Published: February 2006
Meltdown: The Alps Under Pressure
Long a social hot spot, Europe's winter playground is now warming up for real.
By Erla Zwingle

Around mid-June the Pitztal Glacier in Austria goes on summer vacation. That is to say, it begins to melt, racing down Tyrolean mountainsides in frigid streams that eventually lose themselves, like Europeans in August, at a beach somewhere. But if you are the owner of a ski resort on a glacier, four months of melting is a major cause for concern. So one day the owners of the Pitztal Glacier ski resort decided to try something radical. They ordered a supply of what are basically huge white blankets and spread them across 15 acres of the glacier to keep it cold through the summer. It seems to be working: The melting has slowed. So now ski areas in Germany and Switzerland are also wrapping at least part of their glaciers. The glaciers may not feel better, but the resort owners certainly do.

One July morning I went up the Stubai Glacier with glaciologist Andrea Fischer and her team of students from the University of Innsbruck. They were there to give the glacier its weekly checkup, measuring how much it had melted under the various types of protective fabric—large squares of wool, hemp, plastic, and combinations of these that lay in rows across the slushy ice.

One experimental square, made of plastic, had dropped almost a foot in a week. "It's quite normal that glaciers are gaining or losing mass," Fischer said. What's not normal, say climatologists, is how fast it's happening today. Fischer and her students made note of which material had slowed the melting most effectively. Various materials, including a new white fleece, had slowed the melting to an impressive two inches.

You can't wrap a whole mountain range in a blanket. But with so much riding on Alpine ice and snow—skiing, tourism, service industries, and the livelihoods of probably millions of workers—it's easy to see why some people might want to. Yet it will take more than blankets to shield the Alps from the environmental and human pressures facing them today.

This month the Winter Olympics will unfold in the ranges outside Turin, Italy, and television will replay the old Alpine themes—Heidi, yodeling, cheese with holes in it—while focusing on vistas in which nature still appears omnipotent and largely undisturbed.

That is an illusion. Arrayed across the heart of Europe, the Alps have been intensely used for centuries, and even today only 17 percent of their 74,000 square miles (191,659 square kilometers) are protected as parks. Their usable space is so limited that the average Alpine valley is an orgy of multitasking: factories, train tracks, hotels, houses, churches, ski lifts, farms, parking lots, lumberyards, stores, restaurants, and boutiques, all bundled together by swooping concrete parabolas of roads. And while the Alps may look empty on television, nearly 14 million people live there, two-thirds of them in urban areas and some in areas with a greater population density than the Netherlands.

But the sentimental stereotypes are hard to give up, and people almost instinctively blot out the lumber mills, construction cranes, and power lines. Andreas Goetz, executive director of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, recognizes this. "A lot of people come to the Alps looking for the old man with the beard, content with himself, smoking a pipe," he told me, a little ironically, in his solar-heated house in Switzerland. "We produce our chocolate and cheese and are happy all day long."

The old man is nowhere to be found. In another era Hans Gisler might have grown into the part. Instead this young Swiss sculptor left his farm in the remote mountain hamlet of Riemenstalden five years ago to seek his fortune in the prosperous small town of Altdorf, ten miles (16 kilometers) away down the valley, where he makes his living out of wood, metal, and his own talent.

Altdorf has a lot to offer: legend (it was where William Tell shot the apple off his son's head), industry (Merck pharmaceuticals), and a steady tourist business that attracts thousands of visitors a year. A number of them buy gallery pieces from local artists who, like Gisler, draw inspiration from the Alps overlooking Altdorf—blinding mountain bulwarks that seem to have been hacked out of the firmament with axes.

When I met him, Hans was preparing to carve a sculpture from the 23-foot-high (seven meters) trunk of a century-old sequoia, which the city had recently cut down because its spreading roots were threatening nearby houses. We stood on a hillside overlooking the town, where he had placed this gigantic piece of raw material.

"I moved to Altdorf to be closer to my customers," he explained, "but I couldn't live without the high country." If he had been born 50 years earlier, he would almost certainly have had to remain on the family farm, satisfying his artistic drive by producing utensils, souvenirs, perhaps the occasional crucifix. Today, the prosperity that tourism has brought to the Alps has given him a chance to pursue his talent and make real money, rather than merely survive at the subsistence level his ancestors had to accept. But it doesn't mean he's become a city boy in one stroke. He goes back to help his brothers when he can, especially at hay-cutting time. The sound of the scythe, he said, is "music to my body and soul."

