Michael Cranmer explores Inside The Hintertux Glacier above Austria’s Ziller Valley
Come with me and explore the Lost World INSIDE the Hintertux Glacier, an icy labyrinth of caves, lakes, frozen waterfalls, and glittering tunnels 3,288m above the Ziller valley in Austria.
Its astonishing discovery was made only 15 years ago by Roman Erler, of the adventure travel company Natursport Tirol, who has made it possible to explore the intricate network entered by an unprepossessing passageway only metres away from the topmost ski lift of the Hintertux glacier.
Roman warned me that there’s only 14.3 % oxygen up here compared to sea level, making any exertion a bit of a struggle. Boots with a good grip are essential – there’s lots of ladders and slippery passages. It’s possible, but tricky in ski boots, as I soon discovered.
Feeling like Professor Otto Lidenbrock in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth I took my first tentative steps into what Roman calls Nature’s Ice Palace. The entrance hall inside the Hintertux Glacier radiates turquoise glacier blue from natural sunlight, the sole colour reflected by the ice.
The chamber sparkles with ice crystals of all sizes and shapes constantly changing with moisture and temperature differences. The floor is a frozen glacial lake leading into a red-lit ice chapel complete with votive cross. The tunnel curves inwards as does the roof, my ski helmet protecting me from a bashing, and winds past natural piercings, ice windows formed by a latticework of frozen stalactites and stalagmites. It’s like a giant mad Swarovski fantasy, but instead of glass, it’s natural ice.
Next a descent by an aluminium ladder through a tight chute, which I manage by facing into the ladder, feeling for the treads by kicking my boots until I connected.
A curious feature inside the Hintertux Glacier is the constant temperature of 0°C 365 days a year. Outside might be -15°C or +20°C but inside the glacier it’s always zero due to the stability of the “Gefrorene Wand” (Frozen Wall) which forms one side of the glacier.
Eventually, we come to the actual “Ice Palace” deep below the ski slopes, a 15m high ceiling, and a stream running through. Such an extreme environment naturally attracts its share of ‘extremists’.
It was here that free-diver Christian Redl was the first to dive 23m into a flooded ice shaft without a compressed air bottle, and swimmer Josef Koeberl attempted to complete an Ice Mile swim in -0.23°C water.
He swam for 38 minutes and completed a total of 1,511m, just short of the 1,609m high-altitude Ice Mile. How is that possible, in that cold, over that distance? By completing 32 laps of the 50m stream that I was now looking at. C’mon Josef, only another 98m to go.
Ever the innovator, Roman takes corporate group ‘team building’ bookings and offers SUPing (stand-up-paddleboarding) on the underground lake below the pistes. “What happens if I fall off?” I asked him. “Just don’t!” he answered with an enigmatic smile. Phew.
As I re-emerged from the fantastic icy world into the sunlight it felt akin to being resuscitated…I was glad to be alive. Time for a ski!
A glacier is a necessity for any forward-looking ski resort. The steady retreat of low-altitude snow means more pressure on higher areas. Hintertux is open all year and the quality of the snow can be superb.
Many international ski teams train here. Of course, it can get brutal with high-altitude winds and bitter temperatures to drive all thoughts of skiing from your mind. But today was beautiful, expertly prepped pistes and sunshine, with views away, away up the Ziller Valley.
The runs are wide open, with a mixture of mostly reds and blues, one black, but always dependent on the weather. At this elevation ice is a factor, so mid-morning often yields the best snow quality. If in doubt, ask a pisteur or instructor. After my Journey to the Center of the Earth, an early lunch was non-negotiable. And what a lunch!
A special VIP spread had been laid out in one of the Brettljause gondolas; gingham tablecloth, freshly baked breads, beers, cold meats, pastries, and, naturally, schnapps.
One minute I was deep inside a glacier, the next going round-and-round in a gondola, eating Austrian goodies, as bemused members of the public looked in at each revolution of the lift.
Enough excitement for one day; time to retreat to the calm and comfort of the five-star Elisabeth Hotel in Mayrhofen, via two lift descents and a 40-minute bus ride. The Zillertal Ski Area is large, spread out, and somewhat confusing to interpret on piste maps.
I’ve been there three times and still struggle with orientation. That said, there’s fine skiing to be had in all weathers and snow conditions. From the Rastkogel, top spot in the sector, it’s possible to ski from 2,500m down to the town at a mere 630m, conditions allowing…which they weren’t on this visit in late March, the snow vanishing faster than Jäger bombs in an après ski bar.
All the more reason to head high Inside the Hintertux Glacier.
Tell Me More About Inside The Hintertux Glacier
Nature’s Ice Palace at the Hintertux Glacier is a year-round destination for the whole family with children over 6, only a short walk from the top station of the Glacierbus 3 lift. Guided tour bookings essential:
Nearest airport Innsbruck: