Ötzi the Iceman @ Mummy Tombs




His Final Route

Where was Ötzi on the last day of his life?


The latest DVD from PBS's NOVA:

Twelve hours before he died, scientists believe that Ötzi sipped some water from a mountain stream in the vicinity of Katharinaberg (or Monte S. Caterina; most towns in northern Italy have dual names), a small village overlooking the Schnalstal Valley in northern Italy. 

The water contained a small bit of pollen from the hop hornbeam. This plant did not grow to the north; it came only from the area around Katharinaberg. The Iceman may have also eaten a meal of ibex (wild goat) here. When scientists studied his intestines, they found the remnants of his last meals which gave them information about where he spent his final hours.

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to retrace part of. This Ötzi's final route was not the ideal time of year to see where he trekked to his death (I wasn't able to visit the area in July), and I wasn't able to go mountain-climbing. But I was able to get a sense of the terrain and the isolation even in our modern times.

I drove from Bolzano to Vernagt, a hamlet at the end of the Schnalstal Valley. Don't miss the turn off (which is easy to do). The road is narrow, winding, and steep.


First stop: Katharinaberg

It is in the area of this tiny village (now perhaps fifty houses, a few shops, and a church perched high on a promontory overlooking the Schnalstal) that Ötzi began his last day. Scientists were able to determine this only after a great deal of detective work. They were able to study the food remains in Ötzi's colon and identify certain substances, including the pollen. They also found some remnants of bread and meat. The pollen led them to Katharinaberg.

These days Katharinaberg is simply breathtaking, so perilously perched on its mountain home. The day I visited (a Saturday morning in early December) everything was quiet. The temperature was cold, the air crisp; snow was forecast.

As I walked through the village that day, it was hard not to wonder about Ötzi. What did the area looked like so long ago? Was there even a village? 

Where was the stream from which he drank? Was he chased from this area? Did he simply travel through? Or was this his home? 

Did he suspect that he might be in trouble? Or had trouble come later--unexpectedly?

With snow threatening, I hurried north and left Katharinaberg behind. 

Although the Schnalstal Valley isn't lengthy, the twists and winds and grades in the road meant a much more time-consuming trip than I had planned. The deserted road climbed north to Vernagt; snow started falling. I wasn't certain what I would find at the end. I just didn't want to get stranded in a alpine snowstorm (for which I hadn't prepared). 


Next stop: Vernagt

At Vernagt, the wind whipped the snow wildly across the road. I pulled into an empty parking area and took in the view. 

In front of me, to the west was Vernagt Lake, To my right (the north) was the route that Ötzi took...up the mountain to an area that is now called the Tisenjoch Pass

The snow blew harder. I got out of the car and walked along the western edge of the lake and took some photos.

It would have taken the better part of a day (and summer weather at that) for me to climb to Ötzi's findspot, and only with an expert guide. This is not a casual hike in a state park. 

Although it is not possible to precisely locate the area on this photo, I have placed a star in the general direction in which he was found (based on my own interpretation of the various maps of his discovery; his findspot is not visible on this photo at all). Remember: even the Italians and Austrians couldn't agree at first which country could claim him because of the mountainous geography, so my marker is only for general guidance. Somewhere on his climb up the mountain, he ate another meal of red deer meat and grains.


Final stop: Maso Corto

Because I could not get to the Tisonjoch pass that day, I returned to the Schnalstal Valley some years later. This time, I drove past Vernagt a few more miles to Maso Corto (also called Kurzras), a small ski resort at the very end of the road. 

Maso Corto has hotels, restaurants, and a few shops--almost all with Ötzi overtones. A small commercial center has an Ötzi shop, and a concession stand at the foot of the ski lift sells Ötzi tea (which it advertises on its window) for about $2.40 a cup. A cable car at the base of the mountain takes visitors and skiers up to the glacier where breathtaking views await. When you exit the cable car station on the mountain top, look at the nearest peak. Beyond it, perhaps a little over a mile, is the area where the Iceman was found, but you cannot hike there from this location. 

Here is a photo of what the area looks like in late March:

If you are so inclined, you can spend the night on the mountain above Maso Corto at the Berghotel Grawand to have first crack at the slopes in the morning. You can also visit the Ötzi Show Gallery, a mini-museum about the Iceman, housed in the basement of the hotel. 

A final note: Cable car riders include a few sightseers and mostly skiers, loaded with equipment. The ride to the top is short and smooth, but a quick look around the inside of the cab reveals why the trip is so safe. The car has been safe-guarded by rosary beads hanging from one of the levers.

TRAVEL DIRECTIONS: If you want to visit Ötzi's findspot, buy two good maps (one for driving, one for hiking). From Bolzano, you will take Highway 38 (Merano). Approximately 13 km past Merano, you will find the Schnalstal turn-off. This tiny road passes an exit to Katharinaberg and meanders its way to Vernagt and beyond to Maso Corto. There, you will find provisions and lodging.

For detailed maps of the findspot (as posted by Vienna University of Technology in Austria), click here.