The utter indifference some hikers and skiers show their alpine playgrounds never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps naively I assume that the act of communing with the mountains instead of merely viewing the jagged landscape from afar, a la Mark Twain*, and the considerable physical effort in doing so, indicates affection for their surroundings and a determination to keep it as pristine, and unmolested as possible from human intervention. But yet, the amount of rubbish, and the oddities found amongst items carelessly dispensed by those who should know better, perpetually astounds and angers in not dissimilar measure.
A highly laudable project to tidy up Slovenia’s mountainscape has already yielded 380 kilograms of trash from perhaps the country’s highest profile route, close to Kredarica, the last man-made stop off point before arriving at Mount Triglav’s summit. Routes at altitude thankfully aren’t littered with rubbish bins but certain areas could do with them, as the nearby Triglav Glacier could testify. The ice field’s vastly diminished size has previously hidden perhaps decades of trash but is now retrospectively unearthing waste left behind 20-30 years ago.
There are few excuses for not transporting hiking-related waste back to the valley for safe disposal. I appreciate that sudden, unexpected gusts of wind can surprise even the most experienced alpinist, unceremoniously relieving items from the strongest grasp. It is though items such as silver foil that wrapped sandwiches, drink bottles and cans, and energy bar wrappers, perhaps none of which will biodegrade in the next millennium, that are the usual man-made suspects found on hiking routes of all difficulties. These and other similar articles involve no effort in being repacked in a rucksack. There are therefore no excuses, despite an obvious attitude of ‘who will know’ and ‘what harm can it do’ being attached to their impromptu, high-altitude disposal.
It is of course heartening that individuals with a conscience and a love of the mountains are willing to comb an area at over 8,000 feet above sea-level for others’ trash. It is though equally sad that such an operation is necessary. If you care for something its well-being should be paramount, although it seems that just travelling through an area not owned by the miscreant, and therefore without an obligation of ultimate personal responsibility, is the missing link to perhaps explain the inexplicable actions of otherwise fit, healthy, and presumably intelligent individuals. Based on such a notion, one can assume that those that throw away empty plastic bottles into mountain streams and the Triglav col wouldn’t behave in such a way on their own land, property, and neighbourhood.
The growth and retreat of glaciers have always seen them give up items whose presence was never known to be there in the first place, but often also things known to be lost but unplaced. Although the high-profile discovery and subsequent study of Oetzi, a 5,300 year old man located on the Austrian-Italian border close to Obergurgl and Vent has provided seemingly endless research material and the stuff of legends for countless books and films, the lost and presumed dead are frequently given up by glaciers. Admittedly, those that die in the mountains are usually found within decades or centuries of their disappearance rather than millennia, but the discovery of the Similaun Man at 10,500 feet above sea level has by dint of its uniqueness now even spawned Oetzi Dorf, a somewhat ludicrous mock-up village predicated on what communal living conditions were believed to consist of, 3,000 BC.
A recent discovery by hikers at an altitude of 3,000 metres of a bicycle estimated to be 50-60 years old appears to be another example of ancient ice fields giving up their dubious, man-made treasures. Located again close to Obergurgl but adjacent to a historic smugglers route between Italy and Austria, the find is perhaps the most incongruous form of transportation when matched to its surroundings, although it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a smuggler lightening his load by dispensing with what is hardly a bike fit for a “King of the Mountains” stage of the nearby Oetztal Cycle Marathon. If the Fahrrad** did meet its demise in this manner, littering of high alpine regions cannot be described as a trend of just the last 20-30 years. Apart from a prank based upon the ‘Extreme Ironing’ craze of a decade or so ago, that saw eccentric but essentially harmless individuals transport by hand items such as ironing boards to the tops of mountains so to use them for their originally intended purpose but at altitude, there seems to be few other realistic explanations for the bike’s glacial residency.
Similar to the thrill associated with metal detection in fields and on beaches, there is a temptation to feel a comparable excitement when locating obscure items alien to their alpine surroundings. The finding of unwelcome objects in areas that least of all deserve to be desecrated by human hands far from tells the whole story. Rather than being fascinated by commonplace artifacts of yesteryear, just what damage have they done to the fragile environment in which they were found? Perhaps most pertinent of all, why did someone make a point of unnecessarily littering an area that must have otherwise given them much pleasure, and great physical satisfaction at reaching such a lofty elevation?
The attitude of garbage being someone else’s problem is evidently not new; sadly, Europe’s alpine regions are afforded few exemptions to one of humanity’s most abhorrent but persistent problems. In the not too distant future don’t bet against a Coca-Cola can being found on the moon.
* Hotel veranda! Bottle of whisky! Telescope! Mark Twain’s ideal alpine triumvirate.
* German for bicycle
Source material and further information:
Oetzi Dorf website: www.oetzi-dorf.at/