Walking the glacier
By Lisi Niesner
Usually I am absolutely not a fan of places where a mass of tourists assemble. I hate standing in line, dislike crowded sights, do not endure guides, prefer to eat meals characteristic of the country I’m visiting and I particularly cannot stand how functional tourists dress in their newly bought outdoor clothing – even if it is not necessary at all. That wind and water repellent jacket, those pants with a cooling fiber effect and, of course, the super soft sneaker shoes replacing the aerated sandals.
However, it has become a routine of mine to visit my relatives who live in the Zillertal valley but I had never visited the tourist attractions in the area. The Zillertal valley, located in the western Alps in the Austrian province of Tyrol, is well known for their “hardcore” tourism that has been operating for years.
It has never been easier to reach the top of a mountain or a glacier without shedding a drop of sweat. The expenses amount to around 30 euros and after a 30 minute ride on the cable car you will get access to a stunning view! On clear days you can look infinitely far.
There I was, right next to the cable car station atop the Gefrorene Wand summit at 3288 meters (10787 feet) above sea level, in a crowd of tourists acting like they were at a playground surrounded by this inhospitable glacier area. Children were sliding down a slope on inflatable tires, sportsmen put on their skis and some tourists took off their clothes to get the ultimate vacation snapshot from the glacier which they would likely show off proudly when they returned home. The impression I got was that it was like Disneyland in a winter wonder land. Not that I was surprised, but it still made me feel uncomfortable observing the crowds behavior (and how they were dressed for temperatures below 0°C) on a glacier as they stumbled over the snow as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
I found myself in a guided tour with tourists who were partly dressed in tee shirts, shorts and summer shoes but also wearing helmets. I was truly attracted to the aspect of this unusual combination of clothes that I decided quickly to join the tour.
“For security reasons, put on your helmets, and take off your sunglasses”, the guide’s voice resounded as a group of eager tourists entered the Nature Ice Palace inside the Hintertuxer glacier. The glacier is actually an ice crevice discovered by Roman Erler in 2007.
The extraordinary aspect is that you walk inside a true glacier and not in a hollow where ice is generated by a stack effect. The glacier formed the hollow through its motion and it is still moving and changing its shape. Due to the pressure of the icecap, curved icicles emerged and the hollow was formed to 15 meters at its highest point.
Erler explained that some parts of the ceiling (icecap) are only about 30 years old, which shows that the glacier is constantly changing and the ice is not necessarily ancient. The research area is regularly visited by different organizations to analyze the ice and the underground lake of the glacier.
The entrance to the ice palace was immediately jammed by shoving tourists. A couple of them, mostly the guys with tee-shirts, started shivering. The path led through a narrow corridor to a circular route over ladders and slopes. The spare colorful illumination demanded a high ISO setting and a shutter speed between 1/30 and a 1/5. Right next to me, two elderly women with obviously huge courage fought their way through the ice palace. Both “I have never been on a glacier candidates” were wearing low shoes, sort of slippers, in which they stood ankle-deep in frostily glacier melting water.
One hand clung to a safety rope which was fixed on the iced wall, the other hand held a snapshot camera. Their feet slid across the icy wet surface but it could not keep them from taking pictures of each other. Although they moved forward at a snail’s pace, it seemed as they would break their necks with every step they made forward but surprisingly they still appeared to be having great fun. It took the women one hour to cross a 20 minutes tour which brought the guide to the edge of his patience. “Maybe next time, they will wear proper shoes” he added.
Honestly? I was thinking the same thing.