Perched high in the mountains, where the trees give way to open spaces and where the sunlight reflects the glistening white sprawling sparkling glaciers… is where you will find the Alpine Research Centre Obergurgl, ringed by jagged and snow-capped “Three-Thousanders”, high altitude peaks averaging 3,000 meters in elevation. Despite its high-elevation location, the research station is not your average mountain shelter, where guests cook their meals over an open hearth. Instead, visitors can sleep overnight in snug buildings, with hot water and hearty meals on tap. Actually, it’s a little bit of luxury in the wilderness.
Upon arrival to the Obergurgl University Centre, I am greeted by wind gusts and snow. Dressed in my usual Innsbruck attire, I get inside as fast as I possibly can. Just to find out that the dress code of Innsbruck University’s scientists is more of a casual, functional sportswear. Well, considering that the weather station and Alpine fieldwork is located outside, this might well make sense. What today serves as base for glaciologists, geographers, biologists and other scientists and researchers, was not much more than a tiny mountain settlement towered by lofty Three-Thousanders in the early 20th century …
Nestled discreetly into the natural wilderness of the jagged Ötztal Alps, the three large stone buildings are built in classic Tirolean mountain style. The structures that today house the Research Centre are former customhouses that were built in the early 20th century to accommodate customs officers. In the 18th and 19th century, Obergurgl was a mountain community inhabited by about 200 people, most of which lived on agriculture and weaving. An article in the ‘Tiroler Bote’ journal from 1821 states that almost all Ötztal Valley farmers produced linen and loden and traded flax with the Passeier Valley in South Tyrol. However, the demand on these local products decreased in the 19th century, leading to a dramatic emigration and leaving the community of Obergurgl with no more than 39 people in 1910. With the discovery of the Alps as a recreational space, Ötztal Valley was put on the map for tourists and mountaineers.
Mountaineering soon emerged as a sport appealing to a wide array of recreational climbers and took on a commercial angle. It was to change the mountain village, which initially depended on agriculture forever. Wolfgang Burger, geographer at the University of Innsbruck, considered Obergurgl a uniquely valuable place for scientific study and education. He established a Federal Sports Centre and an Alpine Research Station with the aim to maintain alpinism, alpine skiing and science in the high mountains for visitors from all over the world.
Opened in 1951 and located in the former customhouses in Obergurgl, the Alpine Research Station is an interdisciplinary facility providing research, educational and recreational opportunities for scientists, students, and the general public. At a first glance, the structures appear typical Tirolean. At a closer look, the idea behind it, combining research and recreation, is typical Tirolean, too. Where else than in the Heart of the Alps could one establish a centre like this?
The Alpine Research Station of the University of Innsbruck in Obergurgl is a unit of the Obergurgl University Centre. The station has a distinguished history of supporting scientific mountain research since 1951. It has played a key role in many scientific milestones and provides lodging, labs, and work space to scientists and students from all over the country and world. Obviously, sitting high into the Ötztal Alps at an elevation of 2,000 meters above sea level, this is quite a luxurious research station. All of the three buildings are connected by underground tunnels. And although the ceiling height is not really comfortable (it feels like the standard ceiling height of the early 20th century), it considerably facilitates getting to my guest room. Above all because I arrived with a travelling bag, and not with a backpack. I meet Dr. Nikolaus Wilhelm Heinrich Schallhart, the third successor of Research Centre founder Wolfgang Burger. By the way, Wolfgang Burger reached a doctorate degree in 1930 at the age of 21 – at that time he was the youngest doctorate holder in Austria. Wolfgang Burger studied morphology and geology, Klaus Schallhart is a zoologist focusing on Alpine animals in their natural habitat.
The station has been the site of much research in the effects of high elevation and glaciology explains Dr. Schallhart with great passion and excitement. The stone buildings are home to everything a glaciologist’s heart could possibly desire… and then some. Including an ultra-sensitive seismograph, that accurately records the motion of the ground here on the Main Alpine Ridge, deep in the Ötztal Alps. And, let me tell you, there is considerable earthquake activity around here! “In particular, the Alpine Research Centre Obergurgl is probably the best known site specializing in Alpine glaciology in the world. Long-term data have been measured here for several decades. The research on nearby glaciers has contributed substantially to our understanding of the environmental science of mountain systems and is recognized internationally for its excellence. Glaciers have been monitored in Obergurgl for more than 60 years, constituting the longest record on the world. This is unique,” explains Dr. Schallhart in an engaging and vibrant manner. I am deeply impressed by his level of passion and dedication. An interdisciplinary facility, the centre supports research, field classes, workshops and conferences for a range of disciplines—and provides the perfect haven to explore, escape and … indulge.
What’s more, the Alpine Research Centre Obergurgl provides comfortable accommodation. Relaxed yet luxurious, with heating, power, hot showers and windows framing incomparable views, it offers a warm welcome after a day in the mountains. Here, guests relax in beautifully appointed four star guest rooms while experiencing splendid cuisine. And you can even unwind with a sauna bath… but don’t tell anyone!!! “Last year we had a group of architects up here,” Dr. Schallhart tells me. “The students have been studying artificial clouds for snowmaking purposes.” Everyone is welcome here. I consider this an ideal facility in which to conduct research, to teach field classes, and to hold workshops and retreats. What’s more, it’s a superb escape showcasing the best the Ötztal Alps have to offer with warm hospitality, breathtaking scenery and magnificent wilderness surrounds. And did I mention the sauna?
For more information on the Alpine Research Centre Obergurgl please visit www.uibk.ac.at.