The legacy of auguste piccard

There are not many ski resorts, or anything else for that matter, whose popularity can be traced back to a record-breaking hot air balloon crash and an associate of Albert Einstein.

But for the people of Obergurgl, a now-thriving glacial resort village in the Ötzal Alps in Tyrol, Austria, those two rather-curious factors would be the trigger for a huge boom in business back in 1931, that would end up redefining their future.

The man whose misfortune is to thank for the commerce? Auguste Piccard, a 6ft 6" physicist and inventor born in Bern, Switzerland in 1884 with a particular passion for exploration and investigation, and an oddly consequential string of bad luck.

auguste piccard obergurgl 7

Auguste Piccard was fascinated in science from a young age, studying physics and chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, becoming a doctor of science and participating in a range of revolutionary studies. He even collaborated with Einstein to design instruments used to measure atmospheric radioactivity.

august piccard

Previous research had shown that the journey to the stratosphere, anywhere between six to 31 miles above the surface of the earth, could be fatal. In order to enter the isothermal layer, the first nine kilometres of the stratosphere where the temperature remains constant and the pressure is unusually low, some sort of revolutionary balloon would be needed.

This was where Piccard’s genius came in. The scientist made plans for an airtight aluminium gondola, which would subsequently become commonplace in airplane cabins, and attached it to a large hydrogen balloon with enough ascent strength to power into the stratosphere.

Not only did the scientist have to do the reasoning and calculations behind the breakthrough, he also had to design and produce the balloon and test it out on completion. Auguste Piccard was the brains, engineer, manufacturer and adventurer behind the project. A jack of all trades.

The idea behind Piccard’s gondola was that it would allow him and his assistant Paul Kipfer to travel to the stratosphere without the need for special pressure suits or any change in clothing. On May 27 1931, the duo set off to attempt exactly that – and Piccard was proved correct in his predictions.

Piccard and Kipfer were aiming to travel 10 miles into the sky, to reach 16,000m, and though they didn’t quite manage to meet their target, the 15,781m ascent they did achieve saw them enter the stratosphere safely and set a new high-altitude record, allowing the scientist to gather an abundance of data on the upper level of the atmosphere in the process.

“It was the children in the school that first spotted the balloon on the glacier"

But that was about all that went to plan. Right from the offset, there were errors in abundance. Just as the pair were doing their final checks in the cabin, Kipfer looked outside to see the rooftops getting smaller and streets fading away beneath him. They had prematurely left the ground without finishing their inspections.

As a consequence, there were leaks in the cabin, spillages of mercury which if inhaled could have resulted in harm to the nervous system, and even a moment when the crew almost suffocated because of a lack of air.

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Ultimately though, Piccard and Kipfer would find good luck even in the worst situations, and so too, in their climatic moment of misfortune, would the small glacial town of Obergurgl.

The original plan had been for the balloon to touch down in Milan days after taking off, but after 16 hours, there was a problem that caused Piccard to crash land. The balloon just so happened to fall on the Gurgler Ferner glacier, launching a rescue mission from the nearby town of Obergurgl and turning the eyes of the world to the village in the process.

“It was the children in the school that first spotted the balloon on the glacier," tells Professor Wolfgang Aste, former chair of the Austrian Ski School technical commission and a man who knows more about skiing and the Obergurgl area than any guide book.

wolfgang aste

“They shouted to their teacher, and soon a man named Hans Falker, a clever man, called for all of the ski instructors and mountain guides in the area – nearly all of the inhabitants, of which there were about 220 – to go up on a rescue mission.

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“The ropes and equipment that the alpine guides had allowed them to make the rescue safely, and the people became friends with Piccard after that as he stayed to plan his journey home.

Falkner was decorated by King Albert of Belgium in the end for rescuing Auguste Piccard and the balloon from the glacier.

85 years later and we’re standing under blue skies in Obergurgl awaiting the opening of the new ‘Top Mountain Cross Point’, a luxurious ski restaurant, vintage motorcycle museum and gondola point 2175m above sea level.

It’s the latest addition to the impressive set up on the glacier, which boasts 4,500 tourist beds and 110km of ski slopes surrounded by stunning mountains on every side, including views over the Italian Dolomites. It’s safe to say that Obergurgl has come a long way given that back in 1910, the population of the town was just 39 people.

A boom in mountaineering throughout Europe meant that things were slowly on the rise for Obergurgl in the 1920s and 30s, but had it not been for the internationally renowned Piccard and the media attention brought on by his crash, it’s unlikely the setting would have become the hub of snow sports and mountaineering it is today.

Wolfgang continued: “It was an accident that he landed here of course, on our glacier... an accident with the valve line. But it was an accident that was much to the fortune of our village!

“Professor Piccard was very well known. He wrote in his log book after the landing that he was in a ‘nice, unknown high Alpine area’, [with the] basket and balloon safely on a glacier.

"Newspapers around the world made Obergurgl known"

“Before his trip has started it was reported around the world what he was doing and tourists began to come sightseeing in the area; coming to see where the accident happened. Perhaps they were looking for another accident!

“The media were hungry for the story around the event, and the coverage was huge. All of the newspapers around the world made Obergurgl known.

“There were suddenly a lot more English tourists and European tourists coming to Obergurgl. It was all very fast – even royal families started to come from the Netherlands and Sweden and so on."

auguste piccard obergurgl hochgurgl
auguste piccard obergurgl hochgurgl
auguste piccard obergurgl hochgurgl

It was only five months after the balloon crash that the first international ‘Piccard’ ski race took place on the Festkogel glacier, on 10 January 1932. The village didn’t wait around to capitalise on their astonishing piece of good luck.

The boom in tourism spawned change, and though it was halted by the Second World War, the first t-bar in Obergurgl would revolutionise the village in 1949 and the first chairlift would follow in 1953.

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Seven years later, the Timmelsjoch high alpine road connected Obergurgl to the rest of the valley, and the hotel village of Hochgurgl was built around the same time. Nowadays, there’s a modern, comfortably glamorous feel to the resort, with a monument to Auguste Piccard at the centre, added in 1989.

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Wolfgang himself has been based in Obergurgl since 1972 now, having travelled the world “as a nomad" and skied in the United States and Canada for years before returning to his Austrian home.

Aste has coached national and international ski teams and made pioneering breakthroughs in ski education in Austria, Japan, Canada and more.

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The man knows skiing and what makes a good resort, and he’s been in Obergurgl watching the resort grow into one of the best in the country for the past 44 years. He lives and breathes skiing, and even his son is now a local ski instructor.

“Sports and skiing are not only my hobbies, they’re my profession and my life," he adds, with an enviable passion. “It’s my life."

There’s no doubt that wherever he had ended up living in the world, Wolfgang Aste and his family would have spent their days on the slopes surrounded by the mountains.

He perhaps has Auguste Piccard to thank, though, for the fact that he’s been able to do so in Obergurgl.

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