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.
To reach the summit,
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....