Human Remains, Plane Wreckage Trapped in Ice for Decades Released by Receding Glaciers in Switzerland

Julia Schneemann |
Plane wreck
Piper Cherokee Wreck found on Aletsch glacier, picture: Konkordiahütte Instagram Page

Last week a plane was discovered on the Aletsch glacier in the canton of Valais, Switzerland, which had crashed more than half a century ago. While the bodies had been found at the time of the plane crash, the actual plane could not be recovered due to a lack of appropriate equipment 54 years ago. The plane had crashed on June 30th 1968, killing a Zurich doctor and his son as well as a high school teacher.

This week, hikers in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, discovered human bones on the glacier. The bones have been recovered and handed over to the police, who are yet to establish the identity. It is the second human skeleton found this summer in the canton of Valais. Two french hikers found bones on July 26th on the Stockji Glacier near Zermatt. Those bones are also still being investigated by the police to establish the victim’s identity.

Typically, identification of human remains takes several weeks, in some cases months if a DNA profile needs to be created. It is very likely that the skeletons belong to people who disappeared decades ago. The police in Valais have a register of 250 persons missing since 1925 so hopefully the identification will bring closure to a surviving relative or friend.

With the glaciers receding more rapidly for the last two decades than at any time before, it is expected that there will be an increasing number of such finds.

Morteratsch Glacier
Hiker on a Swiss glacier, picture: Julia Schneemann

In 2012 the bones and personal belongings of three brothers were uncovered on the Aletsch Glacier who had gone missing almost a century ago. Forensics established that the bones, clothes, and personal artifacts dated back to the 1920s. A conclusive identification was established through DNA profiling during subsequent detailed forensics.

It turned out that all recovered bones shared the same mitochondrial DNA profile, thus making them siblings. This identified them as Fidelis, Cletus, and Johann Ebener who had gone missing in 1926 along with their guide Max Rieder. The brothers’ disappearance shook the small Lötschen valley community at the time and their siblings had always hoped to one day have their bodies returned to them. Their niece, Marianne Bellwald (70), was glad to be able to bring her uncles’ remains home.

None of the DNA present matched the DNA of their guide Max. His body may remain trapped in the ice of the glacier forever.

Ebener brothers
The Ebener brothers (left to right): Fidelis (23), Cletus (29) and Johann (31), picture: Blick Website

Update August 31: The bones found on the Stockji glacier have been found to belong to a German hiker who has been missing since 1990. A DNA profile matched the DNA of a 27-year old resident from Nuremberg, Germany, identified only as Thomas F., who had attempted to hike from Chamonix to Domodossola but never arrived.

Shoes ice
The three different pairs of shoes that were found on the Aletsch glacier belonging to the Ebener brothers, picture:

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