In the belly of the glacier: ice cave in Switzerland
EIce – the term is used cautiously in times of climate change. In any case, the name does not apply to the Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss canton of Valais, 22 kilometers long and Unesco World Heritage. Because its volume is decreasing, the longest ice stream in the Alps is slowly but surely melting.
For 20 years, Martin Fischer, as operations manager at 3571 meters above sea level in the Sphinx Observatory research station on the Jungfraujoch, watched the Aletsch Glacier grow and grow. The fact that the ice is getting less can no longer be argued away, he says. Four to five meters of snow fell on the Jungfraujoch each year, previously it was up to 16 meters.
For a glacier, it takes a lot of snowfall, explains Fischer, and has done so for centuries. This snow is transformed into coarse-grained firn by melting and re-freezing, with air channels running through it. Only when these air veins close, due to running and freezing water, the glacier status is reached. Its ice is practically impermeable to water.
To take a closer look at this ice, you can crawl into the stomach of the Aletsch Glacier. You don’t have to book an expedition for this, just a ticket to the Jungfraujoch (which may seem similar in price, from Interlaken there and back you pay more than 200 Swiss francs).
At the top you walk into the ice palace. As early as the 1930s, mountain guides began to cut cave passages in the glacier ice with ice axes and saws. The walls shimmer blue, the cold is clear here. The annual rings of the glacier lead into the past – in the form of brown veins that run through the blue: Sahara sand, flown here centuries ago. The 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull can also be seen in the ice.
In theory, this frozen layer of dust will still be seen hundreds of years from now. In practice, however, the glacier will no longer exist. Because, see above: It melts. And with it the milled niches in which deer, birds and other figures are now standing around, carved out of crystal-clear ice supplied by an ice cream factory in Interlaken.
It’s not a shame about this kitsch decoration, but about the glacier. If it really did go away, Europe would have lost an inestimable natural heritage. In any case, Swiss researchers fear that by the year 2100 only a few measly ice fields will remain.
Happy crazy: ice swimming in Finland
Polls keep saying that the happiest people in the world are the Finns. Maybe they are some of the craziest, and maybe both are related, being crazy and being happy. In any case, it seems pretty crazy to swim between ice floes and have fun.
In fact, it’s supposed to be healthy. At least that is confirmed by a study from 2004, which says: “Regular winter swimming improves general well-being.” At that time, however, only 49 Finnish winter swimmers took part – perhaps not a very representative starting point. But the Finns believe in it.
In Helsinki, for example, where it is dark and cold for a long time in winter and the Baltic Sea regularly freezes over, you can first go to the sauna at the harbor and then step into the sea. And in the “Allas Sea Pool”, where you can cool off after every sauna session in the unheated seawater pool, which is open all winter.
Should the water freeze on the surface, the ice is simply cracked open. Even if the thermometer shows minus 20 degrees, the water in the ice hole still measures plus two or three degrees. There is also a freshwater pool floating in the sea, but the water there is 27 degrees – and is not suitable for cooling down.
There are other places around Helsinki for ice swimming, and there are even competitions, for example on the small island of Uunisaari on the southern coast of the capital. In total, Finland has a good 200 ice swimming clubs on the Baltic Sea and in the inland areas with countless lakes, which also reliably freeze over in winter.
No club membership is required to go ice bathing: You don’t need more than a frozen lake or the icy Baltic Sea on your doorstep, except of course a chainsaw, with which you can mill your own pool into the ice and swim in it for a few strokes, often garnished with sharp points Scream.
Untrained people should only swim for a few seconds, a maximum of a few minutes, and only step into the water slowly. And the Finns give one more piece of advice: Cheer up! You shouldn’t immerse yourself in ice water, and wearing a hat is also recommended. Otherwise you cool down too quickly.
Aiming high: ice climbing in Austria
Anyone who has always wanted to climb a waterfall should do so in winter. And travel to the Ötztal – that offers dozens of waterfalls that freeze in the cold season and are suitable for ice climbing. You need at least some climbing experience, the right equipment – and nerves. Because such a waterfall tour is no walk in the park.
