Hannibal on the Rettenbach glacier. Photo by Lorenzi.
Glaciers form over centuries of accumulation, absorbing snow, rock, atmosphere, and history into their mass. The long slow performance of a glacier, like so much of the natural world, is obscured by our lack of patience and imagination – how does one consider a glacier?
The glacier is masked by the unfathomable, beyond the limits of rumination, just as are the 1 billion animals dead from recent brush fires in Australia and the nearly complete bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Data cannot be felt. The scope of a glacier is epic and we live in the epoch of epic, so startlingly so that as much as we fear an end of the world, it also feels inevitable, fuelled by Judeo-Christian prophecy and egoism translated into secular nihilism: the Earth may be dying but at least we’re here for the show. This narrative is nearly ubiquitous in contemporary storytelling; the Lexus commercial peddling climate consciousness with visuals of a glacier melting. “We’re running out of time” the voice over beckons without irony.
It is not just the glacier – or rivers or mountains or wetlands – that are in danger, but ancient rituals.
In April 2019 I visited Sölden, Austria and the Rettenbach glacier to take in a performance of theatre collective lawine torrèn’s uber-spectacle, Hannibal. The excursion was prompted by an invitation from my friend and collaborator Donna Jewell, who choreographed and has been performing in the production since it premiered in 2001. Donna is flown to Austria every other year for an exhaustive week-long rehearsal period, to mount what has been dubbed the largest contemporary performance event in the world – on a glacier.
The Rettenbach glacier, located above the village of Sölden, and its connective sibling Tiefenbach, are one of five glaciers in the Tyrolian alps in the region of Öztal. As a valley or alpine glacier — unlike continental glaciers, like the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, which are melting at a precipitously alarming rate — Rettenbach continues to shape the landscape as it accumulates, retreats, accumulates, and retreats over hundreds and thousands of years. Although they have been on a more or less steady retreat since the Little Ice Age (~13th-15th century), the Öztal glaciers have significantly increased their retreat in the past twenty years. According to a 2016 study published by the European Geosciences Union, Austria’s glaciers have reduced by 26% in the recent decade, in particular those in the Öztal region, which includes the Rettenbach glacier.
In the Alps some cows get their own basement apartments. Photo by the author.
As the Öztal glaciers retreat, they are revealing thousands of years of history, including Otzi, a 5,300 year-old tattooed hunter-gatherer, mummified in the ice, whose last meal consisted of deer, wheat and bracken fern. The melting of glaciers globally – revealing an Iron Age horse in Norway to ancient anthrax in Russia – foment the collector’s anticipation for what will be found next, as well as further baiting the insatiable thirst for untapped gas and mining fields. It has even been remarked by climate change deniers that human-made climate change might be necessary, as a safety net, providing a new bounty of reserves to quickly drain. This final assault on nature, so they purport, for it must be final, in the vernacular of Christian lexicon is divine and intentional, as the Earth is here for our taking.
SKIERS IN SÖLDEN
Sölden is an austere Tyrolian village, surrounded by looming Alps, tucked into a valley. It is charming, taken from the panel of a fairy tale. On a hike through the village up the eastern slope of the valley, you pass by homes with cows housed in a basement. As you make your way further up the slope, the vision of the valley is obscured by snow-laden Alpine trees and heavy mist; one can imagine Sölden as it was hundreds of years ago, before ski tourism overwhelmed the mountain hamlet.
The restaurants on the main strip of Dorfstraße are indistinguishable in their warm wooden aesthetic; Die Alm, Armin’s Törggele-Stub’n, and Heiners all serve up deliciously heavy meat, fish, potato, and cheesy pasta dishes. However, the repartee between locals and visitors is steely, and it doesn’t take long to realize the source of this fissure. The relationship is merely transactional; the burden of living in the sublime valley of Sölden is making a living from the expansive, expendable income and flagrant entitlement of skiers.
The ski population overwhelms Sölden, making the village feel like a frat party more than an idyllic get away. After they’ve been on the slopes drinking Stiegl all day, the skiers eat hearty Tyrolian meals, and attend one of the many discos or strip clubs while drinking schnapps through the night. The scene gets loud and ugly, and the reluctance toward the skiers from locals is warranted. What was once a sleepy farming and sheepherding community is now an economy based on the libidinal whims of skiers, adrenaline mixed with schnapps and a carnivorous diet.
