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snow of tomorrow

Snow of tomorrow | Wild, wild Alps - or not?

Are the Alps the wilderness we think they are?

by Lisa Amenda 01/11/2021
Wild, untouched nature far away from human civilization: in our ideal image, the Alps are still this deserted space today. But why do we long so much for the so-called wilderness and when did the Alps become a cultural area?

Now everything is quiet. Everything is quiet. The noise of the engines has remained in the valley. The rattling of the gondolas entering the lift station - miles away. Only the rustling of my hardshell trousers reminds me of civilization. The brushing of my skins and the cracking of my bindings on technology. Man-made technology that enables me to walk up here without any major obstacles. To the Rotspitze in the Montafon. I wonder what it was like for Ernest Hemingway back then? He spent his winters here in the mid-20s. To go ski touring, to write, to enjoy the picturesque mountain landscape of the Silvretta and to escape the hustle and bustle. From everyday life. From the city. Off into the untouched wilderness of the Austrian Alps.

The Alps: Central European wilderness?

And for me too, the Alps are a symbol of Central European wilderness. When I stand on the summit of the Rotspitze, for me at that moment it's just the mountains and me. When I support myself with my poles and enter the slope, there is only the next (hopefully) powder turn and the feeling of the melting snow on my cold cheeks. My floating ski tips on an untracked slope. Not another skier's soul far and wide. Or rather, not in my line of sight.

Because what looks like untouched wilderness in the snowy winter months resembles an inner-city construction site in the summer months. Steel supports protrude from the rocks. Barren aisles have been cut into the former forest and huts, restaurants and apres-ski bars have been carved into the slopes. Pure wilderness. The solitude. No longer exists.

The dream of wilderness

And yet the Alps exert this attraction on many people. At weekends, they now queue up in traffic jams kilometers away from the cities. To experience the solitude of the Alps with many like-minded people. You could say that the Alps are booming in every respect. Skiing, hiking, mountain biking. It doesn't matter. The main thing is to get out of the city and the main thing is to do it every weekend. Scientists around the world are already interested in this phenomenon and the effects that nature has on people's bodies and minds: According to National Geographic, they found that regular time spent in nature reduces the risk of illness, boosts mental performance and lowers psychological stress. But what am I telling you? For us, skiing is primarily associated with making turns in mountain ranges. I would argue that the ski hall wouldn't have such an appeal to us.

But what is this wilderness that we've been longing for so much recently? Deutsche Umwelthilfe defines it as: "Wilderness - these are extensive areas in which natural processes can take their course unperturbed." And Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's German dictionary has the following definition: "uninhabited, impassable area [...], also a rough or overgrown cultural region." However, only around four percent of the Alps as we know them today are still this legendary wilderness. The rest is cultivated landscape. Something the Brothers Grimm also spoke of.

The Alps as a cultural space

According to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA), today's landscape in the Alps is the result of a close relationship between human activities and natural developments. The landscape of the Alps has been shaped by agriculture and mountain pasture farming for more than a thousand years. The Alps are an evolved cultural area that is also dependent on tourism as a form of economic activity.

Hunters and gatherers were followed by shepherds, who drove the first herds of sheep and goats across the meadows as early as the Neolithic period. According to CIPRA, some botanists are even of the opinion that the forest ceiling in the French Southern Alps is so low because shepherds with small herds of cattle were there early on, preventing the development of the forest. The forests themselves have also been managed since time immemorial: spruce trees were preferred and conifers were generally felled at an adult age, so that so-called cultivated forests rather than natural forests could develop. At the same time, the population increased and with it the arable land. Since the Neolithic Age, cereals have been the basis of food for the Alpine population. Around 1850, the population in the villages of the Alps peaked. This was followed by migration from the mountain regions. This led to an increase in cattle farming. The arable land became hay meadows and thus the alpine pastures we know today.

Under the influence of man

Since the 18th century, the Alps have been a place of longing in which nature plays a disproportionate role. However, since the retreat of the glaciers, man has had a decisive influence on the appearance of the Alps. Of course, the population density in the Alps is not as high as elsewhere and the rugged peaks, wide valleys, narrow gorges and, above all, the small-scale nature of the various types of landscape is impressive. It is understandable that many people are attracted by the roughness of the mountains, the unknown, the exotic. It's no different for us. Even if we've been skiing in the mountains for years, it's above all nature that keeps bringing us back to our skis. It's that feeling that with every metre of altitude covered, you leave civilization a little behind. This is what attracted people in the 18th century and still attracts them today. However, we should be aware that we are not leaving the Alps in their original state with this very behavior, but that we are also influencing them with every step we take.

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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