Maladeta Peak - Roberto Lumbreras

Routes on the Pyrenees glaciers

The Pyrenees is one of the few European mountain ranges where we can still contemplate the majesty of the glaciers, reminiscent of the ice masses that covered all this mountain range during the Ice Age.

Within Pyrenees mountain range 19 glacier masses remain, being the southernmost in Europe. They are distributed in both Pyrenean slopes, although those of the southern slope are larger, all of them are considered mountain glaciers in their last phase. To get the big picture, in 1850 there were 52 glaciers in the Pyrenees, so more than 30 have disappeared due to climate change.

From all the ice that once covered the Pyrenees, only its glacial circles and some small gradients ​​that don’t descend to the valley are preserved. So, to know them thoroughly and to learn about their future, from Walkaholic we’ll give you a nice briefing about the Pyrenees Glaciers and some of their most interesting facts.

What is a glacier?

By definition, a thick mass of ice formed by the compaction, accumulation and recrystallization of snow. A Glacier also shows flow evidence in the past or present. 

For that reason, of the 19 glacier masses present in the Pyrenees mountain range, only 10 of them can be properly considered glaciers. The remaining 9 are masses that have not experienced movement, so they qualify as snowfields. These are, like glaciers, thick masses of ice, but static.

Glaciers are of great importance to mankind, because 75% of the world’s fresh water is contained in them and they constitute a natural reservoir for this vital and unreplaceable resource.

It’s estimated that the last glaciation ended about 10,000 years ago and from that moment the size of the glaciers has been increasing and decreasing in stages of time. But since the nineteenth century its extensions have tended to decrease, and in the 21st century the reduction of these ice masses has reached a drastic rate.

Pyrenean glaciers

The first measurement and mapping of the Pyrenees glaciers was carried out by the Franco-German geographer Franz Schrader, at the end of the 19th century. These are divided into glaciers on the southern and northern slopes of the Pyrenees.

On the southern slope or Spanish side, only the central part of the Spanish Pyrenees has glaciers, concentrated in the Ordesa, Tena and Benasque valleys. Its orientation is north and they stand at approximately 2,700 meters of altitude. Usually, they are protected by rocky circles of more than 3,000 meters.

On the northern slope, in the same way as on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, the glacier masses are in the central location of the mountain range. In this slope, they begin to be observed from 2,800 meters of altitude. On this side is the only glacier mass of the Pyrenees. This is located on the Ossoue Glacier, on the north face of the Vignemale Massif.

Largest glaciers

The Aneto Glacier

The Aneto Glacier
The Aneto Glacier / Photo by Quico Gimeno, License (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It is the largest of the Pyrenees, the Aneto Glacier is located in the Spanish municipality of Benasque and close to Pico Aneto (3404 m). It has 90 hectares of surface and 50 meters of maximum thickness. It moves about 5 meters rate per year, and forms a lake of glacier origin, at 3200 meters above sea level is the highest lake of Spain.

In September 2009 it was divided into two, when the part near the top of the section was sectioned. This glacier feeds the Ésera River and the Aiguallut waterfall. Due to global warming, its size is being drastically reduced to the point that by 2025 it will be only a snowfield.

Ossoue Glacier

 Vignemale massif
Vignemale massif / Photo by Sea-empress, License (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Located on the northern slope, the Ossoue Glacier is the second largest in the Pyrenees with its 40 hectares and 1.4 km in length. In fact, it is the only Pyrenean glacier that has a sleeve that reaches the valley and due its great thickness it’s one of the best preserved. It is located in the Vignemale massif and its 2850 meters high.

Unfortunately, climate change has also taken its part of this glacier. In 1924 it had 95 hectares, while in 2011 it had been reduced to 45 hectares and is currently only 40. It was about 115 meters thick when the measurements began, but now only reaches 40 meters.

Maladeta Glacier

Maladeta Glacier
Maladeta Peak / Photo by Roberto Lumbreras, License (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With its 37 hectares, the Maladeta Glacier is the third largest in the Pyrenees. It is located on the northern slope of Pico de La Maladeta, 3308 meters high, in Benasque. This glacier is divided into West Maladeta and East Maladeta  and feeds the rivers Ésera and Vallibierna.

Recent measurements indicate that currently it has only 20 hectares due to global warming. This 2019 has been difficult for the mass of the glacier, as it is the fifth worst overall balance since it began monitoring 28 years ago. Due to climate change, it is estimated that this glacier could disappear in two or three decades.

Monte Perdido Glacier

Monte Perdido Glacier
Monte Perdido Glacier (2005) / Photo by Nacho Azcárate y Calo Bescós, License (CC BY-SA 3.0)

With an area of ​​32 hectares and 50 meters of thickness, this glacier on the southern slope is the fourth largest in the Pyrenees. It is a mountain glacier suspended on a slope between 2,700 and 3,250 meters above the north face of the peak that gives it its name.

Like his other brothers in the Pyrenees, the one in Monte Perdido has been losing surface. It is separated in upper and lower part of the glacier, and recedes one meter per year. At this rate, it will have disappeared in about three decades.

So, this is a good opportunity to visit them always taking all the necessary security measures, they are as dangerous as they are beautiful and many mountaineers have been in a bind and have even lost their lives.

However, the adventure of reaching them cannot be postponed: in a few years, we may not have this possibility. The Pyrenees Glaciers are in a state of retreat and extinction, and lose more snow every year than they gain during the winter.

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