Tyrolian tourism as an economic driver began in the late 19th century and grew exponentially after World War II to the 1970’s & 80’s when resorts were built on the glaciers. Money from ski tourism has led to the installation of expensive ferries that glide you smoothly up to the mountain, as well as to the new 007 Museum, Elements, a “James Bond Cinematic Installation” that peers over the Alps. The glaciers are groomed throughout the year; the grooming is equivocally for the sake of skiers, not the glacier, though it benefits both. According to Dr. Andrea Fischer at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Innsbruck, who I shared dialogue with via email, wrote that there is “no direct impact [from] ski tourism on glacier mass balance” or glacial retreat.
But I wonder what traditional practices have been lost or have altered the relationship to the glacier, not just from climate change but from the tourism itself? For example, the Peruvian government, as of 2002, restricted a significant facet of Qoylluar Rit’i, a festival and pilgrimage for the indigenous inhabitants of the Andes who used to carve chunks of ice from the glacier to bring back to the community in the annual celebration of the stars. It is not just the glacier – or rivers or mountains or wetlands – that are in danger, but ancient rituals. Just as warming temperatures, rising sea levels, draught, fire and pestilence will first affect impoverished communities who have the smallest carbon footprint, restrictions will be placed on pagan-based and earth-centric practices that have been conducted in balance with nature for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
To consider the glacier is to consider the time signature of 5,000 or more years. 5,000 years is what we collectively need to absorb, and this is what I want to consider for the sake of the glacier. The loss of a glacier is not just the loss of a glacier, but the loss of 5,000 years of communion and communication between ice and air, wind and snow, sky and earth and animals. An Alpine glacier will retreat with or without us, but to have it be associated with our egoist folly is what damns.
Dr. Fischer told me that “without any further warming, Eastern Alpine glaciers might be gone by 2100.” I appreciate the restraint here, but I must take the liberty to italicize the phrase: without any further warming.
Hannibal by lawine torren. Photo by Jurgen Skarwan.
HANNIBAL'S CROSSING, 218 BC
The production of Hannibal, staged by lawine torrèn, a Salzburg-based performance company known for their overwhelming site-specific spectacles, absorbs all the dissonance and history to stage a most excessive, if not impressive, winter sports-discotheque, contemporary dance-rave-parody-of-crises production. Hannibal is the bombastic and pyrotechnic retelling of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, performed in sub-zero temperatures by a crew of hundreds, including dancers, snow groomers, skydivers, skiers, bikers, helicopter and airplane pilots, among others, and co-produced by none other than Red Bull. It is unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before. My jaw dropped, and with the sun set, my feet frozen, I was entirely flabbergasted by the scale and scope.
Red Bull had originally commissioned lawine torrèn’s artistic director Hubert Lepka to create a narrative airplane performance at the Salzburg airport, where the gods were played by airplanes and helicopters (Zeus as a fighter jet). “Someone from Sölden saw the piece,” Hubert told me, “and was completely struck by how we narrated it. Could we tell a story with a mountain?”
Hannibal brings crowds of 5,000-8,000 to Rettenbach glacier for the one night only event. Although the production itself has altered little over the past 20 years, the glacier has been altered irrevocably, due both to natural retreat and human-made climate change.
“Glaciers are not living beings but part of our geological environment,” Hubert said. “But it was obvious they would die out. To use it as a backdrop for the play was taken into account – we knew we were performing on an environmental surrounding that has changed rapidly. Twenty years later we see the outcome of this development, which is tragic.”
Hannibal by lawine torr´n. Photo by Lorenzi.
The glacier is covered in groomed snow, so you are never seeing the glacier but rather the snow on the glacier. In the early 2010’s, over a number of seasons, a 30-foot ice wall was exposed at the top of the glacier. When I saw Hannibal in 2019 there was no exposed glacial wall to be seen.
Donna was taken up to the exposed ice during its life on the glacier. Sky blue in color and smelling “sweet and profound,” Donna considered the history of the oxygen, how pure and old it must have been. “Was this the first time I’d ever breathed oxygen? Oxygen this pure? Had I ever breathed at all?” Donna mused.
These musings are valuable to our consideration of the earth. Data cannot be felt, but the spiritual and poetic tethering we have to oxygen, water, and ice is crucial. More than anything else, I think this is why Hannibal has been such a success, drawing audiences for nearly two decades. And, I suspect, as I am not a skier, the draw to skiing; to commune, as a culture, with the behemoth, with the unfathomable, to approach it in any way possible, which will always seem unremarkable from a distance, because again, how does one consider a glacier?
The recent visuals taken beneath the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica is exactly the kind of apparition we need. Watching the video, witnessing the ground line of ice transition between bedrock and ocean, is approaching a consideration of and for the glacier. This continental glacier is melting rapidly, ungrounding and being absorbed by the ocean, which has the potential to rise sea level by 10 feet.
