Treasures and Lessons from the Alps

Bernadette McDonald

A warm Italian wind swirled up over the nearby ridge and around the rocky outcrops that protected the snow-covered depression. An eerie silence prevailed as we gazed at the nondescript snowdrift, trying to imagine the horror and amazement that Erika and Helmut Simon, two German hikers descending from a nearby peak, must have felt twenty years ago when they came upon a corpse embedded here in the ice.

Our merry group of eleven stood transfixed, 3210 m above sea level near the Austrian-Italian border, as invitees of the Alpine Convention, an international treaty between the eight countries of the Alps (Italy, France, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Monaco) and the European Union. On the second-last day of a nine-day journey that took us over some of the most impressive glaciers of the Alps, this small depression filled with snow and ice was possibly the most moving.

With us was Luis Pirpamer, a 73-year old mountain guide from Vent. He recounted the story that began with the German couple’s macabre discovery on 19 September, 1991. They initially thought they might have chanced upon a fatal climbing accident victim, so they descended to the nearby Simalaun Hut to report their finding. The hut manager, who was Luis’ son, wasted little time in letting his father know of the discovery. Luis, together with a group of Austrian Alpine Gendarmerie and mountain rescue specialists flew to the site and attempted to free the corpse. It took four days of hacking and drilling with ice axes and a small jackhammer to free it from its icy grave. As they stared at the body, now lying on top of the ice, they realised that this was no recent climbing accident. There was something extremely peculiar about this body.

After numerous examinations and tests by forensic specialists, the truth emerged: the corpse was old. Very old! Over 5000 years old. 2000 years older than the Tutankhamen mummy! As news leaked out of the finding, the world gasped at the significance of the discovery. At first, simply referred to as the ‘Iceman’, the body finally earned a name from Viennese journalist Karl Wendl who stated: ‘This dried-out gruesome-looking corpse must be made more loveable to make a good story.’ Wendl called him Ötzi, in deference to the Ötztal Alps where he was found, and the name stuck.

We descended the next day to Bolzano, Italy, where we learned much more about Ötzi from Albert Zink, Director of the Institute for Mummies. As he guided us through the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology we saw Ötzi’s deerskin leggings and wolf-hide hat, learned about his last meal based on the contents of his stomach, and we saw the arrowhead that killed him. We learned that his death became the first documented murder in history.

We also began to understand that his body and equipment remain incredibly well-preserved because of a chain of extraordinary circumstances. When the arrow hit its mark, high in that cold, glaciated region, he remained in the icy depression where he fell. The mummification process began immediately. When winter set in he was further blanketed by a layer of snow and remained half-frozen. Over the many centuries that followed, glacial ice flowed over him but, fortunately, did not move or damage the corpse because of the angle of the protective gully in which he lay.

The museum strives to replicate this chilled, humid state in order to preserve the mummy. It was here that we saw Ötzi, placed carefully in the same position in which he was discovered, shrouded in semi-darkness and monitored around the clock, as thousands of visitors from around the world come to catch a glimpse of their past.

Our dramatic meeting with Ötzi marked the end of a nine-day trip called SuperAlp!5, an annual journey sponsored by the Alpine Convention that showcases their work of previous years and increases the general awareness of the Alpine Convention among many of the communities affected. Our group included journalists from France, Romania, Slovenia, Italy, Germany and the UK, visiting experts on glaciology and climate change, Alpine Convention staff, two mountain guides and me, the lone representative from outside Europe.

The Alpine Convention’s theme for 2011 was ‘glaciers’ so issues related to glaciation and climate change were primarily what we explored. Our journey began in Chamonix, France, from where we crossed the Mer de Glace on foot on a perfect blue-sky day to Pointe Helbronner on the Italian side, then over to Cervinia by buses and trains, where we stayed in a country auberge called Les neiges d’Antan, a place that simply oozed tradition and tranquility, as well as boasted a startlingly beautiful view of the Italian side of the Matterhorn.

