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August 13th 2019

The power of an inhospitable area

After I had made the tour around Sulden yesterday and had learnt a lot about the surroundings, I went today with the gondola to the mountain station, because I would like to hike from there as far as possible towards the source of the Suldenbach stream. It springs under the Suldenferner, one of the glaciers near the Königspitze that flow towards the valley. It was rather overcast with menacing clouds which hid the mountain tops at the beginning of the valley, the Eisseespitze, the Suldenspitze, the Kreilspitze and the Königspitze, from view. It looked slightly mystic!


Sulden am Ortler: many clouds are hanging over the glaciers of the Köningspitze

I went over a section of the Kultur- und Geschichtenweg, into the direction of the gondola. A part of this trail is the EVOPÄD, an educational and pedagogical trail for all ages: a training course for exercising the seven forms of intelligence, in which the recovery of one’s balance (literally and figuratively speaking) is the focus point. One item I hadn’t paid attention to on Monday was a maze, consisting of five or six circles of stones in the gras, which sometimes were connected with each other, but sometimes they weren’t. It was Phase 6 in that trail (out of 7), the “caveman”. On the information panel was explained that walking in a maze (several times out of it and into it), an ancient symbol of experience for solving life-issues with the help of balance, is a binding factor between our power and our feelings and strengthens our linguistic skills to express ourselves. Identity-building, finding your place in this world, empowered language as to content and expression, the competence to take responsibility… After several attempts to find the right way in those circles – I just got it wrong time after time: which circles continued and which didn’t – I noticed that my inner balance was very much put to the test, so I took a picture of the maze and happily walked on to the gondola… I crossed the bridge over the Suldenbach stream and I could see from a sign that had been folded back that the route by the western side of the valley could be closed in winter because of the danger of avalanches. Then that part of the Kultur- en Geschichtenweg will not be accessible.

The Sulden Gondola consists of two parts: there is a middle station, where one can directly change to the gondola of the next trajectory, There also is a wide track uphill to that middle station and from thereon further to the mountain station. I took the gondola, but I saw however tiny dots on the road far below: hikers who made the trip by foot. Although is was very cloudy, the mountain station and also the quite smaller Schaubachhütte were visible against the background of the low clouds. From the middle station (at 2.172 metres!) the landscape grew more and more barren: there were hardly any trees. The eastern side was still just solid rocks, but at the western side the large, grey moraine of debris that had been carried along by the (nowadays only short) Suldenferner glacier. It was lying like a scar between the green mountain slope more uphill and the valley through which the Suldenbach stream quite white-coloured was flowing. Once at the top, at 2.610 metres, the temperature was only +7°, but there was a phenomenal view on the surroundings, Sulden in the depth and blue skies with white clouds in the north.

A few metres further below is the Schaubach Hut: in Italian it is called Rifugio Città di Milano. It is a large building, painted in a bright shade of pink with an (undoubtedly isolated) roof of metal panels, and with a beautiful view over the moraines of the Ortler glacier. The hut has been built in 1875 and is named after the author, professor, alpinist and geographer from Thüringen Ernst Adolf Schaubach (1800–1850). Accompagnied by a painter and a natural scientist he had done research about the until then scarsely known Eastern Alps and described it in a popular scientific way in his quinquepartite book: “Die Deutschen Alpen” (The German Alps) (1845–1847). In 2014 a plaque with information and a portrait have been placed at the hut. Also this hut has been destroyed during the battles in the First World War. In 1926 the new hut was opend: the Milanese branch of the Italian Alpinists’ Club had taken over the ruins – the new build has been financed with donations from the Milanese citizens – which explains the name in Italian. The views from the Schaubachhütte are impressive, especially with the interaction between light and shade by the sun and the clouds and the extent of the moraines. The gondola arrived at the top again: a tiny dot in comparison to the surroundings, and that despite that this gondola has been considered as the largest in the world. Every gondola, (four in total) can transport 110 persons at the same time!

There are more plaques and memorials on the walls of the hut. There is a cross with a bronze panel from 2015 with a text in cut-out letters: “1915–1918: Im Gedenken an unsere Tiroler Standschützen” (1915–1918: in commemoration of our Tyrolean Standschützen). Another bronze plaque is made as a relief with images of the Gran Zebrù (Königspitze in Italian) and of four tough and proud looking members of the “Comando Provinciale Vigili del Fuoco Reggio Emilia“, the provincial fire brigade, who had climbed the mountain on August 5th 1997.


Above Sulden am Ortler: panoramic views on the scree-covered slopes and the glaciers of the Ortler and Sulden

In the hut it was still quiet, but cosy, and also pleasantly warm. A minestrone with sausage and a large glass of mineral water made the stay even more pleasant! The kitchen here is run by one of the high standards hotels in Sulden, Hotel Post.

Although visibility had not improved, I just started my tour to the glacier. At first the track was wide, not too steep and frequently used. The landscape was green; it would be a long way to the Suldenferner glacier. The mountain tops weren’t visible…

In comparison to the flowers at lower altitude those growing here were much smaller: they were standing bravely and colourful between the short grass ‘though. I still saw the bright blue Spring gentians (Gentiana verna), which I had seen in bloom in early spring above Küblis! They grew between bunches of white Saxifrage (Saxifraga). Next to them there also were short-stemmed Campanulas with large calyxes between the rocks!

