Teen Crisis High Up on the Mont Blanc Glacier | Stuart Grauer | 20 Min Read

May 13, 2024

1. The Summit of Mont Blanc

In 1974, my first year as a full-time teacher, I won a football pool and, with the winnings, bought plane and train tickets bound for the Alps where I had plotted out a month of ski destinations. I must confess, I also plotted a course to visit Swiss international schools near the slopes, one of which I eventually joined.

On my travels, I soon got wind of a ski run at Mont Blanc called the Vallée Blanche, the highest, longest ski run in Europe and maybe the most renowned off-piste ski run in the world. I just had to go. 

Mont Blanc’s summit reaches an elevation of approximately 4,808 meters (15,774 feet). It is the tallest peak in Western Europe. I soon arrived there, ready to make the ascent to the summit, called the Aiguille du Midi. To ascend, I boarded the cable car, and then climbed into two consecutive aerial lifts. At last, at the top of the three lifts, I crawled out of the gondola and entered straight into a long, wood and steel tunnel that led to a surreal, blue ice tunnel. Emerging, it being a clear day, I looked over the classic little town of Chamonix down below, and beheld the glorious French Alps and beyond. 

It was amazing. The time it took to complete the epic descent on skis depended on various factors like weather conditions, snow, experience level, and pace, none of which I had any idea about. I had only heard it was a cool run. (I was 24 and so invincible.) But it was known to take 4 or even 6 hours of skiing from summit to valley. 

I clicked into my skis and headed down from the winding massif in long sweeping traverses so as to experience the most of this fabled ride, taking in the vistas all around, like a fly over. The initial descent from the Aiguille du Midi summit involved navigating a narrow, sharp, often windswept ridge known as the Arête. With sheer drops on either side and incredible views, it was an exhilarating start of the run. 

The typical ski route from there took you next to the storied Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”). Skiing this gigantic glacier involved navigating steep and exposed terrains, crevasses, and potentially icy conditions. Skiers often needed to use mountaineering equipment, such as crampons and ice axes, to safely cross certain sections. To avoid those, the descent normally required careful route selection, by guides and mountaineers experienced in managing changing conditions and potentially hazardous obstacles. 

My youthful audacity at that time, enhanced by a sense of invincibility typical of my early 20s, meant I often acted first and thought later. These reckless adventures of hurricane surf and out of bounds skiing, while formative, pale in comparison to the deeper appreciation they instilled in me for the wild’s preciousness—the greatest lesson of all. 

Having a protracted (some might say permanent) adolescence has also helped me as a teacher who has had insight into and patience for the teen mind. An adolescent is just as much a force of nature as Mont Blanc.

2. A Glacial Crevasse

Once I reached the next section of the descent, the glacier known as Mer du Glace, I stopped to talk to a guide who was passing by with his group. Scanning the vast, icy expanse before us, he said, essentially, you don’t ski this mountain alone, especially the Mer du Glace. A wrong turn and they’ll never find you. He gestured to the path that lay ahead, where the shadows marked deeper fissures in the glacier. “Stay with us.”

Skiing on a glacier offers a unique sensation of gliding over expansive ice. It’s a rare opportunity to experience skiing in a remote and pristine environment—rarer than I could have dreamed, and it seems like a dream to me now.

The glacier provided a beautiful slope, clean and wide. The guide took off and I right behind him, so he accelerated, me on his tail. Gone were the muffled, softer sounds produced on the fresh powder above. The glacial snow was granular and icy. I loved hearing the scratchy sound when skiing over it. 

The guide was a terrific skier who could do flips and tricks and after one stop to gather the group, he looked at me and said, “Follow me for this next section,” then took off, fast. He rounded a couple turns and I lost sight of him around a bend. I accelerated in pursuit and then, horrified, I saw I was sliding right towards and perhaps into a gigantic crack in the snow, I dug my edges into the granular, glacial snow which held beautifully, and skidded to an emergency stop. 

The guide, a young, wavy-haired fellow with the body of an acrobat, jumped out from behind a rock, belly laughing, and said, “You almost skied into a crevasse! Hahahahaha!” 