The following day we climbed the 4165 m Breithorn, then descended to Zermatt and Brig. Along the way we witnessed some rather shocking ‘mining’ of the glaciers on the Zermatt side as earth-movers excavated ice in order to expand the summer ski runs. The following day we crossed the Valais to the Aletsch glacier, Europe’s longest, in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland. We continued up the valley on the ‘Glacier Express’ train to Pontresina, where we continued ascending up onto and over the Morteratsch glacier. Then it was on to the village of Vent in Austria, where we had our encounter with Ötzi before crossing one more border and descending to Bolzano. Our travels were done on foot, cable cars, buses and train, in keeping with the Alpine Convention claim that one can still travel in a sustainable manner throughout the Alps. On most days we would use a variety of transports, hopping from one lift to another, racing from bus stop to train, backpacks and ice axes in tow. I believe the record was four cable cars, two trains and three buses in one day.

In addition to promoting the use of public transportation in the mountains, the Alpine Convention has a number of laudable and interesting goals, all aimed at coordinating solutions to common problems and to better exploit common opportunities in the Alpine Regions. Signed in 1991, one of the Convention’s biggest challenges is the impact of climate change in the Alps. This led to an Action Plan on Climate Change that was adopted in 2009. One of the most obvious elements of climate change in the Alps is the conditions of the alpine glaciers, the theme of this year’s SuperAlp!5 trip.

It is a well-documented fact that the Alps have warmed up two degrees in recent years, twice the amount in the northern Hemisphere in general. This warming trend has had a devastating affect on the rate of glacial melting, a fact that was painfully obvious to me as I rode the cable car up to the Diavolezza Hut near Pontresina. I noticed a small white slope on the left of the lift that appeared a different shade of white than the neighboring slopes. It also seemed to be draped in some kind of fabric. Upon questioning the local expert I learned that, each year at the beginning of June, this small remnant glacier is covered with a special kind of waterproof fabric in order to protect it from sun and rain. The cloth is removed in September to allow snowfall to accumulate, a practice that is apparently quite common on the remnant glaciers in Italy as well. Although I’m well aware of glacial melt in my home mountains, the Canadian Rockies, this last-ditch effort to keep a glacier intact struck me as rather sad. It looked like a large bandage on a wound that was unlikely to heal.

Glacial melting is not the only climate change problem with which the Alpine Convention is concerned. As the Alps continue warming at double the speed of the rest of Europe, one of the biggest impacts is on snowfall, the most important source of fresh water. Experts are predicting that by 2100, snow cover in the Alps could be reduced by 50 days each year. Although still referred to as the ‘Water Towers of Europe’, a phrase first coined by Swiss scientist Bruno Messerli, the Alps are witnessing dramatic changes in spring runoff patterns. The melt takes place much too quickly; the runoff water rushes to sea, and the availability of water for agricultural and domestic use later in the summer is seriously compromised. And with 50 fewer snow-covered days each winter, experts predict that ski resorts situated below 1500 m will simply close down. Snow-making is the obvious solution but it’s a water-hungry bandage that relies on both a steady supply of water and energy and that other vanishing element – subzero temperatures.

Another visible change is the growing season at various altitudes. In the past, apples in the Bolzano region grew only in the main valley at about 262 m. Now they are thriving up to an elevation of 900 m. That’s fine for apple farmers, but what about the plants that previously occupied that space? It appears that biodiversity in the alpine regions is at serious risk.

The disappearance of permafrost is another frightening development. We heard from scientists who monitor study plots in numerous alpine areas, including the south face of the Matterhorn. They drill holes at around 3100 m to determine the composition of the soil, and, in some locations they find three inches of soil resting on up to two metres depth of permafrost. But in other places the permafrost is only 50 cms deep. It is permafrost that holds many of the huge rock faces intact in the Alps, and when the permafrost melts or is weakened, massive rockfalls occur, careening downwards on the sliding surface of the vertical melting permafrost bed. For alpinists, the hazards are obvious, but the impact is also felt much further down the valley as mud flows block streams, causing floods and rampant destruction.

But it’s not just climate change that occupies the hearts and minds of the small yet devoted staff of eight of the Alpine Convention. They recognize that the Alps have always been at the crossroad of cultures in Europe and mountain culture remains a priority. They also understand the importance of tourism: the Alps region is home to about 14 million people but hosts an additional 100 million guests each year. The Alpine Convention works with alpine communities on a number of problems: management of water and forests, depopulation of some valleys, promotion of alpine cultures, safeguarding biodiversity and developing sustainable tourism alternatives.

