In this extract from 'The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World', James Crawford travels in search of the Grafferner glacier, which forms part of the borderline between Austria and Italy. When this glacier moves, the border moves too. Since 2005 it has been constituted in law as a confine mobile – a 'moving border'. A border defined and shaped by gravity, and now melting and slipping at an alarming rate due to the impacts of climate change…
It was seven in the morning, early September, just a few hundred metres north of the Italian–Austrian border on the Hochjochferner glacier.
I was roped to the mountain guide, Robert Ciatti. Robert is now in his sixties, a lithe, sinewy, almost elfin figure. He had thick, wavy grey hair and his skin was a deep, nut brown, save for a patch of mottled, sun-damaged pink on the end of his nose. He led the way and I followed, our crampons crunching through the snow, occasionally ringing out high, discordant notes as the metal hit patches of exposed stone.
The Hochjochferner, Robert told me, has shrunk in size by more than two thirds over the last century and a half. He gestured down into the valley, waved his hand along the dark-brown funnel of exposed rock that ran far off into the northeastern distance.
'Once,' he said, 'the ice filled up all of it.'
At that moment, a long thread of white cloud was nestled on the valley floor. Like a taunt. Or a visitation. A ghost of the glacier now gone.
Ice cover in the Alps reached its greatest recorded extent around the mid-nineteenth century, at the end of what is known as the Little Ice Age. The trend since then has been accelerating disappearance. Half of the glacier landscape from 1850 has vanished. Two thirds of this reduction took place over the course of a century and a quarter. The remaining third has happened in just the last thirty years. Where I was, in the Ötztal Alps, the total glaciated area decreased by just over 30 per cent between 1983 and 2006: from some 130 square kilometres of ice down to a little over ninety.
In the last thirty years, over the whole of the South Tyrol, nineteen glaciers have melted away to nothing. The number of glacier 'parts' has increased – from just over 200, to just over 300. But this is no sign of a resurgence. Rather, it shows the inevitability of ice-sheet fragmentation. Glaciers are splitting off into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming a fractured mosaic of sheets and plates, all dwindling and receding.
To reach the highest section of the Hochjochferner, we had to climb. The way up was by via ferrata, a series of steel cables, rungs and ladders fixed tightly to the rock of the cliff. At nearly 3,000 metres, it was hard, breathless going. The cables were still coated with a film of clear ice, the rocks slick underfoot. By the time we reached the top, the sun had broken through and the clouds had dissipated. Ahead was the largest remaining section of the glacier. It had caught and held the previous night's snowfall and appeared as a blank white sheet.
The reflected glare was fierce. It was just after nine o'clock now and I could feel the heat building. The snow was already softening, melting into tiny pools all over the glacier's rocky margins. As we set off across the surface again, I could see that it was not as pristine as I had first thought. In places, where the slope steepened, it broke apart into a series of long wrinkles.
Not long after, Robert held up his hand for me to stop. He poked at a patch of snow with his sticks and it gave way a little, then disintegrated, dropping down into a small black hole. He tested the surface around it and then nodded to himself.
'It's okay,' he said. 'Just watch your feet.'
He stepped across and I followed. The hole was half a pace wide, but I made the mistake of looking down into it as I passed over. There was no bottom. It just descended into a profound, dizzying nothingness. A tiny breach, yet I heard the echo of my movement come back up as I walked away, calling after me.
We passed around a long spine of rock which rose to join the high ridgeline, and turned to move alongside it, beginning to walk directly upwards. We had left the Hochjochferner behind now, and were on the surface of another glacier, the Kreuzferner. There was a kilometre to go to reach the ridgeline, up a glaciated slope that rose in altitude by another 300 metres. The snow was deeper and softer, and it started to feel very warm out on the bright-white mountainside. But Robert kept up his steady pace, our crampons crunching in rhythm. We talked little, just concentrated on moving, snatching breaths from the thinning air.
Up above us, in the near distance, I could see a black outcrop, topped by a tall wooden post. Soon we were stepping off the glacier and onto rock. We made our way up towards the post, which juts up from a tiny plateau. Now, at last, we could rest. This was as high as we would go: 3,278 metres above sea level.
I bent down to remove my crampons and Robert brushed at the ground in front of me. He revealed a flat stone plaque, fixed by iron clamps. Carved on the plaque were the letters 'I' and 'Ö': Italia and Österreich. The 'I' sat within an arrow, two lines pointing up like a child's drawing of a roof. But this was not just a symbol. This was the exact location and route of the border. We were standing on the watershed, on the reality of the line.
Robert told me that the plaques were constantly having to be replaced. Not because of the extreme conditions, but because of vandalism. The enduring legacy of a century ago when, in one of the many carve-ups following the First World War, this stretch of Alpine ridgeline became, for the very first time, the border between Austria and Italy. Periodically, the plaques are defaced, scored through, or shattered into pieces. The 'materiality' of the border attacked by those who still object to 'their mountains' being split in two.
After a while we set off again, downwards now. We were still following the borderline. It ran south, and we were just a few paces to the west of it, on the Italian side. There are no glaciers left on these south-facing slopes, not even any large slabs or plates of ice. The warming world has taken them, and rock is in charge now. It was a shattered, chaotic landscape: the mountainside entirely covered in fragments, big and small, broken-off and broken-up.
