Thirty years is a long time in the lives of most people but to Oetzi, the mummified iceman monikered as such due to the location of his discovery, it represents barely a blink of an eye in the timeline from when he roamed the high alps to the present day, via his introduction to the modern world three decades ago.
Much has changed in the world since September 19th, 1991, the date that Oetzi, or the Similaun Man, was laid bare by a rare meteorological phenomenon which would be easy to attribute to the early portents of Climate Change, but instead was more prosaically a by-product of regularly occurring Foehn Winds that on this occasion drew up Saharan sand all the way from North Africa to the European Alps. In what to some will be a rather unusual but ultimately disappointingly straightforward explanation as to how Oetzi revealed himself to the 20th century, the sand’s interaction with glacial ice melted away millennia of protection afforded the presumably murdered alpine traveller, who quite likely could have been re-covered at such an altitude, approximately 10,500 feet above sea level, than recovered in an initially amateurish fashion by a party of German hikers who by happenstance were passing through one of the Tyrol’s remotest corners.
Permanent icefields can no longer be described as such in the modern era, but what would otherwise constitute glaciation previously seen as abiding facets of the very highest reaches of the Alps, will in reality give up bodies each year of fallen climbers and disorientated hikers who have overestimated their abilities or misjudged the unforgiving terrain. Mobile telephony has of course levelled up to some degree the chances of being rescued in such circumstances, but there is no substitution in the mountains for recognising one’s own limitations and preparing accordingly for both the worst case scenario, and the likely effects on body and mind that a high-alpine tour can inflict upon even the most hardened devotee.
The very age of Oetzi, his astonishingly well-preserved condition, and an intriguing back story, or at least the many theories behind it, have captured the imagination of those whose purview extends far beyond being disciples of Europe’s alpine regions. It is humbling when walking in for example the Oetztal Alps, as I have done on many occasions, to think that over 5,000 years ago that there were those making the journey across modern-day frontiers without the alternative modes of transport and access to the latest mountaineering clothing and boots which are today taken for granted. The possibly but highly likely slain Oetzi also exemplifies that humans haven’t in their baser appetites changed a great deal over time. When trekking between the Schoenweishuette and Hochwildehaus via the Langtalereckhuette it is not hard to imagine how today’s hikers can disappear without trace despite all manner of search/rescue and technological advancements; indeed, I have walked along this route without seeing another fellow traveller. It is therefore not implausible in the slightest that glaciers or their melt water periodically give up those lost in the mountains, but without the benefits afforded walkers and their would-be rescuers, someone such as Oetzi would have stood little or no chance of being discovered, assuming of course that he has anyone in his life who noticed him conspicuous by his absence.
Mountains strike fear into many, but also provide solace to others who recognise them as one of the few remaining settings where unadulterated communing with nature is in theory possible. A profusion of visual abominations seemingly justified in the name of winter sports and the golden goose the industry has become threaten alpine serenity and uninterrupted views, but for the time being at least areas such as Oetzi’s fundstelle look, at least from a material untouched-by-humans perspective, as they might have when its earliest inhabitants bestrode the peaks and valleys for their own reasons. It is ‘only’ the retreating glaciers that remind us of humanity’s indirect impact on the high Alps, but as winter sports are gradually chased higher and higher into mountains by increased temperatures and less subsequent natural snow, finding more Oetzis in the future becomes a very real possibility.
Now housed, analysed, and jealously preserved in Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology – it has long been disputed on which side of the modern-day Austria-Italy border the body was found – Oetzi has also had his name associated with Oetzi-Dorf, a mock up village portraying how it is believed those who lived 5,000 years ago, and Austrian singer DJ Oetzi who (re)popularised ‘Hey Baby’ to annoying effect but is actually from St. Johann, near Kitzbuehel, rather than the Oetztal…
It is though the man himself who I prefer to remember, who had five millennia of peace before being extensively analysed and having conclusions drawn from. Thirty years on from his inadvertent appearance, the Alps face multitudinous man-made threats and whilst lessons of the past may be learned from scrutinizing Oetzi, it is the very real contemporary issues demonstrated by climatic bellwethers that should be focusing minds and efforts, and not be concluded on in thousands of years’ time when by then it will be far too late.