As of a child of the Kansas plains, I do not carry the oral and felt history of the glacier with me, a way of being with and of a glacier. This distance is what makes the notion of “global warming” and “climate change” seem like “existential threats”, as opposed to present tense narratives we have been propagating since the discovery of fire. Consideration takes participation, not just armchair projection: going to the glacier, being with the river, breathing in the wetlands.
Hannibal by lawine torren. Photo by Jurgen Skarwan.
The Hannibal of Hannibal, portrayed through dynamic feats of strength by Tomaz Simatovic, is a character of the climate epoch — blind, egoistic — as is the production a symptom of the age of excess. Like the glut of superhero movies and the general excess of lifestyle habits in our culture, it is a performance of “let’s have it all” before the house (the world) burns down. Just as Hannibal risks his army and his mythologized elephants — which take the form of 20-feet tall snow sculpture — the production seems to communicate, against all odds, that we will destroy this earth for the sake of glory. But the the discotheque vibe, not unlike the scene down in the valley, solicits the participation of us all, standing on the massive subtle flow of ice as we watch the spectacle, ignoring the glacier for the snowpack.
“It is not about glaciers,” Hubert said. “It is European history and we wanted to show that at any moment history can take a turn that is unexpected. It can make a turn. The Roman Empire declined because of the threat of Hannibal. It is a parable about power and empire, how to build, cline and decline. It could have happened that Carthage won and Africa would have been the superpower running the world for the past two thousand years.”
LIVES OF THE GLACIERS
As I stood on the glacier watching Hannibal, I was certain that this production, this act, along with the skiing, was detrimental to the glacier. But it simply is not true. On the Öztal glaciers that are not groomed (no skiers, no Hannibal spectacle), the melting is much more severe. Hannibal, as irresponsible as it may seem in all its performative glory, is actually benefitting the glacier, as are recreational sports.
David Boyd’s hallmark publication, The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution to Save the World, proposes a legal case for rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, and entire ecosystems to own themselves and have proper representation in the court of law. In the book, Boyd details the case of the Maori, an indigenous population that has been particularly terrorized by colonialism, who were able to designate the Whanganui River as a legal person. The River’s guardians are comprised of Maori and New Zealand government individuals whose stewardship and representation are intended to protect the ecosystem for future generations.
Hannibal by lawine torren. Photo by Esel.
Can the citizens of Sölden unite to serve as legal proxy for Rettenbach? This community benefits from skiing and benefits from the presence of the glaciers – how can models of economy and environmental justice be linked, bringing more people, especially those without the power, privilege, and finances, to the base of the glacier to consider its 5,000 plus years of accumulation and retreat? Far from turning valley glaciers into Disney Worlds, how do we preserve a glacier, in as much as it wants to be preserved?
I proposed this to Dr. Fischer. “Here we touch philosophy,” she responded. “For the ecology community, every artificial change, including saving ice from melt, is not acceptable. This is somehow a contradiction to the idea of conserving ecosystems, i.e., help[ing] them to survive in a warming world caused by human influence. In fact, this is the most interesting of the discussion, and so far, no one has thought it [through] to the end. Do we want to accept that things change or not? And if yes, which causes of change are ethically correct?”
Uncertainty is the abiding sensibility of the Anthropocene — especially when we examine what is happening glaciers. With all the scientific projection and data we have at our hands, there's still so much we do not know, and so much for which we should be prepared.
Hannibal by lawine torren. Photo: Bernhard Spöttel.
In the final moments of Hannibal, a helicopter lifts the eponymous character, upside down, from the glacier, parading him across the sky and above the mountain. It is a deus ex machina we may not receive from the climate crisis. A deus ex machina is a wish, an uncertain one at that, derived not from the agility and prowess of the author but rather from just bad storytelling. “Anthropocene” itself is a shoddy name for this geological epoch, placing the animal human at the forefront of our bad story instead of the wonders we have left to consider, preserve, and steward: glaciers, reefs, forests, rivers, oceans, and more, and more, and more. ≈ç
Hannibal returns to Rettenbach glacier on April 16, 2021. Each year Donna considers that it may be the last performance. She insists that, after twenty years, this time it really might be the last one.
View lawine torren's website.
Trailer for lawine torrén.
ADAM R. BURNETT is a writer and playwright focused on the subjects of ecology and environmental justice. His work has been published by VICE, The Brooklyn Rail, The Awl, Three Rooms Press, and Howlround, among others. His plays have been produced internationally and have garnered awards and recognition, including support through The Jerome Foundation, Jentel Foundation, The Dramatist Guild Fund, The Puffin Foundation, and the Mental Insight Foundation. He lives in New York.