If two events so contrasting to each other have come to exemplify the modern era and that of antiquity in Austria’s Oetztal region, their diametrical opposed nature but weighty significance to the valley have once more reminded us of the fragility of life, and indeed that of the built environment which man often puts disproportionate store in.
The discovery 30 years ago of a mummified iceman exposed to plain sight by Saharan sand that had descended on glacial ice on the Italian-Austrian border has proven to be of enormous value to understanding the lives, diet, and everyday struggles of those who resided in and travelled through Europe’s high Alps over 5,000 years ago. Although his fundstelle is more easily accessed via the side Venttal valley, although that really should read as being less difficult to reach than from the Oetztal, where eventually ‘Oetzi’ was named after. This is not terrain to be taken lightly, or to be engaged by those without experience at altitude and of safely crossing glaciers, preferably with a local guide. The location is though the very reason why a man who roamed the Alps 5,300 years ago was only discovered by chance, and only then after a quirk of meteorological fate.
Despite analysis that has seen Oetzi forensically poured over to a point where it has arguably become indecent that he has not by now been laid to rest, or at least left on permanent but discreet display in his Bolzano home, it appears that much can still be learned from this heavily tattooed individual whose roots stemmed from the island of Sardinia. It is moot as to whether his discovery represented an early portent for Climate Change but the admittedly alarming retreat of many of Europe’s glaciers during the last 30 years cannot be blamed in this instance for giving up a fallen alpine traveller, something that is otherwise an annual occurrence. A Foehn wind that distributed sand from North Africa on to the Tirolean Alps is not itself an unusual event, with the Sahara’s main ingredient known to have ventured as far as the North of England, and beyond.
A discovery by happenstance in a very remote region could easily have not occurred at all, with Oetzi potentially refrozen until who knows when. There can be little doubt that others of his vintage remain entombed in what were once assumed to be permanent ice fields, which will as Global Warming takes a permanent foothold in the Alps become inexorably declining features than something always regarded as a fixture and a movable feast due to yearly retreat and ‘regrowth’ measurements.
Heidi Escher-Vetter’s recently published book “Glacier stories from the Oetztal – Vernagtferner” is a prescient reminder of how such significant change to one glacier studied by the author for over four decades serves as a case in point to the threat which all of Europe’s permanent ice fields now face.
If the landmark anniversary of Oetzi’s discovery places the valleys historical significance into even sharper focus than Auguste Piccard’s balloon crash on the Gurgler Glacier ninety years ago, an event which gained Obergurgl and the Oetztal in general the sort of publicity which arguably precipitated its reputation today as an all year round alpine mecca, the complete destruction by fire of one of the Alp’s most unique man-made projects juxtaposed a contrast between old and new, with a reminder of how life many millennia ago shared the same uncertainty and finality as it does today. The poignancy of 2021 sharing two such differing representations of the valley’s history, from its earliest visitors to a modern day pursuit of on point alpine sophistication and its presumably only temporary loss is a stark reminder than everyone and everything has its season, despite however respective demises are arrived at.
The loss to a devastating conflagration of between 200 and 300 vintage motorcycles and cars at the highest situated museum of its kind in the world not only eviscerated a lovingly assembled collection, but also affected most of the elements of the Top Mountain Crosspoint development that also houses a winter-only gondola, restaurant, and toll station for those using the Timmelsjoch high alpine road between the Tirol and Italy. It is with some relief that foul play has been ruled out, but for such a game-changing fire to have been caused by a mere faulty display screen surely adds considerable insult to highly conspicuous injury.
As an architectural design the museum and its constituent parts formed part of an overall symbiotic experience to be savoured in conjunction with each other, rather than to simply stand alone in isolation. Why such a location for this form of collection? As a popular route for motorcyclists and those with high-performance vehicles at their disposal, there would inevitably be a captive audience passing through as well as skiers taking a break from the pistes; this was therefore not a vanity project, or at worst one with a very definite reason for being. It is with this in mind that I presume the museum will be rebuilt along similar lines, although it is debatable whether the owner will have the appetite or ability to restock a renovated building with similar pieces. There would always be options to dedicate the space to Piccard and Oetzi, but that has surely been done elsewhere in the valley and beyond.
The Oetztal is a valley like many others in the Tirol that has seen its agricultural links erode as modern farming practices and demands for higher yields at often uncompetitive prices gives way to land being hived off to the winter sports industry, which has admittedly made some formally impoverished families into very rich people. Although I would not include the Oetztal as a likely victim there is nevertheless an inherent danger of some Austrian alpine villages and valleys resembling purpose-built resorts than a reflection of their gradual progression from in some cases subsistence economies, into the well-oiled tourism machines they have since become.
It is only by bringing together the old and the new without one holding sway over the other that the past can be appropriately remembered, and a more sophisticated but cynical modern age not acting as if history only began when it did. I am not particularly a fan of such attractions but the Oetztal does have Oetzi-Dorf, in Umhausen, that is in effect a mock-up of a village that Oetzi himself might have recognized. It is though the snow-sure and predominantly easy slopes of Obergurgl and Hochgurgl where the money is, in particular in its white gold.
The discovery of Oetzi, whilst an amazing find and a scientific gift that to this day keeps on giving, has not though changed the dynamic of what the Oetztal as a whole has come to represent since Piccard brought the valley to worldwide prominence, and its development being broadly in line with many other high alpine areas of Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France. It is though only right and proper that Oetzi should continue to be remembered, not just each September on his ‘anniversary’ nor as a Climate Change poster boy, but as someone who has suffered much in death and arguably since, as science continues to demand from him answers to our past.
The Oetztal is inevitably tasked with the development of unique, futuristic attractions in a never ending alpine space race to get ahead of the competition, but must also mark the past with more than a cursory nod. With such a rich history and rugged, vertiginous setting getting the balance right between the old and new will never satisfy everyone, but despite the valley’s economic eggs predominantly being in the one, tourism, basket, I for one believe the past hasn’t been given over in favour of winter’s golden goose, but forms part of the diverse mosaic that enables the Oetztal to look back without hindering its progress forward. There are few other areas in the Alps about where that can honestly be said.
Source material and further information:
Meinbezirk – Heidi Escher-Vetter book: https://www.meinbezirk.at/imst/c-leute/gletschergeschichten-aus-dem-oetztal-rund-um-den-vernagtferner_a4459884#gallery=null
The Conversation(Oetzi): https://theconversation.com/una-imagen-congelada-de-nuestra-historia-otzi-cumple-30-anos-155971