War mal wieder wandern im Pitztal,,,,
I'd like to present a photographic documentary about the ongoing banalisation of glacial environments in the Tyrolean Alps, more precisely in the Pitztal part of the Oetztal Alps. Similar developments can be observed in the adjacent Ötz- and Kaunertal as well.
I believe this new kind of development impacting high alpine areas through road and piste construction beating recessing glaciers is unique in the Alps, therefore a close up analysis appears adequate.
In 1983 the Pitztal Summer Skiing Resort has been inaugurated. Its main skiing area expands in the range from 2700m to 3440m, mostly on glaciers at the foot of the Wildspitze peak, highest mountain of northern Tyrol measuring 3768m of height.
The main skiing area is linked to the valley through a 3.6km long single tunnel funicular climbing 1100m of height inside mountain rocks only. The resort was inaugurated right at the peak of the 1980ies summer skiing vogue. Because at that time the main business was seen in summer skiing, skiers had to take the funicular both to reach the high alpine region and to descent back to the valley.
Due to warmer summers, recessing glaciers and a general disinterest, summer skiing was withdrawn in 1995. The slopes remain closed from June to September since then, the main business has hence shifted to the winter season. However, there are no tourist-slopes reaching the valley due to a objectively difficult terrain, so even in winter tourist skiers are required to take the underground funicular at the end of the skiing day.
At the beginning of the years 2000, the lift company envisaged a drastic capacity increase of its lifts through introduction of detachable gondola- and chairlifts. This would have gone along with an equally drastic increase of the maximum amount of skiers in the area (likely to be the main business purpose), inducing the authorities to impose an alternative evacuation axis as a backup to the underground funicular.
Instead of erecting an above the surface gondola lift along the funicular trajectory, the lift company opted to build what they call an "emergency ski slope". However, the only possible way for such a slope meant to dig along steep sometimes vertical granite mountainsides and gorges and even on glaciers through what was so far a pure virgin glacial playground (c.f. photo documentary).
The lift company started construction of the ski slope which also acts as a more than welcomed service road without all of the necessary authorizations in 2006. Only in 2008 the combined road - slope was legally authorized and sanitized. The fact that no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been carried out has brought Austria to EU court. As far as I understood a juridic trick thanks to a legal framework designed on purpose for this case declared an EIA not compulsory: Constructions serving a security purposes do not require an EIA process, regardless of their environmental impact. This legal hole had to be closed afterwards.
Further motivations behind the new road which passes over glacier ice and along steep mountainsides requiring lots of solid granite blasting appear more subtle:
* Particularly after the Kaprun fire disaster in November 2000 which hit a very similar underground funicular causing 155 death, tourists started disliking tunnel funiculars. Therefore a slope down to the valley became more and more a "customer requirement", even if the slope/road remains officially closed for skiers because it has not been authorized as a ski normal slope probably for political reasons because the slope is in fact well groomed when there is enough snow coverage (...).
* Another very significant albeit not pronounced reason for this road can be found in the ease of access for heavy machinery: As soon as the road was ready, all lifts have been replaced by more powerful ones and a great number of installations of all sort has been spread around the high alpine region up to 3400m (Restaurants, artificial snow making, water basins, visual plastic elements for advertisements, alcohol bars etc.). They even installed an artificial snow making factory that produces snow at any temperature and serves its output via a conveyor belt.
* Every few years, the idea of linking the Pitztal Glacier skiing resort with its eastern peer "Oetztaler Gletscher" is pushed into public media. The service road and ski piste represents an important initial tile within this project.
Because the road passes over the Mittelberg-glacier (Mittelbergferner), and because the latter is strikingly recessing, this year a new road section of around 350m has been blasted into the surrounding granite on both side of the glaciers mountainsides, a new bridge has been erected as well substituting the former ice "bridge".
Basically, a rather static "La Grave" site was brought to dynamic quantitative growth: Before the road was built, the skiing-resort remained rather pure and minimalist as any additional installation had to be airlifted or transported via the narrow funicular tunnel. After road completion, heavy trucks can directly reach the main skiing area, and the outcome was ans is predictable.
