The fate of the iconic Hochwildehaus mountain hut high in the Tirol’s Oetztal should serve as a warning to those who continue to deny the onrushing effects of Climate Change, and the short-sighted within Austria’s insatiable ski community who insist upon putting financial interests ahead of the core values that have sought to protect unique landscapes from irreparable change.
A 3 hour hike from Obergurgl’s Hohe Mut top station the Hochwildehaus has for generations been a vital stopping off point for confident mountaineers, often acting as a refueling point or overnight bolthole before embarking upon a glacial route not without risk in itself to the final resting place in the Similaun Alps of ‘Oetzi’, or the Similaun Man. This wonderful multi-day excursion should never be undertaken alone and whilst such a wilderness has garnered significant publicity since the mummified iceman was stumbled upon in 1991 there are few places in Central Europe where one can not only feel at one with nature but to some extent still walk as Oetzi did 5,300 years ago, in virtually unadulterated surroundings redolent of the early to mid-Bronze Age.
There are though signs of change, so much so their designation has started to shift from the subtle to significant. Only by measuring the effects on the alpine landscape by changing weather patterns can undeniable conclusions be reached; whilst freak meteorological events can manifest themselves as evidence of Global Warming in actuality their singular nature represents just one example of the climatic potpourri at the disposal of Mother Nature. The incredible find of Oetzi was due to Saharan sand blowing up from Africa and melting the ice that had encased his mummified remains for over five centuries.
It is though in the high alps where change is best measured; one pertinent example that a sobering trend is inexorably underway is at the Hochwildehaus, for so long a must for climbers, hikers, and glaciologists. Apart from its winter room, presumably entered at one’s own risk, the Gufler family-operated hut has now been closed for three years, striking a blow to those in need of crucial sustenance before embarking on the next leg on what can be brutal terrain, but also to those hoping in vain that Climate Change will spare this most extraordinary landscape. It hasn’t.
The permafrost soil in which the foundations of the Hochwildehaus have so relied has started to melt, removing its natural support and diminishing the hut’s structural integrity. It sounds astonishing that such a natural phenomenon was vital in literally unpinning the building but only during the last handful of the eighty years of its existence has this ‘natural concrete’ started to degrade. The crucial difference though between man-made building materials and permafrost is that the former will always deteriorate through the ageing process; in theory the latter could stand firm in perpetuity without intervention, something that is now blatantly showing its hand.
Rebuilding the Hochwildehaus will inevitably necessitate its demolition before constructing a replacement along more conventional foundational lines. Whether this is possible remains in some doubt, owing to the fact that the depth to which will need to be reached to support a structure in such harsh surroundings will breach the receding permafrost, whose protection can no longer be relied upon. There is also the not inconsiderable financial cost of helicoptering in the building materials during the brief summer month window, only during which reconstruction is viable. This is therefore a colossal undertaking both financially and logistically, but one that is arguably untenable. Such is the one-way street change in the permafrost it is questionable if rebuilding the Hochwildehaus in the short or long term, or at all, would be the correct course of action. For now a watching brief would seem to be the most expedient holding pattern, but this would have to be measured against a yet to be defined ‘acceptable’ level of further shrinkage of the permafrost.
It astounds me that the fate of the Hochwildehaus, which has been locally known for some years, has failed to resonate with those tasked with linking the Oetz and Pitz valleys into a huge winter sports arena, most of which is predicated on glacial skiing. Whilst I use the Hochwildehaus as just one example of the reduction in permafrost(not to mention the obvious receding of the adjacent glaciers) there are countless other case studies of permanent ice fields disappearing at such a rate that their summer appearance bears little relation to their official designation. The source material below will leave you in little doubt of the scale – Mega-Projekt – of the proposal and potential ramifications. To though call the project short-sighted is stating the obvious; costing €120 million and based upon glaciers being ever-present in their current form is incredible. It is not as if the financial outlay can assumed to be recouped and on which a profit is made by the time the glaciers have receded to such a point that they are unsafe for winter pursuits. Such a scenario could become reality in the next 20-30 years.
It again seems that financial interest outweighs common sense and ethical concerns of the potential damage to an otherwise pristine environment untouched by man-made infrastructure, if not by humanity’s inadvertent hand in Climate Change. Although the effects of Global Warming are often the consequences of actions committed in other countries, even continents, to where they’re being felt it is on the very doorstep of the proposed Pitztal-Oetztal merger that one of most obvious examples of Alps failing a climatic stress-test is being played out in real time.
Building higher and higher in the mountains, whistling, and looking the other way is not the solution. Be sure, Global Warming will find you out. Schemes to protect the Alps are where funding should be focused, not on ones of financial risk-reward that will ultimately lay waste to the environment and leave abandoned infrastructure in its wake. How long will guests continue to visit the Alps when an increasing amount of the landscape is pockmarked with cableway pylons, storage ponds, and treeless mountainsides that accommodate ski pistes? Diminishing the reasons why tourists visit alpine regions is a dumb strategy but until provinces and resorts, and their plans, are reined in, the penny will only drop once it is too late.
Source material and further information:
Tiroler Tageszeitung: http://www.tt.com/lebensart/freizeit/14292398/der-zahme-und-die-wilde
Kronen Zeitung: http://www.krone.at/1976646