Roundup: Glacier Regions Coronavirus Update From Italy, Ecuador, and Pakistan

In Italy…

The worst of the coronavirus outbreak appears to be over, for now. Last week The New York Times reported that thanks to the nationwide lockdown, the number of I.C.U. patients had dropped to 2,812 by Friday, and coronavirus hospitalizations had fallen from a high of 29,010 patients on April 4 to 25,786. Those figures reflect “a steady decline in one of the world’s hardest-hit countries.” GlacierHub has kept up with dispatches from South Tyrol, one of the most impacted glacier regions in the world. A post in Sepp Laner’s fourth corona diary, “Horses Rather Than Guests,” was published in the Schlanders-based media outlet der Vinschger, in the Italian Alps. The stirring post (translated from German) reads:

Everything will be fine? Yes, everything will be fine. “Alles wird gut.”
The only question is when. Nobody knows the exact answer yet. But we hope and believe that it is clear that everything will be fine again.
The message hangs from balconies of houses and apartments, on the social support agency, at the community center and in many other places. Besides saying that everything is fine, the colors of the posters also stand out. There are bright and happy colors that convey hope. There is silence in the air.
Quiet, that actually fits well with today’s Holy Saturday, the day of the Lord’s rest in His grave.  And when it gets quiet all around, we listen and we can observe things that otherwise almost always go unnoticed. On the meadow in front of the local hotel that I see from the balcony, it was always teeming with children who were playing there, taking part in their Easter vacation brimming with holiday kids playing. Now it’s the horses of the nature-based riding school, who graze there and chase flies away with their tails.

Lake Garda, where thousands of vacationers, including some from our province, rush around each year at this time, there is nothing. Also the international three-country race at Schöneben (a ski race right at the point where Italy, Austria and Switzerland meet, with a route that includes all three countries), which is always takes place on Easter Monday has been, swallowed by the coronavirus, like the Haflinger horse race in Meran and countless other fixed events. Social, sporting, cultural, religious and economic life has had a veil put over it. Everything is covered. Almost nothing is fixed. Everything flows, said Heraclitus. What will flow after this year and beyond, nobody can say. It will be years, if not decades, until the
material and spiritual wounds that the virus is tearing open around the world will heal.  I can’t give up the hope that we have a better world. “Everything will be fine,” old Max calls out from the top floor of the civic center. He holds up four fingers up, and with this gesture  says, “We’ve been ‘locked up’ here for 4 weeks.” Nobody is allowed in, nobody out. It is certain is that this time will find its end. In this sense, every day we allow to pass in a disciplined and “well-behaved” way is a small success. The countdown is running.

In Ecuador…

As of April 19, reported cases are concentrated in the Pacific Coast region. In the highlands, where there are a number of glaciated peaks, cases are primarily in the larger towns. Only two largest cities have more than 100 cases––the capital city of Quito with 757, and Cuenca, with a population of 1.6 million, has 193 confirmed cases. The coastal city of Guayaquil, by comparison, has 4,822 out of a population of 2.3 million––Ecuador’s largest city.

Lack of tests and challenges to organizations that report deaths show significant undercounting and large demand at funeral homes in Ecuador. Preference of some families to bury their dead in hometown ceremonies has challenged lockdown efforts. Police checkpoints on roads to limit movement have complicated efforts of families to bring the bodies of relatives home for burial. In the tweet below, police inspect a truck transporting hidden bodies of people from Guayaquil home to mountain provinces of Chimborazo and Tungurahua.

In Riobamba, the situation in hospitals is difficult. Below, a tweet reports a patient with suspected coronavirus symptoms fled the government hospital and police tracked him back to his house.

The Ecuadorean government is conducting food deliveries to elderly people facing food insecurity, where proximity to paved roads and accessibility is a determinant of aid.

In Pakistan…

In the tweet by the deputy commissioner of Nagar, in the northern part of Gilgit–Baltistan, the community is commended for their resolve to maintain social distancing:

“India give us food, Imran is killing us,” said the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, referring to the prime minister of Pakistan. Food shortages have resulted in runaway prices in the region.