The here-presented kind of development within a high alpine glacial area could unleash a new threat: It acts as a door-opener for similar projects in other tourist regions. The quantitative success is likely to oblige other high alpine resorts to also redesign and upgrade their tourist offer through similar means, thus further weakening the common consensus on respect of natural environments.
Pink: 2006/7 "emergency piste" and service road
Green: 2015 re-alignment road due to glacier recession
Dotted: Road on glacier
The Wildspitze Peak on the lower right(3769m).
On site tourist map, not North-aligned...
^^ The glacier tongue in the October 2012 and the service road as seen in an aerial image (source: HERE maps / Microsoft), same framing as next aerial image from the year 2000. The glacier does not reach its opposing NE-mountainside acting as a diverting barrier so far. A small lake appeared.
There is however still an ice "land-bridge" which carries the service road to the opposite NE mountainside. This icy land-bridge has entirely disappeared by 2015 (p02).
^^ Tongue of the Mitteberg-Glacier in the year 2000 (source: Google Earth). The flow of the ice was literally blocked by the noerth-eastern mountainside, forcing the ice flow to accumulate and to deviate to the gorge towards north-west
^^ Approaching the site September 2015: On site cement production unit (p04)
^^ September 2015: An excavator working below the glacier tongue at the intersection between the now obsolete 2006 road and the 2015 newly built section (p05).
^^ September 2015: The current tongue of the Mittelberg Glacier ends at an elevation of around 2400m (p06).
^^ October 2006: Nearly a decade earlier. The access road and "emergency ski piste" construction just started. Where the tiny vehicle can be seen on the Mittelberg-Glacier, the slope/road will cross the valley to reach the mountainside on the left. This part of the glacier is gone now (p07)
^^ September 2015: New road sections are being built to respond to glacier recession. The upper road ending on the left was once reached by the Mittelberg-Glacier tongue, compare to next image.
The newly built road is partly hidden far below the obsolete 2006/7 road on the left (p08).
^^ September 2015: Overview. The Mittelberg-Glacier until a few years ago completely filled the bowl on the right and squeezed further downhill through the narrow gorge now ice-free (p09).
^^ September 2015: Zoom. The glacier tongue can be seen in the lower left. In 2006 it reached the level of the now obsolete road section in the upper right part of the image (p10).
^^ September 2015: The lowest lift terminal of the main resort at around 2700m. This modern double lift terminal is reached by the road/emergency piste that winds down the Mittelberg-Glacier in the background towards the left (p11)
^^ September 2015: Tourists equipped with hiking sticks cross the ski areas main aisle at el. 2800m. The elevated conveyor belt of the IDE snow making plant can be seen against the white glacier (p12).
^^ September 2015: A suggestive plastic icon on display in the skiing area at 2800m (p13).
^^ September 2015: Snow making plant with conveyor belt at around 2800m of altitude. The snow making plant can produce snow (black building) mostly independent from atmospheric conditions. (p14)
^^ September 2015: IDE Snow making factory (p15)
^^ September 2015: Utility buildings (p16)
^^ September 2015: The soil appears soaked with hydraulic oil probably originating from this groomer device @ 2800m.(p17)
^^ September 2015: The soil is soaked with hydraulic oil @ 2700m.(p18)
^^ September 2015: A proliferation of geotextile remains can be observed. Geotextiles are used to cover large snow areas in spring so to prevent it from melting throughout the summer (p19).
^^ September 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. Tourists in front of the upper funicular terminal observe the surrounding landscape (p20)
^^ September 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. A dog halts in front of an information display (p21)
^^ September 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. A couple with small dog walks out of the funicular terminal heading towards one of the snow piles (p22).
^^ September 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. A guest taking a photo in front of the upper funicular terminal. The yellow sign reads "Attention slippery floor" (p23).
^^ September 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. Three lined up snow groomers waiting to re-distribute snow hills piled up and covered with geotextiles during spring season in order to allow an early ski opening independently from natural snow coverage (p24).
^^ 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. A tourist stands aside a lift tower dating from 2006 (p25).
^^ September 2015: Additional image @ 2800m. Tourists walking along the axis of the Express Chairlift "Glacier Lake" (p26).