His idea for this sculpture—"the relationship between man and nature"—is no sentimental fantasy. It has always been the core reality of Alpine existence. The Alps are a realm of crushing and freezing and falling, not a world to be romanticized but one that requires respect, ingenuity, even humility. He accepts that the sequoia had to be cut down—after all, humans have been altering the Alpine landscape for at least 5,000 years. And to own a mass of wood this huge was a tremendous stroke of luck for a young sculptor. But still he moved his hand affectionately across its shaggy bark, breaking off a shard as a present for me. "I hope," he said shyly, "that the sculpture will be a kind of memory for the tree."

Increasingly, the Alps are big business. In the spa town of Évian, France, the people who bottle its mineral water send 1.6 million gallons of liquid Alps out of their plant every day. They promote their product by showing romantic snowy peaks below the simple words "Welcome to Our Factory." They're right: The Alps are a sort of factory. They produce millions of cubic meters of lumber, hundreds of thousands of tons of iron and salt, not to mention spectacular quantities of cheese, wine, and apples, athletic challenge, artistic inspiration, spiritual insight, and many forms of expensive and dangerous amusement. Mining and lumbering are down, but since the invention of winter tourism some 140 years ago, the Alps have become an enormous factory of fun.

All this has catapulted generations of isolated mountain folk into the modern era. "There are people who say, 'Oh, the old days were so beautiful,'" said Xavier Siaud, 70, who grew up on a farm near Le Perrier. "But in the old days there was poverty." Three generations ago, men routinely left their villages in the winter to make extra money traveling across Europe selling everything from blankets to flower bulbs. Today, for every grizzled farmer in lederhosen there are ten ski-lift ticket sellers, nine second-home builders, eight 40-ton-truck drivers, seven Portuguese chambermaids, six pizzamakers, and a batch of people selling postcards and disposable cameras. Adjusting to all this isn't so easy.

Consider the Tyrolean village of Sölden, once a quiet farming community, now a pounding maelstrom of hotels, bars, and shops that cater to skiers, who pour in by the thousands every winter from all over Europe. Perched on a slope high above the town is an old wooden mountain hut called Gampe Thaya. The Riml family, which owns a hotel in Sölden, used to stay here in the summer when they grazed their cattle in the high pastures, as everyone did in the old days. (In German, the word "alp," in fact, refers to these pastures, not the mountains themselves.)

Jakob Prantl and his wife, Daniela (née Riml), were making a reasonable living from the hotel, and from their cows, but 13 years ago they noticed that Gampe Thaya was sitting pretty much in the middle of a ski run. Voilà—a rustic restaurant was born. Jakob prepares traditional Alpine dishes using ingredients bought from local farmers along the Ötztal valley instead of the fast food skiers have come to expect. It was slow to catch on, but now he serves up to 400 people a day.

"Doing this is what I wanted," Jakob said. "We have three kids, and I wanted to show them that everything doesn't have to be quick." If it were up to him, the family would be farming full-time, but that's impossible these days. "If you have children, they have to go to school in Sölden," said Daniela, "and living there costs a lot of money." Jakob, who raises cows and builds houses from April to November, has mixed feelings about tourism. "It's all right," he said grudgingly, "if you know how to handle it." He, at least, has found a way to continue farming while taking advantage, as many others have done, of the windfall of tourism. Rather than having to choose one or the other, he and Daniela can benefit from both.

We marvel at the mountains, but it's the water that everything depends on: edelweiss, ibex, even the mountains themselves. Snow, glaciers, permafrost, surging hot springs, aquamarine ramparts of ice—the very capillaries of the rock itself are permeated with water. It comes sleeking down black rock faces, it drips into hidden cavern pools. If the Alps had a voice, it would be the musical notes of water. Water is what is literally holding the high mountains together, and if the ice and permafrost begin to lose their grip, as is already happening, the mountains start to crumble.

"High-altitude regions seem to be more sensitive to the climate warming, and the retreat of glaciers is one sign," says Martin Beniston, a climate specialist at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. "During Roman times it was even warmer than it is now. From Val-d'Isère to Zermatt, people could cross passes where they go glacier skiing now. But today it's the speed of warming that concerns us the most. It's very rapid." How rapid? Scientists estimate that the Alps have lost half their glacier ice in the past century, 20 percent of that since the 1980s; glaciers in Switzerland have lost a fifth of their surface area in the past 15 years.

As temperatures rise, so does the snow line. Sooner or later some ski centers will be stranded, and their towns will shrivel away. And rockfalls, only an occasional hazard in earlier times, are increasing, endangering communications towers and radio installations, not to mention the occasional human.

