The Obergurgl Field Trip

The Geology classes in the University of New Orleans-Innsbruck International Summer School take a day-long field trip each year to visit a glacier high in the Tirolean Alps. This is a page to describe that trip. The images at left are clickable to yield larger views.

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Geological Highlights

      The trip visits the Gaisbergferner Glacier above the village of Obergurgl, which is at the upper end of the Ötz Valley southwest of Innsbruck. This gives everyone a rare opportunity to walk on, feel, and directly experience an Alpine glacier. Given the retreat and disappearance of glaciers in the Alps over the last few decades, this is an experience that may not be possible in a few more decades.

      Another highlight of the trip is the opportunity to collect garnets from the rock eroded by the glacier. The Gaisbergferner Glacier sits in a valley carved into garnet-bearing schists, and so garnets are abundant. Almost everyone goes home with at least one piece of garnet.

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Location

      The Gaisbergferner Glacier is in a valley above the village of Obergurgl, which is at the upper end of the Ötz Valley southwest of Innsbruck. The glacier is just north of the present Austrian-Italian border. To get there from Innsbruck, one travels west up the Inn Valley, turns south up the Ötz Valley, and drives until the road ends in Obergurgl. Click on the map at left to see more.

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Logistics

      The trip includes bus transportation, lift fees, a sack lunch, and the services of an alpine guide. Lunches travel with the bus and are carried by participants from the bus.

      We leave Innsbruck, usually at 7:30 in the morning, and travel by charter bus on the Autobahn up the Inn Valley and then on the main road up the Ötz Valley to Obergurgl. The trip takes about 90 minutes.

      In Obergurgl, we have the opportunity to use public restrooms and make last-minute purchases at a Spar grocery store. We then get in gondolas, each of which hold four to eight people, to travel by cable across the valley above Obergurgl. We then transfer to a second gondola lift system for a more vertical trip up to the point of one of the broad ridges defining the valley into which we will descend. This is Hohe Mut, at 2653 meters (8704 feet) above sea level. At the top of each lift we have the opportunity to use restrooms, the last we will see for a considerable time.

      From the top of the second lift, we walk along the ridge, with a glacial valley on each side. Somewhere along this easy walk, persons with small children and/or persons who don't feel up to the entire walk can turn back, enjoy a bite at the cafe at the top of the lift, and then take the gondolas back down to Obergurgl. The rest of us, however, walk (and occasionally scramble) down the side of that ridge into the valley of the Gaisbergferner Glacier, and then up to and onto the glacier itself. We eat lunch at the foot of the glacier, and trip participants commonly also look for garnets during lunch. We also pose for a group picture (see examples at lower left)

      After lunch, we hike down the valley and back to the first of the two ski lifts, which most of us take back to Obergurgl (a few of us just walk back to Obergurgl.) After partaking of Obergurgl's commercial opportunities, we reboard the bus and return to Innsbruck. We're generally back by 5:00 or 6:00 pm.

 

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Caveats

      Weather is tremendously variable at high altitudes in the Alps. We have taken this trip on days when some of us never even put on a sweater, and we have taken this trip on days when the towers of the ski lifts were covered with ice, and clouds obscured visiblilty to near-zero. Conditions can change from one of those extremes to the other in a matter minutes. Participants therefore need to bring sweaters, gloves, hats, and raingear, as well as hiking shoes (see below).

      We hike over alpine trails that are occasionally rocky and rugged. Hiking shoes are therefore essential. We make a long descent on our way back to Obergurgl. Because descents are hard on one's knees, and especially on older knees, a hiking stick or a pair of hiking sticks can be a good idea. Most people in good physical condition have little trouble completing the trip.

      Injury and illness are possible. For example, one UNO administrator leading the trip suffered a large cut on a jagged rock, and another one on a different trip suffered altitude sickness.

      Weather conditions can force cancellation of the trip or termination when we reach the top of the second ski lift. We have never had to do this, but it remains a possibility.

      Persons participating in the trip must obey the directives of the guide and professor leading the trip. Deviation from the trail or across crevasses on the glacier can endanger not only the life of the wanderer but the health and lives of others on the trip. Persons not willing to behave as directed should not participate.

 

Closing Comments

      Despite these caveats, almost everyone who goes agrees that this is a great trip. If you're with the UNO-Innsbruck program, we hope to see you there!

 

 

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e-mail to Railsback (rlsbk@gly.uga.edu)
Back to Railsback's Alpine and Glacial Geology course page.
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UGA Geology Department web page