It is secured with long screws that are screwed into the ice, safety carabiners and rope are attached to them. The climbers hold an ice ax in each hand and take turns hitting the waterfall with it. However, not with too much oomph so that the whole ice curtain does not come towards you, but also not with too little, because otherwise the pimple’s teeth will not grip.
Getting there takes practice, strength, and confidence. Crampons are worn on the boots, the front teeth of which are kicked into the ice. So you stand there on a vertical ice surface, held in place by a few metal spikes.
Ice cream is not just ice cream. When it’s too cold, ice splinters like glass, can jump in your face, sharp-edged like a broken mirror. But if it is too warm, ice becomes water, as is well known. It then runs towards the climbers at the front of the waterfall, and if you are unlucky, it also runs along the back between the ice and rocks – and threatens to detach the ice wall from the rock. If you don’t know your way around, you shouldn’t go on a tour without a mountain guide.
In the Ötztal you can book such guided climbing tours, including the necessary equipment. Workshops on ice climbing techniques are also offered in the ice climbing park in Oberried. In total there are more than 40 places for ice climbing in the valley, some with bizarre names like Milchschnitte or Cold Shower. The annual highlight is the “Vertical on Ice” ice climbing festival; the next one is scheduled for the end of January 2022.
Whiz through Masuria: ice sailing in Poland
Anyone looking for a challenge as a sailor is on the ice. Of course, this requires real winters – no problem in Masuria. In the ice winter of 1929, 42 minus degrees were measured in Treuburg (today Olecko) in the far east of Masuria. Temperatures of 20 degrees below zero are still not uncommon today. So it’s no wonder that the Masurian lakes are Europe’s largest ice sailing area.
The tradition of ice sailing in the region, which was part of East Prussia and was German until 1945, goes back to the sawmill owner Georg Tepper from the village of Ogonken (now Ogonki) on the Schwenzaitsee. Tepper reached a record speed of 170 kilometers per hour with his self-constructed wooden ice-sledges, which raced across the ice on razor-sharp runners.
The ice sailing weeks he initiated became the largest ice sailing event in Europe from 1929 onwards. The centers of Polish ice sailors today are Nikolaiken (Mikolajki) on the Spirdingsee and Rydzewen (Rydzewo) on the Saitensee. Here you can rent ice sailing boats and have the technology explained to you.
And then off you go, preferably with a helmet and a thick ski suit: the wind hurls the wooden vehicle with its fluttering sail over the dark ice like a catapult. As fast as an arrow it rushes back and forth across the ideally mirror-smooth ice surface on scratching runners, but a little snow is not a problem either. One is in a rush of speed, because neither the ice-cold feet nor the pain that the icy wind burns in the face bothers.
Chopin – a Polish vodka – is recommended to warm up.
On ice skates: ice skating in Swedish Lapland
Sure, you can skate in halls, always in a circle. It is far nicer in nature when you can do really long laps on frozen lakes. Another completely different issue is ice-skating for kilometers – it is practiced in northern Scandinavia, in Swedish Lapland, in Luleå high up on the Gulf of Bothnia.
There an ice track spans the city in winter, it leads from one port to the other and then out into the Bothnian archipelago to the island of Gråsjälören. Tourists and locals can use the ten-kilometer-long ice rink every day for ice hiking, sledding, running, and skating; sometimes you can even see riders on the ice.
And on the edge of the polished stretch, you repeatedly come across ice anglers who hold out for hours in the cold only to pull a fish out of the drilled ice hole at the end. The Isbanan (in German: ice rink) can be used as long as the ice measures one meter. Winter in Luleå usually lasts from October to May, and the ice is usually thick enough from December.
You don’t have to be afraid of cold feet: At the edge of the ice rink, small stalls offer Glögg, the Swedish mulled wine, ideal for warming up.