“Every year we lose a meter or half a meter of ice–which means that 80 years ago, this glacier was much bigger than it is now,” said Bernhard Tschannen, the CEO of a Swiss ski company, after one of his employees found human remains in an area that not so long ago was underneath a massive glacier in the Swiss Alps.
Merely a fraction of what it used to be, the two-mile-long Tsanfleuron glacier is retreating more and more with each passing year. From time to time, this melting ice unveils tragedies of people who were swallowed by the snow and kept hidden, frozen for decades.
At least 280 people have been logged as missing in the mountains and the lakes around the Alps in the Diablerets massif in southern Switzerland from 1926 onward.
In 2012, three brothers were found frozen in the snow by British climbers. They had been reported missing in 1926 and were not seen again for eight and a half decades.
In 2008 the body of a climber who fell from a cliff in 1954 was recovered. And most recently, in July of last year, two boots, one hat, a book, a backpack, a bottle, and a watch were the latest things located.
Right next to them were found the mummified remains of a cuddling couple.
“The bodies were lying near each other. It was a man and a woman wearing clothing dating from the period of World War Two,” said Tschannen in an interview for Swiss newspaper Le Matin, the first to arrive at the site and report the incident.
“They were perfectly preserved in the glacier and their belongings were intact,” he said. Undamaged were the identification papers they carried as well: Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, a shoemaker and a teacher.
The parents of seven, on the morning of August 15, 1942, they left their kids at home with an aunt in the village of Savièse and went to milk the cows in Chandolin, in the canton of Valais. They never came back.
“I didn’t know my parents; I was 4 years old,” said Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, their youngest daughter, one of two still alive today.
Their five brothers are long gone. Although at the time further DNA tests were yet to be carried out to confirm the identities of the two bodies, seeing their clothes, she was certain it was them.
She recounted: “It was the first time my mother went with him on such an excursion. She was always pregnant and couldn’t climb in the difficult conditions of a glacier.” Now 79 years old, all she can remember is the striking image of her aunt weeping under the stairs that night. “She took me in her arms and held me tight as she was crying.”
Their disappearance was a profound mystery. No one knew what had happened to them.
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Even today the police report is inconclusive; the vanishing has troubled the small village of 7,000 for full three quarters of a century. Stéphane Vouardoux, a spokesman for the police, stated “Something happened to them … we don’t know what that is.”
He was of the opinion, however, that the couple was headed to Bern from Valais and fell into a crevasse on their way.
The bodies were located by a cable car and a ski lift at an altitude of 8,600 feet, just above the ski resort Les Diablerets.
A maintenance worker was doing regular checkups on the equipment when he saw what he thought were black rocks sticking through the ice. On closer inspection, it turned out to be two dead bodies.
“They were lying together, half in the glacier and half exposed,” said Tschannen, who quickly took charge of situation after he saw what his employee had discovered.
He called the police, and they sent a team by helicopter to carefully extract the bodies from the ice. Subsequent DNA analysis concluded that the bodies were indeed the couple based on their ID documents, nothing else was ever determined officially.
Despite the unknown cause of her parents’ death, Udry-Dumoulin is grateful that mother and father were found after so many years. “We spent our whole lives looking for them, without stopping.”
She told reporters how, after two months and countless unsuccessful efforts to find the couple after they went missing, “we children were separated and placed in families. I was lucky to stay with my aunt.”
“We all lived in the region but became strangers,” she recalled. “They were busy with their own lives.”
Some of the siblings, however, stayed close and never lost hope. Each and every year until they got too old to climb the mountain anymore, they would take a trip up the glacier to pray for them. “For us, our parents were always beside us when we were up there.”
So it is not so strange that she was happy when she finally saw her parents when they were extracted after the “75 years they’ve slept together in the glacier,” as she says.
For all of her life, they believed one day she and her siblings might stumble upon their parents’ remains during one of their annual pilgrimages. “We thought that we could give them the funeral they deserved one day.”
She can at last, and promises to wear not black on the day of the funeral, but white for “it represents hope, which I never lost,” she said, shedding a tear, ending with “I can say that after 75 years of waiting, this news gives me a deep sense of calm.”
The New York Times interviewed Marceline Udry-Dumoulin by telephone shortly after the bodies were identified.
She shared a few things with them and told her story. The 79-year-old had been looking for her parents for the most of her life.
“You can’t understand the relief this means for me,” she said, adding “to know where they were was always a question in my mind.”
Most people who lose someone in the mountains don’t have closure as such. And there are many who have lost loved ones and are still searching.