When the Schaubachhütte had disappeared from view, after I turned a corner at a large boulder, the trail led into southern direction towards the glacier, over a narrow path made of large pieces of rock, that were however steady. It was quiet, despite of other people hiking on the track. All of a sudden I heard the thundering noise of falling rocks from the opposite side of the valley. Another hiker on the track had heard it too, but we couldn’t see where the rockslide had come down. We walked on, him being somewhat faster than me – at a certain moment he was just a straight, small blue dash against the scree-covered slope. Weg Nr. 171 runs over the Eisseepass to the Casati hut at the other side of the mountain range, a long, steep route, which is not without danger…

Here only a few plants are growing! Protected by rocks a yellow Alpine avens was in bloom, a plant that doesn’t occur in the Netherlands: Geum montanum. This perennial has a long taproot and leathery leaves to protect itself against the harsh (micro-) climate. Another small plant, also protected by two rocks, stood out, a labiate with bright purple flowers, that have bright orange under lips: a Alpine toadflax (Linaria alpina), which is mostly biennual, attaching itself with long roots onto the scree, but also grow on with rhizomes above-ground –also in mini-mini size! Then there is a buttercup, with the appropiate name Glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis), that can survive in scree up to an altitude of 4.000 metres… The stems are short, thick and fleshy with plant saps functioning as anti-freeze. The calyxes are mostly a bright white, but there also are shades from soft pink to deep burgundy red. I have seen many white, but still the pink and burgundy varieties!

The sun was trying to pierce through the clouds, but it wasn’t very successful where I was going – looking back into the direction of the Schaubachhütte and the valley of Sulden it appeared to be the case however: the hut was lying in the bright sunshine!

There was a lot of variation in the rocks: as to colour, chemical composition and size. Erosion had worked its way through many layers of stone and mixed them all. Some rocks obviously are ferrous, because I noticed many rusty brown “smears” in many rocks. A patch of beautiful pink rocks were shining in the somewhat gloomy light. I took a very tiny chunk of it along, because I liked the colour so much. But after a while I decided that I shouldn’t have taken it with me – it actually belongs to these mountains! – and I looked for a spot where the little rock would stand out. At a remarkably large dark grey chunk of rock, on which already a yellow greyish marbled rock was lying I have left my “trophy”. Later on I came across another large rock resembling very much a folded piece of spekkoek, the Indonesian layered cake!

Between all those larger and smaller rocks and fields of scree I hadn’t expected to find any plants, but actually there was a yellow Mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) growing! In a field of snow a lump of yellow-brownish rock was lying with on the inside dark rock in the same yellow-brownish colour, so the difference was only noticeable by the white snow underneath the rock! I tried to come a bit closer to the area where I saw water appearing from underneath the glacier. That didn’t prove to be successful, because I felt my hiking boots being sucked into the muddy soil… That it has happened to a hiker before me was visible from the foot markings in the same puddle, which have been filled with water by then! Between the blue ice clear water was shimmering. So here was one of the sources of the Suldenbach!

The inner peace that I hadn’t felt at the stone maze down in Sulden, I definitely felt here: the energy of these surroundings, which are really inhospitable to survive, was very powerful. It was quiet, except for the soft murmuring of the small water streams – even the soft splashing of drops of meltwater could be heard. That the sun wasn’t shining didn’t bother me much. The diffuse light and the harmonious colours of the rocks, along with the white of the snow and the bluish colour of the glacial ice rendered the atmosphere almost magic and very serene!

On the way back I could just step from rock onto rock, actually without a real track, following the little streams towards the wide road I left on the way up to the glacier mouth over the narrow and stony footpath. Here and there I still spotted patches of ice between the rocks in the bes of the streams! In this – so I thought – unspoiled landscape I unfortunately found a piece of hard foam and a stack of rusty barbed wire… I also saw a rusty piece of twined metal cable lying around: had a hoisting cable fallen out of a helicopter perhaps? The foam was just a shade too bright to fit in between the rocks and the iron wire just too reddish-brown… Somewhere else I noticed that a mini-sized lake had been created: between a few rocks a tiny patch of green moss on the bottom under water and a small yellow Mountain saxifrage was growing next to it!

When I had almost reached the mountain station of the gondola I saw how the wind had made nice symmetrical patrons in the eternal snow and how these lines had been “colourised” with something golden-brown – desert dust? While I was looking at it, I also spotted a wildlife crossing in the snow: I could not see whether there were footprints or also hoofprints in the firm snow. So when all tourists have gone home, wildlife gets on the move!

When I was standing in the gondola again, with many others, to return to the valley, we saw beneath us at first one Murmeltier pottering in and around its burrow, but we spotted the other one that had been sitting completely still, only later. Everybody started pointing and shouting that there was still another one – in many languages, but we all enjoyed watching those adorable animals with their beautiful brownish-black fur that were minding their own business and weren’t bothered by the noise from the gondola!

The fourth suggestion my friends had given me was to have a Bauerntoast at the restaurant Ski Alm at the valley station in Sulden: very nice according to the friends. That will be for a next time: in and around Sulden there is still so much to do and to experience, that I will certainly return!