• alpine flowers - Neukirchen am Großvenediger

    Into the Great White Silence

    Those who take it upon themselves to ascend the Großvenediger are rewarded with spectacular insights and panoramas of one of Austria’s largest and most fascinating glacier regions. We set out with a mountain guide who has reached the summit more than a thousand times.

    The view of the Mullwitzkees is breathtaking. A sea of snow and ice stretches out behind the rocky landscape we’ve just traversed. Gently rising to form a white peak: the Großvenediger. 3,657 m high and still far away from us, on the seemingly unreachable horizon.

    Crampons, Rope, and Crevasses

    • The largest contiguous glacier area of the Eastern Alps lies ahead of us, and despite the rapid disappearance of the "eternal" ice in the last few decades, we are overwhelmed by its vast white. To move along safely here, we – a group of five, from amateur hikers to marathon runners – went through the most important glacier procedures in front of our hut last night: keeping the correct distance on the rope and making sure it is always taut. We also learnt how to use an ice axe in the event of a fall.

      Now we are roping up. Sigi Hatzer, our mountain guide, an East Tirolean veteran with weather-beaten features, hands out the Grödel – crampons that can easily be pulled over the shoe.

    • Now, in mid-July, when the sun loosens the top layer of snow, these light crampons are sufficient and there is no need for the long-pointed ones that are used in pure ice.

      The transition from the rock to the glacier has something magical about it. While the rock challenged our sense of balance, the pleasant grip of the firn conveys a feeling of physical strength. It’s as though we are being carried by the dozens of metres of compact ice below us. And yet there are dangers here, too – crevasses! Our mountain guide Sigi knows them all – and the path that leads around them. Nevertheless, he now guides us away from the moderately ascending glacier path to an icefall, to further introduce us to the risks but also the beauty of this rugged, frozen world. 

    •                     Mountains Venediger
    •                     Rope team on the Grossvenediger mountain

    Shimmering Glacier Ice

    For the moment we are in a different world, with huge ice towers and their turquoise-blue abysses that are often hundreds of metres deep. It feels like being in the Himalayas, or in Antarctica. Incredible space. Boundless silence. There are no birds or marmots to be found up here. All we can hear are our footsteps, our breath, ourselves. Five little dots in a gigantic landscape.

    We take a short break; it’s getting hot in the middle of the eternal ice. We protect ourselves against the strong UV radiation with high factor sun cream. It's hard to imagine how the first climbers to ascend the Großvenediger must have felt in this white desert. Ignaz von Kürsinger and no fewer than 40 men who accompanied him into this unknown world in 1841 are said to have smeared gunpowder on their faces to protect themselves from the sun. We wonder whether it helped, and whether it was advisable that wine was the only drink brought along on the expedition. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why fourteen of the forty participants had to give up on the way to the summit ... 

    Why Are Some Glaciers Blue?

    Some glaciers appear to be blue for the same reason water does. The white sunlight is actually made up of many colours – easy to see in a rainbow. Water absorbs all these colours except for blue. The deeper the water, the stronger the effect. This can also be seen in a swimming pool – the clearer and deeper the water, the stronger the effect.

    The blue colour of glaciers is a result of ice absorbing the red end of the spectrum of sunlight better than the blue. However, if there are lots of air bubbles trapped in the glacier ice, as it is the case with most alpine glaciers, then they appear to be white. This is because the air bubbles quickly disperse the light back out of the glacier. 


    More Than a Thousand Times at the Summit

    We, however, are in good spirits. After a (non-alcoholic) refreshment, we tackle the next level of terrain. Sigi leads the way, pushing his two-metre-long hazelnut stick into the snow with force. He uses its forged tip to pick up on possible gaps. Should it come to a fall, the stick would anchor the rope in the ice. We ask him how often he has ascended the Großvenediger. The East Tirolean mountain guide doesn’t have to think about that for long. 1053 times he replies dryly, earning astonishment and incredulous looks. How can he be so sure about the exact number? He has meticulously kept a summit book for the past 40 years, he explains. It all started when he reached the summit for the first time as a 14-year-old farmer’s boy. Now in his mid-50s, he has brought thousands of guests up here as a guide. Yet, he hasn’t lost the respect his ancestors had for the glacier to this day. Because changes in temperature and the constantly running melt water are forever creating new crevasses in the mighty ice stream, unexpected and sometimes treacherously hidden by fresh snow. We can't help thinking about this as we take the next large step over one of the many narrow cracks in the ice.

