Remains Of Hiker Missing Since 1986 Discovered Among Melting Glaciers In The Swiss Alps

Published July 31, 2023

The German hiker, whose identity has not been released, was 38 years old when he disappeared during a hike near the Matterhorn.

Remains Of Hiker

Canton ValaisPresent-day climbers found human remains and hiking gear on Theodule glacier that belonged to the missing man.

In September 1986, a German climber set out for a hike in the Swiss Alps. He was never seen again. Now, almost 40 years later, his remains and hiking gear have been recovered among the melting glaciers.

“On July 12, 2023, human remains and various pieces of equipment were discovered on the Theodulgletscher in Zermatt,” the Valais canton police announced in a statement about the discovery. “DNA analysis has identified a mountaineer missing since 1986.”

As The Guardian reports, it was two present-day hikers who made the unsettling discovery. They were making their way along the Theodul Glacier in Zermatt, Valais, southern Switzerland, when they noticed something in the ice. Upon further examination, they discovered human remains as well as several pieces of hiking gear, including a boot with red laces.

The gear and human remains were transported to Valais Hospital in Sion. There, researchers with the forensic medicine department — in collaboration with the police — were able to positively identify the 38-year-old missing hiker. For now, his name has not been released to the public.

This discovery has highlighted a grisly trend: the rapidly melting glaciers in the Swiss Alps have revealed a number of other bodies in recent years. As The Guardian reports, glaciers in Switzerland lost half their volume between 1931 and 2016, and lost another 12 percent of their volume between 2016 and 2021. This, in turn, has exposed the remains of a number of missing hikers.

“The receding glaciers are increasingly bringing in mountaineers, whose disappearance was reported decades ago,” the Valais canton police noted.

Matterhorn

Marcel Wiesweg/Wikimedia CommonsThe missing hiker was found near the Matterhorn, the famed mountain between Switzerland and Italy.

Some 300 people have gone missing in the Alps over the past 100 years. As CBS News reports, many of their remains have been found recently, as melting glaciers reveal what the ice has been hiding.

In 2015, the remains of two Japanese climbers who had gone missing on the Matterhorn in 1970 were discovered. Two years later, a couple who had gone missing in 1942 were also discovered in the Swiss Alps, as were the remains of two or three hikers who’d died in the 1980s or 1990s.

The melting glaciers have also done more than expose the remains of missing hikers — the receding ice has also unveiled a number of historic artifacts across Europe.

One of the most remarkable artifacts emerged in 2021, when melting glaciers in the Italian Alps revealed a WWI shelter practically frozen in time. There, researchers discovered food, dishes, straw mattresses, coats made from animal skins, and even newspapers and postcards.

“The artifacts are a representation, like a time machine, of… the extreme conditions of life during the First World War,” historian Stefano Morosini told CNN at the time of the discovery.

Lantern In Cave

White War MuseumA lantern left behind by Austrian soldiers in the cave shelter.

As Live Science notes, other such discoveries have also been made elsewhere in Europe. In 2019, a hiker found a a raggedy shoe in the Jotunheim Mountains that turned out to be a 1,700-year-old Roman-style sandal. In 2007, an even older 3,000-year-old shoe was similarly found in a Norwegian ice patch.

“The knowledge we’re able to gather today from the relics is a positive consequence of the negative fact of climate change,” Morosini remarked when the WWII shelter was discovered.

Indeed, the rapidly melting glaciers of the Swiss Alps — though alarming — have something of an upside. As the ice retreats, the mountains offer up clues to mysteries both ancient and modern.


After reading about the discovery of a hiker’s remains in the Swiss Alps after almost 40 years, see how prickly pear cacti are thriving in the Swiss Alps, where temperatures are rising and glaciers are melting. Or, read about the discovery of an ancient Roman shrine in the Swiss Alps that may have been built to worship mountain gods.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.