My story about the Alps is out. It’s been a trip of pure Gonzo Alpinism* all over the wild heart of Europe.
I went to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Bavaria. And partly down (and up) memory lane: I managed to reconnect to the farmers in a remote valley where we spent our summer vacations in 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, living under the same roof, helping out with making hay, baking bread, getting honey from the neighbors, the full monty.
One of our family rambles ended up as a photo in a book by climbing legend Reinhold Messner („Klettersteige Ostalpen“, 1978). That book sparked a stampede into the mountains, something Messner loathed. So he took the book off the market. But I still had my copy. He signed it for me when I met him on one of his castles near Bolzano two weeks ago. I am so thankful that my adventurous, wonderful parents took us three kids to Südtirol over and over and took us up to a couple of peaks, thus giving us three lowlanders from Hannover (55m above see level), a second Heimat away from home in the Alps.
Here’s a little video I made of our conversation with Messner:
The 1200 km long crescent is technically the product of a collision between Europe and Africa, the Matterhorn for example is African, geologists insist. The lovely Edelweiss, too, epitome of regionalist nostalgia for a better past and Heimatseligkeit, is an immigrant from Asia after the last ice age. But here’s the thing: The Alps are what they are because of an influx of new people, ideas and botanical tourists.
Whenever I could, I went back to the mountains. After having spent many summers as a kid in the Alps, I joined a transalpine „Alpenüberquerung“ hike with my awesome sports teacher Welf Haase, who also tought us free climbing. On that Alpine crossing my attire was close to what Günter Aloys used to call „rotweißes Wanderschwein“, a hiker with a predilection for red-and-white plaid. Guilty as charged, but I didn’t care, as long as I was up there.
Years later, I lived in Reichenhall and Berchtesgaden (Bavaria) for nearly two years when I worked with the Red Cross in my early twenties. Then I went on to get my degrees in geography, science journalism and American studies. Geography I liked not because I know all capitals by heart (I am often at a loss. Berne? Really?). I always liked spatial thinking, I used that approach for my books on memorial landscapes in Germany („Böse Orte“) and on inspiring Meccas of Modernity and Science („Mekkas der Moderne„).
Although I had spent some time in the Alps, I was surprised at every turn during my trip this time. The Alps, for one thing, are home to over 14 million people, that’s roughly the size of London. Urbanization and demographic change is happening twice as fast as in the rest of the Alpine countries on average. And climate change, too, is happening at twice the speed of the global average, so far temperatures in the Alps have risen by 2 degrees centigrade. The reason for this speeded-up change? Self-reinforcing processes in an extreme environment where little initial changes often beget big consequences.
What is even more striking: Many mountain farmers are struggling. They need to work in the tourism industry on the side. And tourism is getting more globalized. So you could argue: Globalization is saving traditional mountain farms (Almbauern). I never made that connection. It would be great to get some geographers, maybe from the amazing institutes in Innsbruck or Grenoble, to research that connection.
Take places like Interlaken, Engelberg, Zermatt or Salzburg, for example, catering to a colorful crowd of visitors from all over the place: Japan, India, UAE, you name it. Many people working in those hotspots of globalisation use that money to finance their lives as part time small holding farmers in the mountains for the rest of the year. I met a couple of them. But then again: Even the fiercest critics of tourism often overestimate the importance of travel, maybe because they, as travellers, live in a bubble, albeit angrily so: Only around 10 percent of the Alpine economy is tourism-related. So even if the tourism industry is helping in some cases with preserving wildlife or farms, tourism can only do so much. Other sectors of the economy, and politics, of course, may be way more important than what is most visible to the wanderer’s eye.
The Alps are changing fast, climate change is twice as fast (ca. 2 degrees centigrade) as the global average. They are not a museum of a better, more quiet past, but rather: a futuristic innovation lab, a crash course in change management for plants, animals and humans.
So. I consider my article to be part of a work in progress. I would love to report again about new and noteworthy research, projects, conflicts: avalanche protection, winter wild fires, wolves, Periurbanisierung, Parahotellerie. Let me know if you have new, relevant, hard hitting stuff I could write about. Also, I am interested in all maps and data that span ALL of the Alps. They are so rare. What I can recommend are books like „Gletscher im Treibhaus“ and „Bildatlas Alpen„.
Any article can only provide so much insight. My article in Der Spiegel can only be a first start – if that. So if you want to find out more about the Alps yourself (after getting a copy of Der Spiegel of course), why not join a trekking tour from Vienna to Nice, where they will arrive on September 29th, to have a beach party (weather permitting). They call themselves „Whatsalp„; but they are impossible to google because Sergey Brin tends to send you in the direction of a messaging app. You can check where the Whatsalp team is right now here.
Here are some links to places, people, apps ’n stuff that I mention in the article:
Whoever might be interested: Here’s the link to Helga’s Alm.
This is a great AR app that tells you the names of the mountain peaks around you: Peakfinder.
This is a great map ressource for hikers: Mapout.
Here’s a link to the movie „Nordwand„. Pretty intense stuff, beware. Some people have trouble sleeping after watching it.
What to read? Maybe start with „Die Alpen“ by Werner Bätzing.
Also a great read, more focused on Alpine culture: Jon Mathieu, „Die Alpen – Raum, Kultur, Geschichte„.
Me on Watzmann Mittelspitze with another Gonzo Alpinist
- „Gonzo Alpinism“ is a neologism that the science historian Philipp Felsch („Laborlandschaften„) from Berlin came up with. He uses it to distinguish the classic, athletic forms of leisure on the Playground of Europe from a more open ended, contemporary, relaxed form of travel. Reinhold Messner’s next ten Mountain Museums should be exclusively dedicated to Gonzo Alpinism, some think.