"What if there weren't any more skiing?" I asked Karin Thaler, a university student from Oberndorf, near Kitzbühel in Austria. She stared at me, thunderstruck. "That would behorrible," she stammered. "Everyone has something to do with skiing. A winter without tourists? It wouldn't be possible."

This is why the owners of the Pitztal ski resort and other sites are paying serious money to wrap their glaciers (some $121,000 a year for the Pitztal Glacier alone). They foresee a day when high-altitude glacier ski areas will be the only ones that can reasonably count on enough snow to stay open.

"We're businessmen," said Willi Krueger of the Pitztal resort, which sits above 9,000 feet (2,743 meters). "If I were investing, I wouldn't invest in any ski area lower than 5,500 feet [1,676 meters]." Yet ski areas are still being developed throughout the Alps. And with them come roads, hotels, and ski lifts that can carry 1,800 people an hour.

Then there is the problem of snowfall. Global warming is making the snowfall less predictable. Sometimes there's a lot, sometimes too little, and it doesn't always come when you call it. Artificial snow is one of those solutions that just creates more problems. "If a resort wants people skiing in spring, it has to make the snow cover last longer," said Ulrike Petschacher of the World Wildlife Fund in Innsbruck. "But this damages the plants and disturbs the water cycle."

I had looked at a series of photographs of a mountain in the process of becoming a ski area. It resembled those pictures of a person's face after plastic surgery, just when they take the bandages off. The scars will remain. "There's the French model called ski total," explained Marco Ferrari, editor of Italy's Meridiani Montagne, a mountain travel magazine. "In the sixties and seventies developers would go to a place where there was just a hut and build a town where everything is included—ski slopes, discotheques, wine, massages. This has left an indelible mark on the mountains. But skiing is always invasive. Skiing is a very aggressive activity. It's aggressive to go there in your car, aggressive to go up the mountain on a ski lift. It's a tourism that's still rooted in consumerism." Or, as one Austrian historian puts it, "prostitution of the snow."

Walk the main street of Les Deux Alpes, sometimes called the Las Vegas of the Alps, at sunset on a winter day. It was constructed on a plateau that the people of two nearby villages, Vénosc and Mont de Lans, used for summer pastures. Today its trampled streets are chortling with neon signs advertising hotels, restaurants, bars, stores, and Internet cafés. The stupendous white summits resound like a trumpet fanfare above a bunch of ukuleles.

Still, is that kind of development more offensive than the more gradual suffocation of once small, traditional Alpine villages like Chamonix? "The spirit of the mountains is lost," said Roland Stieger, a mountain rescue and security expert. "It's more about trying to sell fondue Savoyard than about the mountains. There can be 100,000 people here in one day, and there are only 10,000 inhabitants. At Easter, it feels like someone put Italy, Switzerland, and England on holiday together and sent them all to Chamonix."

I climbed into the mother of all trailer trucks in Ljubljana, Slovenia, at 2 a.m. one Monday morning. Destination: Paris. I thought it would be interesting to see the Alps from the trucker's point of view, but soon discovered that his first priority is to avoid as much of the Alps as possible. To a trucker, as someone quipped, the Alps are nothing more than the world's biggest speed bump.

Twelve million trucks and about 50 million cars cross the Alps each year. From the Balkans to the North Sea, Hungary to Spain and Portugal, they roar through at least ten major tunnels and so many smaller ones that you could practically tear the Alps on the dotted line. Seventy-seven million tons of cargo move through the mountains in an average year—furniture, chemicals, livestock, mineral water, automobiles. By 2020, some predict, trans-Alpine commercial transport will double.

The mountains concentrate the fumes and noise from all these vehicles. The emissions are trapped in narrow valleys where the wind doesn't reliably reach, and the upper layer of warmer air at night creates a cap to hold them down. Their carbon dioxide is a contributor to global warming. As for noise, the same principle that makes the deep notes of the alpenhorn resonate up and down a valley works just as well for the engines of big trucks. Their maddening buzz-saw whine can be muted horizontally by the sound barriers that have been added to many highways, but there is no way to block the sound that the valley walls echo and carry upward.

"Noise you'd barely hear on the flatland at a distance of 400 meters carries up to 2,000 meters in the mountains," said Dr. Klaus Rhomberg of Doctors for the Environment in Innsbruck. This constant undernoise raises blood pressure, shreds nerves, may increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and impairs children's ability to concentrate.