They attempt to solve problems together with various stakeholders: trans-national public transportation systems, small hydropower projects, a network of alpine villages dedicated to ‘slow’ and sustainable tourism. One of most important areas of work is to promote and facilitate trans-national activities where cooperation didn’t previously exist. An ongoing challenge for the Alpine Convention is to develop trust and confidence in the communities that could most benefit from their help. Some alpine communities don’t feel ownership of the Alpine Convention because it is seen as something imposed upon them by the National States or the European Union. Some worry that Alpine Convention interference might even slow down badly-needed progress. Bringing the Convention and its work to the individual communities is important – the SuperAlp!5 tour helps fly the Convention flag in areas where it has already given support, or where projects still need to be launched.

Despite the importance of tourism in the Alps, some remote alpine villages are now so small that basic services are closing down. People are forced to move down to the valleys in order to access their mail and educate their children. The Alpine Convention is trying to support systems that will keep people in the villages, including viable and reliable public transportation.

One of the most interesting initiatives is a collaborative effort begun in 2009 between the Alpine Convention and the Austrian Alpine Club. Called ‘Bergsteigerdörfer’, or mountaineering villages, this initiative promotes model alpine villages that recognize and protect important traditions. The villages capitalise on their unique mountain landscapes and are committed to preserving local cultural and natural values. To be included in this special group, certain criteria must be met: no large factories, no ‘dominant’ hotel-like facilities or nearby motorways or airports. Instead, the villages are encouraged to feature small, family-run hotels, nearby hiking and ski-mountaineering trails, small (if any) lifts, mountain pastures and the associated grazing and food production. We learned from Christina Schwann, coordinator of the initiative, that there are 27 such villages throughout Austria, and the difference in quality was immediately evident to me in the village of Vent, located at 1900 m in the Ötztal Alps.

Vent is a village stop on the Via Alpina, a cross-national hiking route with more than 5000 kilometres of trails that start in Slovenia and end in Monaco. Vent is also one of the oldest and most famous of the Alpine villages, flanked by a number of beautiful peaks, including the Wildespitz at 3774 m. We stayed at the Hotel Post – one of the first 5 houses in this village of 150 residents. A restful place, the only traffic consists of the local bus, a few cars arriving for the evening, hikers wandering down from the high passes, and the odd cow. Everything from the quality of the air (including the smell of cows!) to the deafening silence of the night; from the mouth-watering local cheese to the eiderdown quilts speaks – no shrieks – of alpine! As they say in the brochure, Mountaineering Villages are all about ‘stimulation without hustle, liveliness without noise, intimacy without lack of respect, enjoyment without worries, and movement under your own steam’.

The Mountaineering Villages initiative is one of the great success stories of the Alpine Convention and the Austrian Alpine Club and, as is usually the case, that success is due to individual efforts. In this case it is Peter Hasslacher of the Austrian Alpine Club and Ewald Galle of the Environment Ministry, who have pooled their resources, their circles of influence and their shared passion for mountain environment and culture. As Marco Onida, Secretary General of the Alpine Convention explains, “The history of Alpinism is a history of men and women who changed the destiny of the mountain villages. That in 2009, villages united by this common history cooperate in order to pursue new forms of tourism, despite the challenges that this might sometimes imply, is of great significance.”

In Vent, situated close to the Italian border, there is even more evidence of international cooperation as the local resident shepherd is actually from the Italian side, with a traditional agreement to graze his flocks of sheep in the high pastures of Austria. Of course this entire area is considered Sudtirol, a mountain region that defies and transcends borders.

Not all border stories have such happy endings. According to the Alpine Convention, heli-skiing is not exactly illegal, but is highly frowned upon in France. French ski areas get around this pesky limitation by encouraging skiers to enjoy long, off-piste powder runs that are accessed from a ski area lift, then get picked up at the bottom of the run and carried back to the ski hill via helicopter. Not exactly heli-skiing, but pretty darned close! Another trick is for skiers to fly in from neighboring countries to high mountain passes just outside the French border, and then ski down into France on virgin powder runs.