“A what?”  

A crevasse is a large crack in a glacier, and every year people ski into them and experience terrifying rescues if they are lucky. Crevasses can be narrow and dark, and the fall may leave a person disoriented and confused. The walls are often sheer ice, making escape without proper equipment virtually impossible. It is a descent into a hazardous, if not traumatic or lethal experience. Of course, I am here to write about it. And to verify that glacier skiing can serve up some potentially hazardous conditions. Get a guide.

From there, our group, including myself, stayed closer together as we glided down Mont Blanc, passing aiguilles (jagged rock spires) and otherworldly ice formations that seemed like “waves instantaneously frozen in the midst of a violent storm” as William Coxe described it in 1777, and we skied all the way down to softer snow and the charming Chamonix village, the longest and most fascinating ski run of my life. 

As I walked over to my hotel, on the sidewalk a little French man in a black beret passed a little girl he knew, pinched her cheek, and said, “Mon petit chou!”  (“My little cabbage/my little creampuff”). Still high from an epic mountain descent, I thought I was in an old, Alpine fairytale.

3. Returning With My Students

50 years passed. They did not seem to take all that long, but that time has been enriching far beyond my 1970s imagination. And so, in my last year as a full-time teacher, I returned to Mont Blanc with a group of 12 Grauer high school students. I had bright snowy slopes in my eyes, and long, high traverses. 

After a jet flight and bullet train, we drove into the mountains and arrived in Chamonix. I looked for the little man in the beret and, of course, he was nowhere. The town was beautiful but more grown up and with more streets and density. At the base station of Mont Blanc, still there, we boarded the old tramway to the first of three stations. We switched to the aerial lift and soon arrived at the second.

There, however, we disembarked. There was no going up the third lift to get to the summit. The summit lift and ice tunnel I had skied out of was going to remain a fairytale in my mind. I was concerned and disappointed, but still of course stoked with my students, as we were arriving at their summit, not mine. 

There, from the top of station two, we looked out and up upon the Mont Blanc massif I had once summited, and it was not the slope I remembered. I beheld deep, deep, 800-foot-high mountain walls sloped all the way up and down the sides of Mer du Glace. Glacial snow had hugged high up on these walls when I had last been here with the laughing mountain guide. 800 feet of snow was gone! 

I tried to show and tell this difference to my students but I was short for words, and distraught.

Next, I tried to explain to our guide about my visit 50 years prior. I recounted my story:  skiing out the ice tunnel at the summit, arriving all the way down to the village. The storybook. Mon petit chou! 

And here is what happened: He denied it. “In the 80s you had to first climb and rappel 80 feet down from the top in order to get onto that glacier. You could not just ski right onto the slopes,” he claimed.

“No,” I pleaded, as though he were denying the truth of climate change. “I skied here in the 70s, not the 80s. We skied right out the tunnel back then and straight out onto the slopes and the glacier. No rappelling. From the top, we skied all the way down into the Chamonix village below. It’s all gone!”

He was a 40-something, extremely skilled and knowledgeable mountain guide who probably could have skied me into a crevasse and then carried out the rescue, but he looked blank. He simply ignored my experience.

And he was the guide. How would I ever impress my students with the facts? Was this what climate change denying looks like up close? This vast bowl of rock and scree that was barely skiable now was a thick, glacial snow bowl back in the day. It was the longest ski run in the world. I know because I skied it.

4. A Lost World

From the top of station two, our students and guides began our descent down the 550 steps that had been installed, so visitors like us could get down to the new, 2023 level of the snow. 550 steps. Once again, from the lift at station three, the actual summit, there was no longer any way to even get on the snow other than expert mountain climbing. 

My students and I descended the steps and, along the way, the local mountaineers had set “glacier benchmarks” or “glacier ablation stakes.” They are used to track the changes in glacier mass and ice melt over time due to climate change. The point where we stood at the top was where the snow was when I was there in the early 70s, but there was no marker. At that time, the glacier was about the way Coxe had found it 200 years earlier, and long-term monitoring had not occurred to people yet. After a hundred or so steps down, we reached the first glacial snow level marker, from 1985. In another hundred or so steps we reached the glacial level in 1992, and then 1998, then 2006, then 2015.

At last we reached the end of the steps and descended onto the pitiful remains of the magnificent Mer de Glace I had at last returned to. Our school leader Frida LeBreton said, “it resembles more a quarry of tainted rubble than a transparent sea of ice.” It was April 23rd, a perfect time for spring skiing. We donned our snowshoes and made our way across mashed potato snow and broken up slate and limestone, up toward the remains of the glacier. There were a few skiers in the slush, skiing the short run that was left. There was no way to ski to even 4000 feet above the village, the glacier and snow down there was completely melted. You could only hike it or take the lift back down, and then board the cog rail Bahn back to town.

We made a lovely snowshoe ascent to a rock outcropping a few hundred feet up and, it being lunchtime, we sat and pulled out our lunch packs. I sat with my students and pointed up the valley to where I had skied, wanting to tell my story, but my mind was in another time, another story.

5. A Necessary Shift

Before we dive back into the narrative, let’s take a moment to reflect—an interdisciplinary pause, if you will. Drawing from the Coxe quote, it’s apparent that the once static snowy slope has persisted for centuries, likely unchanged. Today, we witness a starkly different reality.

Amidst the scientific consensus on climate change, dissenters remain. As a teacher, surfer, and wilderness advocate, I find such skepticism alarming and upsetting. Rigorous scientific inquiry—spanning the disciplines of environmental science, chemistry, and physics—underscores human influence, primarily through fossil fuel combustion, as a central force in global warming. This warming encompasses the spheres of oceanography and glaciology, affecting both seas and summits. Statistically, the likelihood of such trends occurring naturally is minuscule, below 1 in 100,000, a figure drawn from the mathematical modeling that is essential to climate science.[1]If you are seeking ways to engage with this topic, a plethora of interdisciplinary resources are available, such as the New York Times Climate FAQ … Continue reading

There are those who posit that Earth will autonomously equilibrate or that humanity will instinctively adapt. To me, this is like navigating directly towards a giant crevasse on skis and leaving the outcome to chance. In our roles as educators, we confront this narrative, challenging our students to supplant myth with empirical evidence, critical analysis, and proactive measures.

What, then, would an “emergency stop,” short of the crevasse, entail in schools? 

This will not entail an assembly or a unit in one subject—it entails an immersion. To cultivate a holistic educational approach to climate change, every teacher and school leader must consider its impact across various disciplines. Here’s a sample list of subject areas and how they can be integrated:

  1. Geography and Earth Science: Investigate the recession of glaciers and ice caps through hands-on field studies, mapping activities, and satellite image analysis.
  2. Environmental Studies: Analyze the upsurge in extreme weather events, including the role of climate in exacerbating phenomena like wildfires and hurricanes. Explore the alterations in sea level, precipitation, and snowfall patterns, considering their implications on natural resources and global ecosystems.
  3. Humanities: Examine the historical context of human interaction with the environment, and the cultural narratives surrounding nature, including literature that addresses human responses to natural phenomena and climate change. That is the intent of this story.
  4. Economics: Understand the economic impacts of climate change, including the cost of natural disasters, the economics of renewable energy, and the financial implications for different sectors.
  5. Social Studies: Discuss the social and political dimensions of climate change, including environmental justice, policy making, and international agreements like the Paris Accord.
  6. Arts: Use visual and performing arts to convey the emotional and existential dimensions of climate change, creating art that reflects on human impact on the environment, and inspiring action through powerful imagery and storytelling.
  7. Ethics and Philosophy: Deliberate on the moral responsibilities of individuals and societies towards the environment, and as well as our relationship with the natural world.
  8. Health and Physical Education: Assess the impact of environmental changes on health, physical activity, and outdoor recreation, such as the effects of air quality on athletics and outdoor sports.
  9. Psychology: Address the psychological effects of climate change, including eco-anxiety and the mental health benefits of connection with nature.
  10. Technology and Engineering: Design and create innovative solutions to environmental problems, such as waste reduction strategies, renewable energy systems, and green architecture. (Our LEED certified campus with gardens is itself a teacher.)
  11. Mathematics: Use data analysis to model climate trends, calculate carbon footprints, and quantify the effects of conservation efforts.
  12. Civics and Community Action: Empower students to engage in civic life with projects that advocate for environmental protection and sustainable practices at the local, national, and global levels. Student volunteer work at local habitats can be unforgettable.