Standing on a bluff above Sauze d'Oulx, one of the Olympic skiing venues in Italy, gave me a great view of the valley—or rather two halves of a valley bisected by the motorway snaking toward France via the Fréjus Tunnel. I was more than 1,100 feet (335 meters) above the highway, and the noise of the truck traffic was just as grating, and possibly louder, than it had been all night a hundred yards away from my hotel window in Bardonecchia.

Traffic is also tiresome. In Matrei, an Austrian village near the Brenner Pass, the narrow main street is always jammed with cars making a detour through town to avoid paying the motorway toll. "Our village is very nice, but sometimes you can't cross the road because car, car, car coming," said Inge Makkawi in careful English. She and her husband were sweeping up swarms of crimson rose petals and fallen blossoms from the driveway of their pension. "Of course transport must be. We can't do without it. Do we want to go back to using a horse? Or carrying goods on our backs? I don't know. I don't know. You can't stop it."

Alpine people like the Makkawis are known for their stoicism, a philosophy crafted for a world of avalanches and isolation but applied now to more modern problems. I talked to a number of people living along the main highway between Germany and Italy, which runs through dozens of Austrian mountain villages on its way south to the Brenner Pass. I was prepared for outrage—and there are protest groups—but mostly I found people like Wilhelm Wagner. He was closing up his pastry shop in Matrei when I felt an urge for some of his chocolate chip ice cream. I asked if the noise from the cars outside bothered him. He smiled and shrugged. "If I complain about them," he said, "then I shouldn't use my car either."

Alf Arnold is less inclined to accept the status quo. I visited him in Altdorf, at the headquarters of his organization, the Alpine Initiative. The organization educates the public about transport issues and lobbies the Swiss government and other Alpine countries to move commercial transit from roads to rails.

Looking out Alf's office window, I could see why. The narrow streets below, in the town's old center, streamed with traffic, including the occasional heavy truck grinding south toward the St. Gotthard Tunnel to Italy. Heavy trucks are forbidden to drive through town, Alf said. But any trucker with an urgent need to avoid checkpoints on the nearby motorway—"maybe he's taken drugs so he can drive for three days on two hours of sleep, or he's got explosive chemicals concealed in his cargo, or his brakes don't work" —takes his chances in Altdorf, where the police are outnumbered and fines intermittent.

"In the referendum of 1994 the Swiss said they wanted to transfer trans-Alpine goods from road to rail within ten years—which would have been 2004," he said. "But then the government extended the deadline another five years. The EU has always wanted 40-ton trucks to go through Switzerland." The trucking lobby is as powerful in Europe as anywhere, constantly reminding legislators of how many cities encircling the Alps—Milan, Munich, Zürich, Grenoble—are crying out for cargo.

There are a few hopeful signs: In 2007 the Lötschberg Base Tunnel is due to open, followed by the Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2015, which at 35 miles (40 kilometers) will be the world's longest. Both will be exclusively rail and will shave at least an hour off trips between France and Germany and Italy. A high-speed rail link between Lyon and Turin is also in the works. But these projects, as often occurs, are technological solutions to a problem that might better be resolved by changing behavior. People want to travel in cars. So on one day last August millions of Italians returning from their summer vacations brought southbound traffic to a dead stop between Bressanone and Trento—a distance of 60 miles (97 kilometers).

With all the people, cars, and trucks swarming over the Alps, it's good to step back once in a while and remember that the mountains themselves are the main characters in this drama. They come chunking out of the flatland and sweep upward, velvety green, in parts of Swiss Engadine and French Savoy; at the Great St. Bernard Pass they're rocky and stark, mountains with their skin ripped off. Even their names—Eiger, Jungfrau, Triglav, Matterhorn—strike the heart like the names of regiments. And yet, amid the fanfare, their essence is also soft and lyrical: the polite clunk of boots knocking against wooden doorframes to loosen the trampled snow, or the mysterious mountain luster, more felt than seen, that poet Gwendolyn Brooks called "giant-shine." The mountains are the central reality of Alpine life—and today they need us as much as we need them.

Léon W. Collet, an early 20th-century professor of geology at the University of Geneva, must have felt something like that. A student recalled that the professor would routinely undertake ambitious climbs in the course of his research, ascents that would paralyze the average weekend wanderer. Yet whenever he reached 13,000 feet (396 meters), Collet would stop to put on a hard white collar and tie.

Was it humility? Gallantry? Superstition? Whatever it was, modern lovers of the Alps might learn something from Dr. Collet. As a geologist, he knew what the mountains were made of. But as a human being, he knew what they demanded. And he certainly didn't intend to aggravate them.