    Mountain guide Sigi Hatzer
    • The summit, which we had lost sight of for some time, reappears after we have coquered the last level of terrain. It is within reach – encouraging us to overcome the final metres in altitude. Accompanied only by the sound of the wind, we calmly walk across the summit ridge, with steep drops to either side.

    • When we arrive at the wide summit plateau, we all hug each other in quiet joy, proud of what we have achieved, and enjoy the magnificent view of the Hohe Tauern’s highest peaks. Not fatigue, but the sheer vastness of the landscape has silenced us. We have made it to the end of the great white silence.

    Venediger Altitude Trail

    Interesting Glacier Facts

    • Measuring Glaciers

      Austria’s glaciers have been measured for more than 130 years. The aim is to find out whether they are getting larger or smaller. "Long-term changes in weather have a massive impact on them, after all," says glacier expert Gerhard Lieb. Little can be derived from individual measurements. There are too many factors that influence the length of a glacier, such as rainfall and average temperatures. And of course: climate change.

      Glaciers can be measured quite "easily", according to Lieb: "You place marks at set points at the end of the glacier, from which you measure the distance to it in a defined, constant direction. It’s like a tape measure. That’s how easy science can be," chuckles Lieb.

      The success of the undertaking may well be thanks to Lieb’s team that climbs the mountains year after year in late summer when the glaciers have reached maximum melting and begins measuring with upmost dedication. The fact that this is done on a voluntary basis also keeps the costs down.

      How long it takes to reach the glaciers depends on local conditions and on how much material the team has to take along. If measuring devices such as theodolites and reflectors, tripods, and glacier equipment are required, the ascent is much more difficult. "We need extensive technical equipment to measure the height, which is why these measurements are only taken at a few glaciers. That’s about ten in Austria," says Lieb. Thanks to the 90 additional Austrian glaciers that are measured in length every year, the experts obtain a good overview of the situation.

      Lieb’s team often faces challenges. "It’s very frustrating when I have to write in my report that the glacier could not be reached or the measuring points could not be found in the snow," explains Lieb. A rockslide on the Großglockner, Austria’s highest mountain, meant that the hiking trail had to be closed for three years. Bypassing this bottleneck, which is essential for the measurements on the Pasterze, meant a detour of half a day for the team each time.

    • Glaciers and People

      Glaciers provide us with many useful resources. Glacial drift makes fertile soil to grow crops. Deposits of sand and gravel are used for concrete and asphalt. The most important resource gained from glaciers, however, is fresh water. Many rivers are fed by the melting glacial ice.

      Glaciers also play a role within the economy, albeit mostly from a marketing perspective. People associate glaciers with a clean, fresh taste due to their cool temperature. Because the water was trapped in the glacier for so long, many of us believe it is better protected from pollutants than water from elsewhere. Companies make use of this positive association for their "glacier products", either directly linked to glacier water or ice cubes, or indirectly, by creating a connection with luxury goods such as beer, spirits or sweets. Some companies also provide glacier experiences, including whisking up to the top by cable car, making ice caves accessible to visitors or using glaciers as ski areas.

    • Threats to Glaciers

      Melting plays the tragic main role when it comes to the retreat of glaciers. This happens when the ice disappears faster than firn can accumulate. Cool and rainy summers would be the decisive factor in slowing down this thawing process, but scientists see no signs of such a change in climate. The average temperature of the earth has been rising sharply for more than a century.

      Glaciers are important indicators of global warming and climate change in several ways. The impacts of the melting glaciers in the Alps and other mountain ranges as well as the ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland are huge – and clearly noticeable in the alpine region, too.

      The eco system is changing in former glacial valleys, where plants and animals no longer find enough water. Rising temperatures are also causing the permanently frozen ground in the Alps to thaw, making it unstable. Mountain huts, ski lifts, and hiking trails are affected by this. What's more, water levels are rising in rivers and oceans that absorb the water from the glaciers. Floods or debris avalanches could be the dramatic consequences. And because glaciers are important sources of drinking water – around three-quarters of the earth’s fresh water is stored in glaciers – melting brings even more dangers in the long run.

      Various measures are being taken in the Austrian glacier regions to counteract the melting. Protective covers and snow depots are the most common methods used, but - even in the best case - they can only slow down the process.

    Martin Betz

    Martin Betz


    Writer and Director

    Martin Betz, born and raised in Styria, lives and works in Vienna. He enjoys outdoor adventures, particularly in the Austrian Alps. A keen hiker, he occasionally takes his camera with him, as he also produces nature and alpine documentaries for German-language TV channels.

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