Though Gilgit-Baltistan is the second-most tested province in the country, the chart below indicates disproportionate rates of testing. “Islamabad maintains its crown of ensuring it comes first,” one Twitter user said.

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In Nagar Khas, Pakistan, home of the Bualtar Glacier, a five month-old girl was discharged from the hospital after overcoming coronavirus. The Pamir Times reported that the community has reported the highest number, 80, of Covid-19 cases in the administrative territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.

In Kathmandhu, Nepal, police are using a “multi-purpose fork” device to enforce lockdown measures. Initially used for crowd control purposes, police have found the tool practical to maintain social distance while detaining people who violate stay home orders.

A story published in German media outlet Der Spiegel described how the the South Tyrol aprés-ski scene destination of Ischgl fueled the spread of coronavirus across Europe. “The Austrian winter-sports mecca of Ischgl is well known for its parties,” an excerpt for the story reads. “But after helping spread the virus across Europe, the town’s reputation is changing to one of incompetence and greed.”

On April 3, South Tyrol Der Vinschger editor-in-chief Sepp Laner wrote the following note on Sigmund Freud’s prescient description of current circumstances. The following quote is excerpted from German:

Sigmund Freud says in his work “The Future of an Illusion” (1927) that the most important task of cultural work lies in “defending ourselves against nature against the elements, the diseases and the excruciating riddle of death.” And further: “With these powers, nature stands against us, great, cruel, relentless, our weakness and helplessness before our eyes. One can take the position one likes to Freud’s thesis. He couldn’t have known about the coronavirus, but its three adjectives describe our circumstances: new, invisible and everywhere. It is certainly an enemy as well: great, cruel, relentless. We do not need to seek a new “word of the year now. Nor do we need an Unwort––an unword, a non-word.”

Sepp Laner
The town of Schlanders, South Tyrol, Italy (Source: Suedtirolerland.it)

In an excerpt from another post by Laner, he describes the small Alpine town of Schlanders, which is home to a population which holds strongly to its traditional celebrations. The following quote is excerpted from German:

“They are not consecrated, but you are welcome take two branches to be consecrated tomorrow,”an employee told me yesterday at the fruit and vegetable business in the pedestrian zone in Schlanders…Today is Palm Sunday. The consecration in the Church will be nothing. The door is closed. The church service can be followed on the Internet. It’s kind of weird when you look at imagines the elderly in the kitchen or sitting and sitting on the computer, notebook, laptop, or even on the phone, celebrating their pastor’s service. Live streaming, it’s called. Will Easter be the same? Shortly after noon a consecrated olive branch came to me, given by a woman who was going home by bike…people are looking for churches during the time of coronavirus, or chapels if they are open, for a short, lonely prayer. One entry in the visitor book at the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Laas read “Please, o Virgin, make this time pass quickly. Thanks.” This entry expresses what we have all been seeing for weeks wish: an early end to this disaster, this pandemic and all with it related suffering, hardships, problems and difficulties…The current measures to contain the coronavirus remind me of the time when we as children several decades ago helped fight the potato beetle infestation. In the time before sprays were used, we looked up and down the rows for days under every leaf of potato plants, collected the beetles and crushed them…in the end we won the fight.”

Sepp Laner

A report by the Union Bank of Switzerland has concluded the transfer from air to rail will be greater still once the present Covid-19 situation ends, citing an increase in climate awareness. “The report found that consumers and governments were becoming ‘more climate aware’, with the Covid-19 outbreak revealing in industrialised countries ‘what clean air means’.” Glacier regions have noted the cleaner air and better visibility––in some areas views not seen in decades were exposed.

In Ecuador, Indigenous communities in Chimborazo came down from higher elevations to the city of Riobamba to bring gifts of potatoes, beans, and milk. Residents in need of support can be seen in the video lined up wearing face masks and holding bags to receive the bulk distribution.

