On the morning of September 18, 1991, while on vacation in northern Italy, Erika and Helmut Simon decided to climb the Similaun, a 12,000-foot-high mountain near the Austrian border. They had scaled the peak once before, in 1981, but this time the journey would be much more challenging.
The stone monument near the site of Ötzi's discovery (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
To reach the summit, the couple had to cross part of the Niederjoch Glacier, which had once deeply covered much of the nearby mountains. although the Niederjoch had been gradually retreating, or thawing, since 1850, its melting like many other glaciers around the world, had greatly accelerated since 1981. Snowfall had been lighter, and summer temperatures had been higher. not only did the new snow melt each summer, but the once-permanent glacier ice thawed as well.
By 1991, after an especially warm summer, the glacier that remained, which may have been more than sixty feet deep in the 1920s, was only three feet deep in some places and quite slushy in the heat. Still, wide gaps or fissures in the ice, called crevasses, sliced deeply through other areas. One misstep and the Simons could easily fall into a crevasse and be gravely, even fatally, injured. As a result, they climbed cautiously, taking much longer to reach the summit than they expected.
When they were ready to return to their hotel in the valley below, it was almost dark and too dangerous to continue their descent. Forced to spend the night in a mountain lodge, they were not happy about their rustic accommodations; they had no running water or indoor toilet. The next day, though, they would learn how truly lucky they were: The melting of the Niederjoch Glacier allowed them to make one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time....
Copyright © James M. Deem This excerpt is taken from Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recover of the Past (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012). All rights reserved.