinner was a time we could all get together and swap our stories of the day, or anecdotes from the past, before turning in for the night.

You can read Ed’s Blog Post Part 2 by clicking here

2 thoughts on “The AGP In The 1970s

  1. Ed’s article brings back memories of working on the project in 1979 and 1980. I was at Cambridge at the time but seized the opportunity for trips to the alps. I really enjoyed being out there and worked on my dissertation in the second season. This was due to be on cryoconites, of which there had been thousands in ’79. Sadly, there were precisely zero in 1980 so I pivoted to a less interesting project on glacier tables. Overall, it was a great experience and I was very grateful to David Collins for making it possible.

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