In Washington State, GoSkagit reported the increasing need for food is being felt statewide. “Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday the launch of a new program, the WA Food Fund, and pleaded for financial donations from those who are able,” the article said. In the town of Concrete, the local emergency food bank has created a call list to ensure regulars and vulnerable community members are taken care of as many have decided venturing out for food carries too great a risk to health.

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COVID-19 in Glacier Regions Update: Latin America Responds, Italy Uses Drones to Enforce Quarantine, and the US Copes

For the past two weeks GlacierHub has made space in the usual Monday news roundup for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic as it impacts glacier regions. In continuing that reporting, the following is an aggregation of coronavirus news stories from global glacier regions:

SOUTH AMERICA

Though the novel coronavirus has yet to infect Latin America on the same scale as other regions, governments there have learned from the failings elsewhere and acted swiftly to mitigate the virus’ impact with military roadblocks, curfews, and border closures.

Economist Eduardo Zegarra wrote in Noticias SER.PE: The Peasant Federation of the Department of Puno (FDCP) is a major branch of the Peruvian Peasant Federation, representing the mountainous region of the Peruvian altiplano.  On March 27, the FDCP issued a declaration about the pandemic. It stated that peasant communities, often seen as a backward element in Peru, and as a sign of rural poverty, are a fundamental part of the “social and economic fabric to face the crisis.”  However, in reality the communities are a “very important local governance space,” with well-demarcated territories, and  Indigenous knowledge to manage their lands and natural resources. The FDCP declares that it is “urgent to bring the rural areas closer to the national defense system against COVID-19 in rural areas, to strengthen territorial control measures that (already) are being successfully implemented by local communities and governments.” They state that it is important to “maintain virus-free territories, extending control and surveillance systems in all provinces and districts, and establish a rigid protocol of entry and exit to those areas. ” In other words, the peasant communities claim a position for themselves as key actors in the territorial control that is needed to managed the pandemic in the vast rural areas of Peru.

In Peru, the crisis has also brought the issue of access to clean water to the fore. The well-known sociologist Maria Teresa Oré, of the Peruvian Catholic University, published a post on 23 March in PuntoEdu, the web portal of that university. She stated, “Washing your hands with soap and water for twenty seconds, a number of times a day: this is the first measure recommended worldwide to combat COVID-19. Water has returned to take center stage in times of pandemic. However, who in Peru has access to drinking water 24 hours a day, in cities and in rural areas? A family from Carabayllo or the Lima district of Surco? The peasant families of the Apurímac or Puno regions? Having access to drinking water is a right that is not shared by all Peruvian families…What lesson have we learned in the wake of March 22, International Water Day, in the time of coronavirus? The pandemic opens a window of opportunity to draw attention to the need for transparent public water management that provides water security, and access to drinking water and sanitation for all Peruvians. This is the way to protect and guarantee the health of the entire population, understanding that access to drinking water is a human right and water is a common good.”

While Latin American governments are acting early, enforcement of quarantine regulations has exceeded that of most Western nations. In the video tweet below, more than 50 people have been detained in the early hours of the stay-at-home order in the northern cities of Chimbote, Huaraz, and Coischco.

In a protective measure, indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Andes used available resources to physically block a road:

EUROPE

In South Tyrol, a glaciated region in the Italian Alps, drones are being used to enforce stay-at-home regulations:

In a tweet, the French mountaineering society said, “don’t come to the mountains, let health care professionals focus on coronavirus.”

CENTRAL ASIA

The coronavirus pandemic has brought joyful moments, like this scene outside of an isolation center in Pakistani Karakoram, a region with one of the world’s densest concentrations of glaciers.

NORTH AMERICA

In the US, shelter in place orders have been issued unevenly across states and municipalities. The half measures have left many people to opt outside, where they have congregated in outdoor recreation areas, including Glacier National Park, which has since closed as of March 27. Mount Rainier National Park also made the decision to shut down operations.

In Bellingham, Washington, residents hosted community based socially distancing with a “Lawn Chair Happy Hour.” Mount Baker makes an appearance at the end of the video.

