How climate change is pushing ski trips to a (very high) Austrian glacier

Americans caught in the jaws of the onslaught of below-freezing winter storms in December 2022 will find it hard to believe, but Europe has had a warm winter so far. Prague, which sits just two degrees latitude north of beleaguered Buffalo, is currently enjoying a 51-degree New Year’s Eve. Granted, Britain tasted frost, as did Central Europe in early December, but that literally melted overnight as spring rains dashed hopes of a White Christmas and croci started to emerge.

In terms of European travel, however, all that lukewarm sloshing has left rivers dangerously full and popular downhill ski runs devoid of that lucrative winter special, snow. It’s not like there isn’t snow in Chamonix or St. Moritz – there is – but right now St. Moritz is lollygagging in the grip of a ‘heat wave’ which translates to a high of 38 degrees Fahrenheit for Saturday with more of the same next week, and all the way up the mountain is just a mere 20-inch base of the rarest skiable merchandise. At the bottom of the mountain there is a 12 inch bare base.

In short, these are the kind of numbers that herald late spring skiing and/or the accompanying avalanche season rather than year-end winter ski travel.

So it happened, Europe is skiing right now like it’s April. For people who truly enjoy skiing, including this writer, the extreme and longevity of the disparate weather has led to new thinking and new, albeit temporary, remedies. It is important to stress that what follows is not a permanent fix, but rather a hasty and disparate response to the larger problems that climate change is posing to Europe’s top winter resorts and its tourism industry in general.

We will now draw your attention to the photo above of skiers in the Austrian Tyrol. More specifically, they stand on top of the Hintertux Glacier in the Zillertal, a tributary valley of the Inn River Valley, about thirty kilometers as the crow flies from the city of Innsbruck. When skiing became very difficult at the end of last month, the weather made the extended winter holiday period quite difficult for travelers whose annual pilgrimages to ski in the French, German and Italian Alps were already booked. . They did the only thing they could do and that was book a spot that had reliable snow regardless of the weather. In other words, this meant that they had to seek altitude.

As incredible as it may seem given the staggering reputation of the Alps, there are only two high mountain resorts that have skiable snow all year round, one of which is Zermatt in Switzerland. Zermatt is best known because it is considered one of the most “fabulous” skiing and party destinations for skiers and non-skiers alike. The second station is the Hintertux Glacier in the Austrian Tyrol, which can rightly be described as an open secret unknown to Americans among ski connoisseurs in Europe.

Bottom line: Right now? Hintertux – the glacier itself sports a 1 meter (39 inch) base and has 17 open lifts – with 36 miles of trails. The larger Ziller Valley has 57 open ski lifts on 98 miles of slopes. At the top of the glacier, you start your run at over 10,000 feet. It’s high skiing.

Yes, Hintertux might be seen as a rung or two on the fabulous scale compared to Zermatt or St. Moritz, but the many superb kilometers of open pistes of all classifications in the Zillertal, including routes to the top of the great glacier itself, will help you get over the fact that those little rock discos you remember from last year in Chamonix just aren’t really Tyrolean. Skiing is. And in very high altitude skiing, the Hut — the “cabins” and/or the “alms” — are your support system. They are welcoming, comfortable and really friendly. That is, if you expect the high-end service you’ll find at Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz in a Hintertux Hutyou’d better wait until St. Moritz rebuilds some of its base.

That’s why the skiers in the photo above are in the photo, taken five weeks ago: they are what we might call vacationing climate change refugees who, like the thousands of Europeans who have changed their vacation plans to travel to Hintertux this season, seek only the safety of altitude.

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