Why are the mountains so high? Why does the sound of water flow from them? Are they bleeding, crying out for the end? Joining up all the little streams and waterfalls they form a river so strong. Fresh water attacks the land with the least resistance. Why does water flow down from the mountains?
Questions like these accompanied my hikes in the Austrian Alps. Obviously, it’s hard not to notice the beauty of the mountains. Indeed, I expected such beauty and longed to be surrounded by it. This is something I think that all people who are drawn to the mountains experience and share with one another.
This calling brought me to Tirol, Austria in the Zillertaler valley. From Mayrhofen, a ski resort village crammed with tall and charming four star chalets, I took a bus to Breitlahner. Besides the one hotel/restaurant and the happy cows perched on the mountain side of that lonely farm, Breitlahner can’t be said to be much of a town. Sitting comfortably at 1257 meters, it does have the privilege of being the starting point of the trail leading up to the Berliner Hut.
The Berliner Hut was built in 1898, surely by some wealthy mountain and nature enthusiasts. And though it is called a Hut, it is anything but. A beautifully built chalet overflowing with incredible craftsmanship of wood work, and capable of hosting over 200 people, this Hut is more of a palace chalet at 2042 meters for budget travelers; budget only because of the bunk beds in many of the rooms. As a view from the terrace, the towering enormity of the Großer Moseler peaking at 3480 meters is the breathtaking beauty hikers look upon as they rest to regain their breath.
Hiking up this valley isn’t very difficult at first for it is more of a country road than a trail. That doesn’t mean that there are cars passing by, rather it makes for the schnitzel and beer I would later have at dinner possible without too much difficulty. What does accompany the hiker is water. It seems to be coming from everywhere, out of every crevice, every crack from the mountain tops which trickles down to form a river in the valley. The path is wet at times, muddy, and often a flowing stream intersects the trail rinsing the mud off your boots.
I was informed by some locals in Innsbruck that pretty much all the fresh water in Austria is drinkable straight from the source. So looking up at the snow covered peaks high above, the source of the stream that has diverged, shifted, curved and fallen to where I presently stand, I cup my hands and absorb the fresh, mineral rich, cold and tastiest water I have ever sipped.
After a cold, but snug sleep, I continued hiking up into the mountains while the sun struggled to topple the mountain peaks to the East. About an hour’s walk from the Berliner Hut, where eventually I trekked through snow, I arrived at the still unfrozen Schwarzsee Lake at 2250 meters. It’s a modest little glacier lake. It’s perfect. Absolutely freezing, and in late September it would be insane to take a dip.
My next trek started at the sleepy and timeless village of Ginzling at 985 meters and would bring me to the Greizer Hut at 2227 meters built five years earlier than the Berliner Hut. This hike would be much like the previous but much more compounded.
A powerful white water river would always be by my side. Strongest at the start, I would pass countless waterfalls and streams from both sides of the valley which feed this magnificent force. The water rolled like thunder at a constant rhythm conceived as the heart beat of the Earth.
Such is the metaphor that can also be turned into a sorrowful case of abuse. With climate change effecting nature at alarming rates, scientists have estimated that it won’t be long until the last glacier of the Alps melts away. Studies conducted between 2000-20005 have shown that every single glacier studied in Austria and Switzerland, a total of 230, has retreated. Thus, from one day to the next, one perspective to a another, the life giving water from the mountains descending with grace into the valley hydrating and making possible life to prosper at fairer altitudes, turned into the roar and cry of this mountain climate slowly dying.
Without the glaciers to feed the streams the rivers will quickly dry up. The irony of it all is that climate change is witnessing the oceans rise, while the proportion of salt water to fresh water increases accordingly. It’s difficult to be depressed being in the environment presently as I’m brimming with appreciation and wonder, but with a little environmentalist foresight I can’t help but feel like I’m mourning the upcoming departure of a loved one on their death bed.
The next morning I descend from the Greizer Hut’s drenched path back to Ginzling. Along the way I pass not-quite-elderly-people-yet on their way up. Fortunately for them, these mountains will always be glaciers, even though they have seen the glacier line slowly retreat over time to higher altitudes. Back in Ginzling I walk over to the bridge to take one last glimpse of the valley. The river has changed overnight. From the pristine crystal clear water from the day before, it is now shrugging along all brown with dirt. Apparently, nature can and does change overnight.