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On February 13, GlacierHub reported on the spread of COVID-19 into the glaciated regions of Western China. At the time the disease was mostly confined to China, with smaller outbreaks beginning in Europe, including in the French Alps. In the month since, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and Europe has succeeded China as the virus’ epicenter. Economies around the world are shutting down as governments urge populations to adopt social distancing as a means of slowing the novel coronavirus’ spread. GlacierHub is tracking the spread of COVID-19 in glacier regions as an increasing number of people have become infected.

The concerns for glacier regions like Western China are similar for other glaciated corners of the world; while glacier communities are generally rural and may not have as high exposure to the virus as urban areas, they are much less equipped to deal with an outbreak. “In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub, referring to Western China. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.”

The North Cascades, in the US Pacific Northwest, are one of the glacier regions where GlacierHub is monitoring the spread of coronavirus. On March 10, the first cases were reported for Whatcom and Skagit counties, which extend from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and share a border with the glacier-clad Mount Baker. On Sunday afternoon, Mount Baker Ski Area announced the temporarily closure and reassignment of its staff of more than 70 medics, nurses, flight nurses, and doctors to help provide care to the local hospital and health care community. As of March 15, there are seven confirmed cases between the two counties.

The epicenter of the outbreak in the United States is in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington, where people in Seattle and surrounding communities––an area ringed by glaciated peaks––have been deeply impacted (Source: Whatcom County).

Schools in both Whatcom and Skagit counties are closed today, March 16, following the order of Washington State governor Jay Inslee to close all schools in the state. Other agencies have also taken steps to address the pandemic. Puget Sound Energy, which serves all of the two counties as well as other counties in the state, has announced that will not disconnect service during the coronavirus pandemic. It will waive late fees, and will work with customers on a payment plan and a new bill due date.

Schnalstaler Glacier in South Tyrol, Italy (Source: WikiCommons)

Italy has the highest case total outside of China. South Tyrol, a trilingual border province in the Italian Alps, has seen a surge of cases. A rash of COVID-19 confirmations have paralyzed the country––nearly 25,000 cases have been confirmed there––with a higher mortality rate than that of China, where new coronavirus cases have begun to ebb.

In neighboring Switzerland, ski resorts in the Swiss Alps abruptly shut down for the season on Friday in response to the virus. Norway and Austria have already closed resorts within their borders––a blow to the already-struggling ski industry. At present, Spain and France have the fifth and sixth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, 5,753 and 4,469 cases on March 15, according to WHO statistics. But the cases are concentrated in the largest cities. There are fewer in the Pyrenees, the high glaciated mountains that form the border between them. Cases there are increasing, though, and the future is uncertain. In Pakistani Karakoram, a remote high mountain region in Central Asia, several people have also tested positive.

The governments of China and Nepal have shut down expeditions to the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. Last week Kathmandhu joined Beijing in canceling all permits to summit Everest until at least April 30, a move that halves the April-May climbing season at a minimum, and will cost the Nepali government precious millions in lost climbing fees.

Despite its proximity to Iran, few coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the Caucasus region––at present, 30 cases in Georgia, 23 in Armenia, 15 in Azerbaijan. Georgia closed it border with Russia over the weekend and postponed its presidential primary from March 24 to May 19.

Greenland has reported its first case of COVID-19. Visit Greenland reported the case along with a travel advisory barring non-residents from entering. “The smaller the community in the country, the smaller the nursing clinics are and the more vulnerable the situation. That’s why we need to limit traffic around the country as much as possible”, said Bjørn Tegner Bay, chief of police in Greenland and head of the Epidemic Commission.

The novel coronavirus is poised to expose the remoteness and vulnerability of glacier communities, whose isolation cuts both ways. Though their dislocation from urban centers is an advantage in containing the spread of the virus, public health infrastructure in these regions is generally ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. For more frequent updates on COVID-19 as it impacts communities in the world’s glacier regions follow GlacierHub on Twitter.