We dropped down into a small gulley where the slope flattened out and there were high rock walls on either side. As the Alpine glaciers have melted and disappeared over the past decades, they have also given up their secrets. It is more than just rocks and the watershed that have re-emerged. Fragments of the past have been released by the ice too. Robert pulled out a photograph, held it over a flat, empty patch of snow right in front of where we were standing. It was a picture of this exact spot thirty years ago.
The image was surreal, macabre, even. Two hikers, in garish, Day-Glo clothing, were squatting down in the gulley. At their feet was a body. The body was a dull orange, the same colour as the surrounding rocks. Only its upper half was visible: its back and shoulders, arms and head. It looked somehow shrunken, withered. It was face down, but its arms were stretched ahead of it and off to one side, as if it was trying to haul itself out of the ice, drag itself back into the world.
This body, as it turned out, was not a lost climber or hiker – or at least not a recent one. It belonged to a man estimated to be over 5,000 years old, preserved, up until the moment of his release, as a 'wet mummy', encased within the glacial ice. He was known, at first, as Homo tirolensis, or the 'glacier corpse' (his name on the official government form recording his discovery). Today, he has a new name: Ötzi, the 'Iceman'. A compression of 'Ötztal' and 'yeti'.
His new home is the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in the city of Bolzano. There he lies, face up, on a slab of opaque glass, in a small room with white-tiled walls, which looks not unlike the interior of an igloo. This room is surrounded by pipes filled with a mixture of water and antifreeze, which keep the interior temperature at an unwavering -6°C.
The level of care undertaken by the museum is remarkable. Ötzi is covered by a thin, frozen film, the result of a sprinkler system that douses him regularly with sterilised water, to prevent his body from losing its humidity. Every month, the same square centimetre of his skin is photographed. Images are compared with previous photographs using special software to check for even the most minute changes in luminosity, colour and deformation.
It occurred to me that Ötzi's body has become, in a sense, like the landscape of the Alps in microcosm. Tiny glaciers fill the ridges, valleys, depressions and expanses of his flesh and bones. They are monitored and maintained in prefect equilibrium, constantly replenished and reformed, never allowed to melt or diminish. Ötzi can survive indefinitely, in an artificial, climate-controlled box. Whereas for the mountain glaciers, those immense ice blocks that once preserved him, there is no climate control. The temperature rises, and they just continue to disappear, one after another.
I paced around the gulley for a while, tried to imagine what happened here. A man's body, lying at 3,000 metres, just at the exact period, around 3,300 BC that global temperatures started to cool. A peculiar and very particular combination of circumstances allowed the ice to take him and keep him, hold him for millennia, and then let him go, to return as a figure out of time. It seemed to me, at once, so unlikely, and so easy. You could just sit down, rest your back against one of those gulley walls, and do the same. Except that won't work now. The ice isn't there to take you. And the rock just doesn't care.
It was time to move on. Robert led off to the east, where the borderline became a defined, marked path. We were on the high, narrow ridge that overlooks the Tisen Pass, the main hiking route south into Italy. It took us over shattered, uneven terrain, the way ahead often disintegrating into heaped masses of precariously stacked slabs. At last, the ridge dipped down steeply to meet a flat saddle of land. There, with the dark bulk of Similaun rising up behind, was the mountain hut.
We went inside for soup and a beer, then came back out onto the terrace to sit in the warm sunshine. Robert pointed down at the rocks below us. The Grafferner was only another couple of kilometres away, over Similaun's peak, on the mountain's southeastern flank. Facing us, on its northwestern slope, was the Niederjochferner glacier. Thirty years ago, Robert told me, the Niederjochferner reached all the way up to the door of the mountain hut. Now, from where we were sitting, you couldn't even see its edge anymore. It had receded hundreds of metres into the distance, over on the other side of a rocky rise.
After a short rest, we began the descent into Italy. The Tisen Pass was a red, raw landscape, a barren boulder field, cut through by a fast-flowing, meltwater stream. Heat throbbed off the stones. High-pitched marmot calls pierced the air. Far below was my guest-house, on the slopes overlooking Lake Vernago. From up in the pass, the surface of the lake was a striking, almost unreal shade of teal. The sound of the stream filled the valley, growing from a rumble to a full-throated roar. It was the sound of the departing ice.
Beginning with the earliest known marker which denoted the end of one land and the beginning of the next, Crawford follows the story of borders into our fragile and uncertain future – towards the virtual frontiers of the internet, and the shifting geography of a world beset by climate change. In the process, he travels to many borders old and new: from a melting border high in the glacial landscapes of the Austrian-Italian Alps to the only place on land where Europe and Africa meet; from the artist Banksy's 'Walled Off Hotel' in the conflict-torn West Bank to the Sonoran Desert and the fault lines of the US/Mexico border.
The Edge of the Plain explores how borders have grown and evolved to take control of our landscapes, our memories, our identities and our destinies. As nationalism, climate change, globalisation, technology and mass migration all collide with ever-hardening borders, something has to give. And Crawford asks, is it time to let go of the lines that divide us?