By weaving climate change into these varied subjects, students can develop a rich, nuanced understanding of the issue and its far-reaching effects, fostering a comprehensive educational experience that equips them to be informed and active global citizens.

To this list, I append my own pedagogical prescription: Venture to the lofty and unspoiled corners of the world and cherish them—even if just virtually. In my view, this is the pinnacle of educational practice, inspiring stewardship of the natural world. It is the motivation to expose our students to places like the Mer de Glace, imparting these tangible truths. Our campuses are teachers, too, and we can create nooks, gardens, and natural spaces. At The Grauer School, we run live feeds of natural environments on flat screens around the campus.

Education can be the answer. We can afford our students a holistic understanding of climate change and its multifaceted challenges, fostering a generation equipped to lead with knowledge and act with conviction, even if we risk our jobs to do so.

We have a duty to prepare the next generation for the reality ahead and inspire them with great stories that spark action. Now, back to the story.

6. Taking Heart

I could not believe how disheartening it feels when you are trying to explain an inspiring, essential time to students but you feel more like an old fogey. 

How could I impress upon my students that I was not talking about the good old days, “when I was a boy?” I was talking about the future. Their future. I implored, “This whole high mountain valley was completely filled in with snow, when I last saw it, I swear, many of these rock walls were not even visible! I skied it, 800 feet above where we are standing!” and my arms made crazy motions trying to illustrate this fact, this lost world, that felt too big to express. 

Gone were the undulating, blue Mer du Glace rollers. Gone were the crevasses such as that which had nearly taken my life. Gone was the greatest ski run in the world.

As if in response, Mason, grade 11, confides in me about the conflicts he is facing. Homework is cutting into his pickleball time to the extent that, with the availability of incredible, artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, why do homework when you could be on the court? It’s just a question of meaningful trade-offs. He nods at me, and peels open a baggy with a sandwich, and munches down. We were looking up and seeing completely different mountains, times, and worlds. We ate to the random, muffled clatter and rumble of rocks no longer bound in by glacial snow, separating from the steep valley walls high above and tumbling down 800 feet that did not exist when I was last here. 

Getting teens to care about the future or the past can be a complex issue. No matter how important teachers believe issues to be, teens are often preoccupied with forming their identities, and dealing with immediate concerns like school, friends, and peer pressures. They are still developing the ability to consider long-term consequences, as I had been when last at this place. Anxiety or fear regarding uncertainties like climate change can even lead some teens to disengage from thinking about the future, opposite the intended impact teachers and parents want to have. 

I felt a little hopeless. At that very moment, humans were not just melting a French glacier and causing a fire back home outside of LA, but willingly and radically altering the planet’s climate, melting the whole Arctic, and bringing 6000 wildfires burning down 60,000 square miles across Canada. What can I say to my students until climate hell reaches their back doors? Next month, when we get home, will be the hottest week in recorded history, showing up all around: in New England, in Maui, in China, in the Greek Islands. 

My main strategy so far? I tell them to stop using plastic. Or at least reuse.

They don’t. Or they do a little.

The past few generations including the current one are stuck in an educational gridlock. We are neither teaching, learning, nor doing enough to preserve the earth for the next generations. We have to teach a sense of caring, not easy with teens, who care a lot, but mainly inside their own social circles and teams.

Schools, businesses, and governments would all have to work together and take those concerted global actions that can slow down the rate of warming and reduce the severity of climate impacts in order for us all to combat climate change. It will have to include surfers who care about sea-level rise that is easy to observe at Swamis surfing break if you have surfed there for the past three or so decades, as I have. It will take all the skiers who have skied down massive, scoured out glacial hollows, once filled with magnificent snow.