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Ancient Mosses Add to the Story of the Iceman’s Final Days on Earth

After 5,300 years, Ötzi the Iceman continues to divulge secrets. Archaeobotanists recently identified seventy-five different species of mosses and liverworts (a non-vascular plant similar to moss) that were sprinkled on the neolithic man’s clothing, sequestered in his gut, and buried in the icy gully where he lay for millennia after his murder by the Schnalstal/Val Senales glacier in the Ötzal Alps. Many of these bryophtyes—another term for mosses and liverworts—are not local to the spot where the Iceman was found, and reveal information about his movements in the final forty-eight hours of his life. A study detailing the new findings was published this past fall in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

When the Iceman (also nicknamed Ötzi after the Ötzal Alps where he was found) was discovered by two hikers in South Tyrol, Italy in 1991, he was laying face down in a frozen gully. He had been killed over five thousand years prior—shot through the back with an arrow—but the glacier’s ice preserved his corpse. Also captured in the ice around his shriveled body was a menagerie of neolithic plants and fungi.

“The thought that it is possible to use plant remains to work out the details of a 5,000 year-old guy’s last days is very appealing!” lead author Jim Dickson told GlacierHub. Dickson, now retired, was a professor of archaeobotany at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. Ötzi, for his part, lies frozen in a cold cell in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano Italy.     

A forensic reconstruction of what Ötzi may have looked like when he was murdered 5,300 years ago. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archeology)

Dickson and his colleagues from the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, gathered thousands of fragments of bryophytes picked off of the Iceman’s clothes, gear, the grass mats in the gully where he was found, and his gut. The assemblage of liverworts from that period—10 species altogether—is a particularly big find, because they do not last long exposed to weathering elements. Researchers surmised the plants must’ve been rapidly frozen by the glacier.

Seventy percent of the species picked from in and around Ötzi’s body do not live at the altitude where he was found—about 10,500 feet above sea level. This indicates to researchers that he carried some there himself. Others were likely deposited by animals, water or wind. Mosses and liverworts are unique non-vascular plants that do not reproduce with seeds, but with spores. They can cling unseen on people’s clothes or animal’s fur in the way that fungal spores or pollen can. As a person or creature tramps through the forest or meadows, tiny fragments of mosses can stick to their outsides as well. 

The mosses found in the Iceman’s gut were not ingested intentionally. In the same way that spores and fragments adhere to clothes or fur, they could’ve stuck to his food and gotten to his insides that way. Alpine ibex or chamois (a goat-antelope native to Europe) were likely the animals that unwittingly carried some of the other moss species up Schnalstal. Ötzi himself was a hunter—his bow was recovered by his side—and his last meal was of cured ibex meat.

Other neolithic mummies found preserved in bogs have had some mosses in their guts, but according to Dickson, these were not eaten intentionally either. “Mosses are not nutritious or palatable,” he said. “There is no good evidence that mosses have ever been eaten as staples anywhere, by anyone present or past.”    

Some species of moss have been used by indigenous peoples for medicinal and other practical purposes, however, and the Iceman himself did seem to be carrying one particular species of moss intentionally—Neckera complanata—that he had wrapped his food in. 

View of the Val Senales glacier and Similaun Mountain of the Schnalstal Valley where the Iceman was found protruding out of melting ice in 1991. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

He may have also used some of the mosses found in his gut to dress a deep cut on his hand.  Experts believe Ötzi sustained the injury in a fight a few days before his death. Two of the mosses found in his gut—both species of bogmoss—have absorbent, antiseptic properties and are found lower down the mountain. Dickson believes Ötzi used these bogmosses to staunch his badly sliced palm. Tiny pieces of moss would have stuck to his bloody fingers, so that when he ate, he’d have accidentally ingested the plants too.  

The Neckera complanata, bogmosses, and two other species collected with Ötzi are particularly revealing about his activities in the last forty-eight or so hours of his life. These mosses are all found at lower elevations in the Schnalstal Valley and indicate that he took a particularly strenuous climb up the glacier through a gorge. 

