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Freed from the ice

Glacier foreland

Where the glaciers have melted, a new habitat for animals and plants is created within a very short period of time: the area is called “glacier foreland”. Our author has observed the new natural wonders on the edge of Rotmoosferner glacier in Gurgl.

An epic landscape

A herd of Haflinger horses is galloping over the meadows near Schönwieshütte, full of ease and with flowing manes. A green hill, a wide-open valley behind it. Am I really in the Alps? Yes, for sure. Although the landscape of Rotmoostal would fit perfectly into the Scottish Highlands or even Iceland, it is still part of the Ötztal Alps. Everything reminds of an archaic, primeval landscape that has remained almost untouched for ages. The high Alpine valley stretches over four kilometers towards the southeast like a green trough. Only at its end the scree and rock flanks rise towards the rugged peaks in front of the ice fields belonging to Rotmoosferner and Wasserfallferner glaciers.


End of the Ice Age

Both glaciers have retreated significantly in recent years. The rise in temperature can be noticed particularly on these small, eastern Alpine glaciers. And exactly where the ice melted, a new natural habitat is emering. But what will be revealed under the ice? How long does it take for the first life, the first green, and thus a plant and animal world to settle there again?

Gurgl Rotmoostal
Gurgl Schönwieshütte
Gurgl landscape

Change in the smallest of spaces

Today we know that especially the glacier tongues in the lower elevations, which are not covered by rubble, can melt very quickly. The areas freed from the ice are called glacier foreland or forefield. New life develops within a few years. The first bushes and trees are growing at its edges, and dozens of different Alpine flowers are blooming. The roots of this young vegetation stabilize the soil and thus prevent earth, gravel and sand from being washed away during heavy rain and floods. Expert botanist Roland Mayer from the “Ötztal Nature Park” is all enthusiastic: “There are only a few places on earth where nature - flora and fauna - can develop in such a free manner and in such abundance and diversity as in a new glacier foreland. Here, maximum change happens in the smallest of spaces and in the shortest possible time.”


Into Rotmoostal side valley

The well-marked hiking trail branches off to the left up to the ridge of Hohe Mut, but I just keep walking straight ahead. I rarely see footprints in the sand. Ice and water have created small moraine ridges and wind-protected hollows here. I carefully put my steps on the rock. Wherever sand and gravel predominate, splashes of color embellish the gray and brown floor. There are thousands and thousands of tiny flowers taking advantage of the summery light and warmth. Sometimes the violet of the Alpine toadflax prevails, followed by the bright yellow of mountain saxifrage. A few meters further I discover Alpine milkvetch and a small hump overgrown with stemless toadflax. I would never have expected such a huge variety of flowers in this barren terrain.

Leinkraut Ötztal
Ötztal Wundklee

Pure energy of life

What power is there in all the tiny flowers to get through the sand compacted by rain and wind? In this small glacier foreland at almost 2500 meters altitude, you can experience pure evolution every summer. The glacier brook coming out of Rotmoosferner has ramified its way through the valley by shaping the landscape. Sometimes it meanders around gravel banks, a little later there are almost a dozen of single watercourses flowing out of the valley. Even on the islands in between, which consist only of rubble and sand, it’s blooming season in June and July. To the left and right of the glacier brook you find lush green meadows, damp moss and bog areas for which Rotmoostal side valley is so popular. White cotton grass waves in the mild afternoon wind.


"Once upon a time there was a glacier..."

With these words I will probably start a “modern” fairytale for my grandchildren in a few years. It will be a fairytale full of icy adventures and passionate emotions. But one question emerges for sure: Will Rotmoosferner glacier still exist? On some days, the memories I associate with the retreat of the glaciers in the Alps are rather sad. Many ice climbing tours that we were able to go on with boot crampons in our youth – about 40 years ago - are now ice-free mountain tours in midsummer. The glaciers are relentlessly retreating to the high altitudes of the Alps.

Ötztal Alpentragant

Nothing remains as it is

In terms of landscape, Rotmoostal side valley and Hohe Mut peak are characterized by epic beauty. 15 three thousand meter high peaks frame the Alpine ridge of Hohe Mut. 3489 meter tall Hinterer Seelenkogel towers high above the scenery at the rear end of the valley. To the left, there is the triumvirate of Scheiberkogel, Trinkerkogel and Heuflerkogel summits, which have been photographed a thousand times and immortalized on postcards. In the east, peaks such as Granatenkogel, Hochfirst and Liebenerspitze are rising steeply towards the sky. Everything seems like it always was - and yet the landscape has changed enormously. In early summer, large and gleaming white snow fields still cover the ice of the glaciers and, above all, the new and extensive scree slopes. In late summer, when only the snow-free glacier areas at the rear end of the valley can be seen, the full extent of the glacier retreat becomes noticeable.

Past, present and future

Both Rotmoosferner and Wasserfallferner glaciers are not connected to each other any more for many years. Back in the 1980s, their ice flows merged into a broad glacier tongue. In the meantime, Wasserfallferner’s recession has reached the area towards Seelenkogel summit. From Rotmoosferner there are only a few glacier remains below Rotmoosjoch, that are no longer connected. Fatal? Yes and no. Ever since the earth has existed, it has changed its surface. But we humans need the habitats to survive because without nature there is no life for us in the long term.

A great place to indulge

Only a few hundred meters separate me from the sun terrace of Schönwieshütte. Hunger and thirst quickened my pace. Of course, I look for a table with uninterrupted views of Rotmoostal side valley. The sadness at the thought of the receding glaciers is now giving way to enjoyment and confidence. Confidence because I would never have expected so much fresh life back there in such a short time and joy because Rotmoostal is simply beautiful, even with smaller glacier fields. There is no other glacier foreland in Ötztal that is so varied and - thanks to the mountain gondola up to Hohe Mut - so easy to reach.


Nature protection starts with me

Since the earth has existed, there has been change. The old goes, the new arises. Of course, we must direct all efforts towards the protection of our precious nature landscape as resources are limited. But in the end, every single new glacier foreland that is currently emerging in the Alps tells of a small miracle. And - at least from a local perspective – it is a small ecological "happy ending". That should be the biggest incentive for us humans.

Bernd Ritschel

Guest author Bernd Ritschel

Bernd Ritschel loves and has explored the Ötztal Alps since he was a child and young adult. Born in the upper Bavarian village of Wolfratshausen in 1963, now he lives together with his family in Kochel am See. For more than 25 years already, his great passion has been photographing and describing the Ötztal Valley and its adjacent mountain areas.

Several illustrated books about the Ötztal Alps, varied calendars, exhibitions, posters and series of postcards give an insight into his varied talents and the great love for this Alpine region.

Ötztal Magazine

Bernd Ritschel will show you even more natural wonders in the forefield of Rotmoostal glacier in the ÖTZTAL MAGAZINE - Summer 2021. The print magazine with the latest and most interesting stories about Ötztal’s spring, summer and autumn seasons is available free of charge in DE/EN from all Ötztal Tourismus Information Offices.
You can order it HERE and have it delivered to your home or view it as a flip-through brochure.