The most amusing example of this particular methodology takes place at a high mountain pass near Chamonix, where skiers fly in from Italy by helicopter and land in the pass, a col that boasts a confusing and disputed common boundary with Italy. French maps mark the boundary in one place, Italians in another. According to the French, the heli-skiers are actually landing on French soil, but the French authorities aren’t keen to contest the border because it would open up the discussion on the exact location of the boundary nearby as well – most importantly, that of the Mt. Blanc summit. At the moment, according to the French, the summit of Mt. Blanc is in France, but it is the subject of a territorial dispute between Italy and France. Italy considers that the frontier passes through the summit of the mountain by virtue of a bilateral treaty signed in 1861, and suspended only temporarily during the Second World War. France considers that not only the summit, but the whole top of the mountain, fall within its territory. Discussions about boundary issues in this region could result in being forced to share the summit with Italy, something the French are loathe to do. So instead of opening that can of worms, the pragmatic French simply avert their eyes when heli-skiers arrive on their territory.

Even our friend Ötzi created an international stir. When he was discovered in 1991 it was first assumed that he was in Austrian territory. But there were some lingering doubts because, when the border was delineated in 1922, the area was buried under 20 metres of ice. Because of Ötzi, a new survey was ordered and, voila, it turned out he was on Italian soil! Sadly for the Austrians, he left his home in Innsbruck and moved into more comfortable quarters in Bolzano. In fact, a group of us climbed above Ötzi’s burial spot, up onto a ridge a couple of hundred metres higher where, to our surprise, we found the 1922 boundary marker embedded in the rock. It was clear that indeed, Ötzi’s corpse would have been found on Italian soil. But what a strange border: instead of following the ridgeline, which it logically did in an easterly direction, the boundary line took an odd jog and headed down off the watershed to cross the disputed dip. If the original surveyor could only have known what a to-do that dip would cause!

I couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable and informative nine days in the Alps but, ultimately, I had to ask myself why I was there. Why would the Alpine Convention want a non-European to observe their work and spread the word? Why should we ‘foreigners’ care about the Alpine Convention’s work if we live and play primarily in the mountains of North America or Asia? As I thought more about the various projects and issues, it became clear that many of the Alpine Convention protocols and tools for the sustainable development and preservation of alpine regions are easily transferable to other mountain regions of the world. In the past the Alps were a community. It was the establishment of countries that divided them and created frontiers. But happily, the tradition of cooperation persists. This can be as true for trans-border mountain ranges in North America and Asia as it is in the Alps, perhaps more so. The Alps were the first territory of the world where international treaties have been signed that specifically deal with mountain issues. Second was Antarctica and the third was in the Carpathians. Where might be the fourth?

When Elizabeth Hawley, famous Himalayan climbing historian, came to Switzerland to accept the prestigious King Albert Award, she was asked what she thought of the Alps. The straight-talking Hawley remarked that they were “beautiful, but so small”! And that is exactly the point. The Alps are probably the most famous and certainly most visited mountain range in the world, but they do not occupy a large space. It is fair to say that the Alps belong to the whole world and not just to the eight States who share them. Each year they host thousands of alpinists and trekkers from all over the world, many of whom are not aware of the environmental impact of tourism and transport associated to tourism.

But I will give the last words to Marco Onida, Secretary General of the Alpine Convention. He believes that alpine associations, like the Alpine Club in the UK, the Himalayan Club in India, the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada can all be ambassadors for the work of the Alpine Convention and, more importantly, for the messages like sustainable tourism and mobility and conservation of mountain landscapes and culture. He hopes that others can learn from the Alpine Convention experiences, and he fully accepts that there is much to be learned from the experiences of mountain ranges on other continents. He speculated on the benefits of support from abroad: “Maybe I am too idealistic, but I do believe that building an ‘Alpine public opinion’ – and it is public opinion that shapes policies - necessarily requires the involvement of all those who, one way or another, travel to the Alps, live in the Alps or care for the Alps.”

Onida believes that the individual’s actions are important too: “I would like people from North America and Canada and India who come to the Alps, and also those who go to other mountains, to be aware that the impact of our individual steps is meaningless, but the cumulative impact of all of us on the mountains does leave a significant impact, particularly in a vulnerable environment. If we do what we can in order to minimise the impact of our behaviour (by using sustainable means of transport or by purchasing greener products) we can make an important contribution to sustainability.” Onida’s words seem as relevant for the Himalaya as they are for the Canadian Rockies as they are for the Alps.

The efforts of the Alpine Convention for sustainable development in the Alps with major focus on environmental issues.

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