In July 2017 a ski resort worker was making repairs to a ski tower when he noticed an unusual dark patch in the snow. At first he thought it was mud. Then he thought, no, it’s some rocks. But as he drew closer, he began to recognize various items: an umbrella, a bottle, a boot… a mummified human face. In fact, there were two dead bodies in the ground before him. And they been encased in an alpine glacier for 75 years.
Located in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, the glacier containing the bodies is known as Tsanfleuron, which means “field of flowers” (a reference, perhaps, to a distant past when the region was once cloaked in flowery meadows.) Today it forms part of a popular ski area centered on the village of Les Diablerets, whose name is derived from the French word for “devil.”
Indeed, local myths have long supposed that diabolical entities inhabit the surrounding mountains. Which is appropriate, considering that around 300 people have vanished in the region in the last century alone. In fact, the local terrain conceals a plethora of deadly hazards. Searches are difficult to conduct and bodies hard to recover. Now, however, climate change is causing the region’s glaciers to rapidly retreat. And as they thaw, they are exposing human remains…
The year was 1942. Living in the shadow of the Tsanfleuron glacier, Marcelin Dumoulin was a 40-year-old cobbler. His wife, Francine, was a 37-year-old teacher and together they had two daughters and five sons. And although the Dumoulins were not primarily farmers, they owned a few cows. In fact, Marcelin served as the president of a dairy organization.
His responsibilities included carrying out an annual inspection of the community’s livestock, which tended to graze some distance from their homes. One way to reach the cows was via the high altitude Sanetsch Pass. However, a much shorter route ascended the mountains and crossed the Tsanfleuron glacier before descending to the other side. It was still a lengthy yomp, a 16-hour round trip in all.
On Saturday August 15, 1942, Dumoulin and his wife set out to conduct the yearly examination of his dairy herd. The couple did not intend to be gone longer than one night. As such, their provisions were light, and included a bottle of lemonade, some bread and some cheese.
But the following evening, Marcelin and Francine failed to return home. Monday came and went. By Tuesday, Marcelin’s sister had come to suspect the worst. Years later, one of the couple’s daughters, Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, who was four when they vanished, questioned the wisdom of her mother attempting the journey. “She was always pregnant and couldn’t climb in the difficult conditions of a glacier,” she told provincial newspaper Le Matin in July 2018.
Police searched for the couple for several weeks. They even probed some of the deep crevasses in the Tsanfleuron glacier. But the search yielded nothing. And the couple’s seven children, now orphaned, were split up and sent to reside with local families and relatives. “We all lived in the region but became strangers,” Udry-Dumoulin told Le Matin.
Nonetheless, they never forgot their missing parents. Some of them even made an annual pilgrimage to the glacier to pray. “We spent our whole lives looking for them without stopping,” Udry-Dumoulin said. “I climbed three times on the glacier afterwards, always looking for them. I kept wondering if they had suffered and what they had become.”
Speaking in 1983 her brother Candide expressed similar sentiments. “[My parents] were lost in this glacier,” he said, “so they’re somewhere here under this massive wall of ice… I come here often to try to meet with them, to find them. Because from where they are, they speak to me.”
In July 2017 Udry-Dumoulin finally found out the truth. Speaking to Le Matin, Bernhard Tscannen, director of Glacier 3000, the company which operates ski lifts in the area, described the discovery of two bodies “lying near each other. [They were] wearing clothing dating from the period of World War Two. They were perfectly preserved in the glacier and their belongings were intact.”
The bodies were subsequently removed from the ice and taken away by helicopter. They were then sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine for official identification and analysis. DNA analysis confirmed that the mummified remains were indeed that of Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin.
Speaking to The New York Times, police spokesman Stéphane Vouardoux said the discovery had been emotional. “It is definitely them – until now, all we had was hope,” he said. “This, once and for all, puts an end to a story that has deeply marked the village. For years, people have been asking questions: ‘What happened to them? Why couldn’t we find them?’ Now we know the truth.”
And the truth appears to be that the Dumoulins may have stumbled into a deep crevasse and remained there for 75 years until the glacier receded enough to expose them. The mountains around Les Diablerets are notorious for sudden weather changes, such as the rapid descent of fog. With poor visibility, it is likely that the couple became disorientated before accidentally tumbling to their deaths.
Naturally, the discovery of the couple’s remains handed some much needed closure to both the Dumoulin family and the local community. “I must say that after 75 years of waiting, this news calms me deeply,” Udry-Dumoulin told Le Matin. “…We didn’t think we would be able to give them the funeral they deserved.”
Udry-Dumoulin decided not to wear black to the funeral. Instead, she wore white. “This represents hope,” she said, “which I have never lost.” Indeed, the burial of her parents was not a sad occasion, but one of celebration. Speaking to GQ 12 months later, she reiterated her gladness. “Now,” she said, “I know they’re some place warm.”
Around a month after the discovery of her dead parents, Udry-Dumoulin did make a pilgrimage to the glacier to say goodbye in her own way. Accompanied by her husband, daughter and other relatives, they visited the spot where their remains had been pulled out of their ice. There, she sang a lonely lament.
Meanwhile, the Dumoulins are not the first missing persons to have been recovered from retreating glaciers. In 2016 the remains of a German skier were found near the Italian border in eastern Switzerland. He had vanished in 1963. In 2015 two Japanese climbers who had disappeared in 1970 were recovered near the Matterhorn. And in 2012 three members of the Ebener family were found on a glacier having vanished 86 years earlier.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, police spokesman Christian Zuber claimed finding more remains was highly likely. “The glaciers are retreating,” he said. “so it’s logical that we’re finding more and more bodies and body parts. In the coming years we expect that many cases of missing persons will be resolved.”
Indeed, climate change appears to be accelerating glacial retreat, not just in Europe but around the world. If trends continue, Colombia will lose all its glaciers within three decades. And in the Himalayas, only a third of its glaciers will remain by 2100. Meanwhile, in the United States, Glacier National Park has already lost 80 percent of its glaciers. As the world heats up, it is inevitable that more human remains will be exposed.