This corroborates a previous theory of his movements suggested after pollen from hophornbeam trees was found in large quantities in his bowels. Hophornbeam are plentiful in the lower Schnalstal. 

Why he took such a tiresome route up the Schnalstal could be explained by the fact that he was murdered and was possibly on the run from his attacker. The gorge is full of boulders and trees and has many hiding spots. Why he was on the lam we’ll never know, but it could’ve had to do with the cut he received on his hand a few days earlier. Perhaps an altercation broke out that caused him to flee for his life. In spite of his murderous end, however, countless studies of Ötzi and his belongings have furnished invaluable gifts of information about early human history that would otherwise be unknown.

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Glaciers and the Rise of Nazism

Poster from the 1938 Luis Trenker film, “The Mountain Calls” (Source: Prisma).

Glaciers and the mountains that convey them have come to symbolize purity— one which has been marred by glacial retreat. We long to return to a state in which glaciers aren’t retreating as a result of anthropogenic climate change, where the condition of the world aligns more closely with our belief in what it should be again. But, historically, glaciers and the mountains that convey them have also symbolized other, more insidious forms of purity.

In a recent article in German Studies Review, Wilfried Wilms outlines the ways in which a flurry of German films and novels in the 1930s recast the glacier-rich Alps and region of South Tyrol as traditional German living space. Wilms focuses on works produced between 1931 and 1936, a time when German nationalist discourse was on the rise and support of a greater pan-German alliance between Germany and mountainous Austria was gaining widespread currency in the lead-up to the Nazi takeover of 1933 and annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. By locating German speakers within alpine settings and showcasing their natural affinity to mountain climbing and glacier landscapes, filmmakers and novelists contributed to a discourse that sought to integrate the greater Germanic world by establishing a common set of uniquely German traits.

The jagged Dolomite range (Source: Kordi Vahle/Creative Commons).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Wilms described the roots of the notion of mountain and glacial purity in relation to both German racial and environmental ideals. “There is the discourse on elevation in Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra on rising above the lowlands; ennobling the Self in its struggle with the mountains; the purity of snow and firn [an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice], and its disconnectedness to the (soiled) realms below. After the defeat in World War I, the mountains become a place of individual, cultural and national renewal— a proving ground, a training ground for the youth and its future for Germany,” he said. Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which portrayed the horrors and banality of the first World War, German films after 1931 valorized war in ways that fed into the nation’s growing territorial ambitions.

The Langenferner Glacier in South Tyrol (Source: Noclador/Creative Commons).

Historically, the mountainous region of Tyrol had been home to a mostly German-speaking, Austrian population— that is, before Italian irredentists got in the way. With the Axis defeat at the close of the first World War, South Tyrol was formally ceded to Italy in the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. Over the next decade, Mussolini instituted a series of Italianization programs in an effort to reduce the Germanic cultural sway in the region. These programs were well known to the public in Weimar Germany, and Wilms argues that a crisis emerged for Germans: as ideas of pan-Germanism were taking hold, their German-speaking brethren were being pushed out of their homeland, a place that was felt through its Alpine features to be distinctively German. A spate of cinematic and literary portrayals of the Alpine War, fought between Austrian and Italian troops in Tyrol during World War I, became a means through which the German population was mobilized and militarized in the lead-up to the second World War.

According to Noah Isenberg, a professor of culture and media at The New School, certain technical innovations also changed the way films were watched in Germany during this period. “In the early 1930s, thanks largely to the advent of sound (which came quite late to Germany), films tended to take advantage of recorded dialogue and elaborate musical scores. Berlin was known for its majestic picture palaces, with more than a thousand seats and ornate interiors, but in Germany’s smaller cities, audiences watched the films in mid-sized theaters, less grand in appearance and with more limited seating,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub. The stage was set for irredentist films to have a maximal impact on German society. 

The Illimani Glacier as seen from the Bolivian city of La Paz (Source: Globus-Film).

