Going under the piste; Below Austria’s Hintertuxer Glacier

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August 2016, and I am standing on snow surrounded by enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders preparing themselves for a day on the slopes.

Their interest lies in the surface snow – but that’s not what I am here for. My interest is 35m below the surface – inside the Hintertuxer Glacier.

The Hintertuxer Ski Resort in the alpine region of Zillertal, in Tirol, Austria, is open all year round – thanks to the eponymous glacier.

zillertal-ice-strip-2

To reach the summit requires riding three different cable cars. The final one takes me up through the clouds to 3250m. Suddenly the world vanishes and all around me is white. I cannot see the ground, or the rocky wall next to me, or even the car ahead – just a metre or so of cable disappearing into nothing. The sounds are muted and for a moment time seems to stand still. And then we break through and arrive at the summit and the buzz of people enjoying a chance to ski in the middle of the summer.

The only way to visit the Natural Ice Palace inside the glacier is with a guided tour. You’ll be provided with a helmet and I’d suggest sturdy, waterproof shoes, a warm jacket (it’s zero degrees Celsius inside the glacier) and ideally a waterproof on top (melting ice drips from above in many of the tunnels), and gloves (those thin gardening gloves, with the rubberised non-slip palms are ideal – they will keep you warm, allow you to grip the ladders and the palms are waterproof).

zillertal-ice-strip

We enter the glacier through a small tunnel and take time to allow our eyes to adjust to the light. The steps, carved in the ice, are slippery but covered in a rubberised carpet, and water drips from the ceiling above.  We stop at the site of the original entrance – discovered in 2007 by Roman Erler.  This has since been filled in with snow and the current entry tunnel was carved to allow more people to visit the ice palace. Originally it was only open to the very adventurous who had to be lowered in wearing a climbing harness. These days it’s much easier!

Very soon we are at the first ladder and carefully climb down into the bowels of the ice. As we continue our journey through a narrow crevasse we can see the two different types of ice that make up the body of the glacier: the first is an opaque, layered ice formed under enormous pressure as the glacier moves; the second is crystal clear and formed from drops of water from the glacial run off.

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From here we arrive at a large cave filled with 8m ice stalactites framing views of intricately shaped, natural ice sculptures.  All the tunnels and small caves are lit with changing coloured lights – one minute a deep purple, then vibrant green, cobalt blue, and a rich warm red belying the cold of the surroundings. The lights cause the ice crystals to sparkle and add to the magical feel of a world deep below the surface.

After an hour exploring the 500m of tunnels we emerge into the sunlight, eyes squinting at the snowy landscape around us. I feel as though I have spent an hour in a kingdom far from the realms of mortal earth – perhaps one inhabited by ice elves (if such a thing were to exist).  But I needn’t worry about leaving the magic behind me, for all around the snow is glittering, the mountains climb majestically into the clouds and brightly coloured skiers grin as they enjoy an August afternoon – Zillertal style.

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FACT BOX

Hintertuxer Glacier Ice Palace: http://www.hintertuxergletscher.at/en/experience/natures-ice-palace.html

Zillertal Nature Park: http://www.naturpark-zillertal.at/en/home.html

Austria Tourism: http://www.austria.info/uk

Alpenhotel Kramerwirt, Mayrhofen: http://www.kramerwirt.at/en/

Tirol Tourism: http://www.tyrol.com/things-to-do/events/all-events/e-volunteering-from-alpine-pasture-to-farm

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist, broadcaster and travel writer, and co-founder of PASSION for the PLANET radio, and Panpathic Communications. Follow her on Twitter @ChantalCooke

 

 

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