It’s August 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 in the natural ice palace 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. To reach the summit requires riding three different cable cars. The first takes you to around 2000m above the valley floor. As you ride the car the ground below is green, covered in grass and trees. I can see hikers with walking poles, and pale brown cows with large bells around their necks.
The next car, taking you a further 600m up the mountain, offers a very different view. The ground is now barren and rocky. As the car pulls away I spot a few mosses and one clump of yellow flowers, too far away to identify – but soon even they have disappeared and all that is visible is grey rock and areas of equally grey ice.
The final gondola takes us up through the clouds to 3250m and the saddle between the Gefrorene-Wand-Spitzen – two summits on the Tux Crest, a mountain chain in the Zillertal Alps. 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).
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.
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.
As the Hintertuxer Glacier is one of very few cold base glaciers outside Antarctica and Greenland. It therefore attracts scientists from across Europe, who have dug the world’s deepest glacier research shaft; dropping down 52m with a diameter of 3m. A cold base glacier is one that is frozen to the bedrock all year with a constant temperature of zero degrees. It doesn’t move in the same way that warm base glaciers do. The temperature in warm base glaciers fluctuates, melting the ice which runs under the glacier lubricating the base and allowing it to move.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t liquid water inside this glacier – there is plenty of it. These lakes offer crystal clear views into their icy depths. The Ice Lake is 35m below the piste and is another 32m deep, and around 100m. Here you can take the world’s only boat trip inside a glacier.
Unbelievably there are tiny creatures living in the glacier – namely Glacier Fleas. These miniscule (around 1.5mm long) insects feed on pollen and planet remains, and have no interest in the tourists peering down into the depths of the lakes.
Most glaciers around the world are slowly receding due to climate change, however the Hintertuxer hasn’t changed size at all in the last four years. Although a decade ago it did reach considerably further down the mountain side. I asked our guide, Paul, if the hundreds of tourists who visit the Glacier Palace each year impacted it; “Yes they do contribute to a bit of additional melting in the summer, but in the winter it all freezes again and we haven’t detected any long term damage. In fact, this glacier seems very stable – more so than many others in the region.”
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.
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/
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