I feel charged with helping my students. I think that connecting lessons about my own life, history, and the natural world can help them foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for these concepts, and so I hope they will read this story. I hope they will feel my despair at the loss of a ski run, the worthlessness of all those Swiss-German names for snow I learned in my years in the alps, the joyful yodels that now feel like dirges when I sing them (to myself). 

Whatever I do, I now know my work will be inadequate. What are the students in my group supposed to do, not be teens? They are innocent. What would I have done, back then, if I had known the glaciers of the world were about to start a retreat that would go on for a half century? What will my students find in 50 years when they are around my age?

7. Goodbye to Mont Blanc

After lunch, snowshoeing back down to the steps, we pass a substantial crevasse. We all peer into the fearsome, deep gash in the ground. Was that the bottom of the one I almost skied into, so funny, so long ago? Should I tell them that story? Don’t they have their own crevasses?

The guide wants them to experience the crevasse. He sends them over to its rim, one by one. In my imagination, I wait for the edge to cave in and for one of them to slide down in, and I think about the phone calls.

Chacaltaya Ski Resort is 4000 miles south of here. The glacier that once supported the highest ski resort in the world has receded dramatically. The ski lift had to close its operations in 2009. “Cariño!” the Bolivians say in the valley below.

From the bottom of the steps, I look up at the mass of Mont Blanc, maybe for the last time in my life. If I hadn’t known what it used to be, it would have been incredibly beautiful up there on the dwindling glacial scree, and I want my students to experience the beauty of now. Must I tell them this apparent beauty is actually terrible and tragic? 

I think about all the majestic technologies that heated the planet for the past 50 years, and the habitat and species loss, and this—this empty bowl that reminds me of a depleted industrial farmland. Over 509 small glaciers gone extinct in the past 50 years[2] … Continue reading along with hundreds of animal species. Are we masters of the universe yet?

Could we maybe, later on, with these students, have some open dialog and perhaps connect the natural tragedy before us to some real teen experience or emotion, or maybe some connection to something immediate that could spark them like a crush? I don’t know if I’m up to it.[3]https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/french-heat-wave-worries-mont-blanc-climbers-with-increased-risk-2023-08-23/ 

We finish the snowshoe trek together and return to the summit of the second lift, 550 steel grate steps, stopping every few flights to rest and take in the wide-angle vistas. This is a lot of steps up, especially after you’ve been snowshoeing, and it seems unseasonably warm. I strip off a layer. As I climb, the thought of skiing all the way down in that lost world is so beautiful it is almost desperate to bear, and I am at a loss to express that to my students. Fifty years ago, I never thought I’d watch trees grow or glaciers melt, but that’s what has happened.  It makes me think the future could be a long, hard slog or that I would have needed to be a much better teacher all those years.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Stuart Grauer for Intrepid Ed News.


1 If you are seeking ways to engage with this topic, a plethora of interdisciplinary resources are available, such as the New York Times Climate FAQ (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/climate/climate-change-faq.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article).
2 https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/509-small-glaciers-in-third-pole-disappeared-in-last-50-years-55345#:~:text=His%20research%20reveals%20that%20over,biggest%20ones%20are%20shrinking%20rapidly.
3 https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/french-heat-wave-worries-mont-blanc-climbers-with-increased-risk-2023-08-23/

Stuart Grauer, Ed.D.

Stuart Grauer, Ed.D., Founder and Head of School Emeritus of The Grauer School (https://www.grauerschool.com/campus-life/stuarts-page) (Encinitas, California) is considered one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools and expeditionary education. He founded the Small Schools Coalition (Coalition (https://smallschoolscoalition.org/) in 2011 in support of small school leaders. Stuart has been called “America’s foremost educational storyteller.” This year marks Stuart’s 50th in secondary education. He publishes, accredits, and consults widely. His Book: “Original Instructions for Leaders of Small Schools and Causes” is due out in 2025. Contact Stuart at [email protected].

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