One work that Wilms analyzes in detail in his article is Luis Trenker’s 1931 film, “Berge in Flammen” (Mountains in Flames). Trenker was a native of South Tyrol, as well as an Alpine War hero, mountaineer, novelist, actor and director. “Berge in Flammen” opens with a visual ode to the Tyrolean Alps. One can easily imagine how a German audience would have been transfixed by the spectacle: the camera first muses over billowing clouds, then transitions to a frontal shot of a looming mountain before following dense waves of fog as they drift through the spaces between stark stone cliffs. Even in 1930s black and white, the landscapes are mesmerizing.

Enter the film’s hero, played by Trenker himself, a confident rope in hand as he leads the way up a precipitous rock face, undaunted by the thousand-foot drop that outlines his figure. As he climbs further up the impossible height, the camera focuses in on his muscled legs and steady hands. The Austrian reaches a small platform where he pauses to pull up his climbing companion’s rope. His climbing partner, an Italian, then begins his own ascent, but he quickly loses his grip and careens down the rock face. The camera pans quickly to Trenker’s hands as they grip the rope that separates his friend from certain death. Then the camera pans again, this time to a close-up of Trenker’s determined face as he grits his teeth, holding fast to the rope as he selflessly risks his own life to save his companion.

A still taken from another Trenker film, “The Mountain Calls” (Source: Ernst Baumann).

As Wilms persuasively argues, scenes like these come to place German speakers firmly within an environment dominated by mountains and glaciers, places in which Italians are decidedly not at home. “Berge in Flammen” is filled with stunning shots of the snow-laden Alps, their glaciers appearing voluptuous and pure. Austrian glacial fortresses are bombarded by Italian shells, and explosions of smoke and snow crash across the mountaintops, but in having to enact this destruction, the Italians further reveal their unbelonging. Where the Italians work against the mountains, the Austrians work with them.

A typical scene in which Trenker negotiates with the elements (Source: Ernst Baumann).

According to Wilms, films from “Berge in Flammen” onward differ from the climbing epics of Arnold Fanck, Trenker’s mentor and the progenitor of the German “Mountain Film” genre. While Fanck’s films were centered on the struggle between man and mountain, Trenker’s films found their antagonists in exogenous non-Germans attempting to live in German-speaking lands. “Trenker juxtaposes topophilic depictions of place – in his case, his homeland of South Tyrol – with almost xenophobic depictions of dubious intruders, generally city people, tourists, and business men. These topophilic attachments lend themselves to national or nationalistic extensions,” Wilms said.

The return of South Tyrol to German control was a priority for Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” and a collection of important writers also propagated this view. Some of the titles from the period are telling: novels with names like “Comrades of the Mountains” (1932), “Heroes of the Mountains” (1935), “The Fortress in the Glacier” (1935), and “War Diary of a Mountain Climber” (1936) populate the German literary scene of the 1930s. German speakers are portrayed within this corpus as the native, original inhabitants of these mountain realms. Tyrol’s mountains are portrayed as eternal in the way that the German bloodstream is felt to be eternal.

An English-language poster for the 1932 Luis Trenker film (Source: Universal).

Glaciers, we know, are not eternal. But it is important to pause and reflect on the nature of our discourse about glaciers and how our ideals of purity can be turned in horrifying directions. According to Andrew Denning, a professor of German history at the University of Kansas, Germany’s race-based nationalism emerged through notions of the poetic grandeur of nature itself.

“Romantic artists and thinkers laid the groundwork for the shift in the perception of the mountains in the late 18th and early 19th century from fearsome to awe-inspiring,” Denning said. “Romantics celebrated the spirituality of nature and saw in ancient, imposing mountain landscapes the physical manifestation of their critique of Enlightened hubris. Simultaneously, Romantics spoke of mystical, spiritual communities defined by common history and culture, laying the foundation for the rise of cultural forms of nationalism over the course of the nineteenth century.” Our own U.S. national parksspaces of exclusion in their own waywere born of that same Romantic spirit, after all.