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Grossglockner

Updated: Nov 13, 2021


In the summer of 2016 I spent a few days near the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in Austria at 3798 meters.

Despite its height, the Grossglockner is accessible by car, thanks to a road built in the 1930s for exactly that purpose: to allow non-alpinists to visit a glacier, or to comfortably cross the Alps .

This motorway, the Großglockner High Alpine Road, passes several alpine peaks and many more hairpin bends over a distance of 47.8 km.

I stayed in a very high-altitude hostel that seemed to date from the same period as the highway, and was built to accommodate alpinists. It was a fairly large but very simple hostel, with rooms without any comfort, but with magnificent views over the mountain tops. The hostel appeared to have undergone very few changes since the 1930s, and the Spartan beds and mattresses did not appear to have been replaced since.

I was almost the only guest there, and the atmosphere was a bit surreal in this remote place.

Close to the Grossglockner and the hostel you will also find the Pasterze glacier, the longest in Austria - as befits the highest mountain.

This glacier is also accessible by car, via the road that has been built for this purpose to close to the glacier.

Since I was so close, I decided to drive to the glacier on day two of my stay.

The road stops at the edge of the ice and culminates in a three-story parking lot, a concrete monster you'd expect to find at a major airport rather than a high-altitude glacier.

In addition to the parking, a restaurant and - how could it be otherwise - a gift shop.

This entire complex also includes a museum.

No, not a museum dedicated to the glacier, not even a museum about mountaineering, or geology, or glaciology, or the history of the region… no, it's a museum dedicated to the history of… the automobile.

Not entirely irrelevant either, given the history of the Hochalpenstrasse, but bizarre nonetheless.

In this place, high in what is actually a wilderness, amidst (in the past) eternal snow and rocks that can bear witness to eons, dedicating a museum to the car is a strange choice.

All the more so because this glacier is also special because it is a vivid witness and illustration of the climate crisis.

This crisis soon becomes apparent when you stand next to the glacier: it is noticeably getting smaller all the time. Since 1856, the glacier has shrunk by half. Every year, 25 meters are deducted from the length. On the rocks opposite the parking you can clearly see where the ice reached a century ago.

Wikipedia: “Around 2010 the stairs and elevator reached the glacier. Walking over the glacier with its many crevices was a unique experience. Since then, the glacier has retreated so far that one has to travel several kilometers over alpine terrain to reach the glacier.[1]”

It's a gripping sight. In few places can one see and feel the climate crisis so clearly.

This majestic presence, this ice that has been here forever for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, is disappearing. It's only a matter of time before this glacier will be a thing of the past.

I suspect that here in the museum dedicated to the history of the car, besides this dying giant, not much attention will have been given to it. Ironic, considering that the car has after all been a major contributor to the climate crisis. Even though this role is being over-emphasized and other causes of emission have been largely ignored so far in the mainstream discourse.

In any case, I did not enter the museum to check, I couldn't get over my heart. But even the large educational panels explaining the view did not mention the climate crisis.

In view of Austria's largest glacier, which is disappearing at an almost visible rate,, there is no reference at all to the cause of this disappearance, cause which also threatens our entire "civilization" and which could also lead to our disappearance.

Not a word.

This may have changed since then, after all five years have passed as I write this, but I doubt it.

I suspect that visitors to the Pasterze Glacier are still none the wiser as to why this majestic white presence is doomed to disappear.

Doomed, because even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions from today onwards, the earth will bear the consequences of these high levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we have released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Only if we find a way to remove those gigantic amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere within a few decades (a process called drawback) will we have a chance to save this glacier - and the others - from total disappearance.

That way does exist, and we don't need to invent new technology for it: just switching globally to regenerative agriculture would be able to store the majority of all anthropogenic emissions back into the soil.

But whether we will be able to do that in time in the light of the great resistance that exists to major cultural landslides is an open question.

In any case, it is an ominous sight, this white expanse of ice that disappears before our eyes. I was there five years ago, which means that this glacier has shrunk by about 125 meters since then. Binoculars will still have to be placed at this parking lot to keep an eye on the retreating ice.

It was one of the places that in recent years has pushed me face to face with the facts of the climate crisis, breaking through the lines of defense I had built to bring this insight at bay, this mother of all fears, this final and crushing conclusion : our world, our house, our only home, is on fire.

In many ways it is much easier and more comfortable to keep these insights at bay - which is why we still do it collectively.

But we must face reality, and we must overcome our fear of fear, if we are to have any chance of actually preventing that dreaded end. By still looking away en masse, we risk losing our last chance at a change of course - and then along with the fate of this ice, our fate will also be sealed, and with us the fate of most species of living beings with whom we share this share planet.

Here on the edge of the ice, I couldn't help but stop looking away. It was painful, but also liberating at the same time. And one of the steps that brought me to my new projects and life purpose. As long as we listen, the planet does talk to us.

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