A Hike Under Starry Night Skies
If you want to see something that’s hardly visible anymore, you should go on a search in the darkness. It’s the city lights that cloud the view of the stars. A journey into the heart of Tirol’s darkness – with galactic views.
It doesn’t look like the clouds are going to blow over very soon. The sky is grey and it’s starting to drizzle. A little group of observers – wrapped-up in weatherproof clothes – have gathered on the terrace at the Krahberg mountain. Everyone has got their hoods up and their headtorches on ready to go. Behind the base of the rain clouds, the dark valley with some scattered flecks of light is visible. “The terrace is facing north,” Norbert Span explains. “That gives us the best view of the stars – and the Milky Way galaxy. This will be an emotional moment for you all at first.”
However, on this cold and damp evening in July, we must remain patient and wait for this promised emotional moment. We are here to visit Tirol’s first public observatory – 2,200 metres above sea level at the Venet mountain in Tirol. Since last year, the doors to the observatory have been open to the public in the evenings. The location of the Venet star gazing park is ideal because it’s close to the top station of the Venet cable car and the summit hut, which allows visitors to combine a glance through the telescope with an overnight stay. The light of the municipality of Landeck is completely shielded by the mountain.
The geophysicist and meteorologist Dr Norbert Span, who was responsible for the project planning, is training future star gazing guides this evening. It’s a diverse group of locals engaged in the work at the observatory. Their prior knowledge is also diverse, but nobody has previous experience as a guide for the Milky Way galaxy. Norbert Span knows what he’s doing. He’s been working with telescopes for over 40 years; four years ago, he started with astrophotography. Not only does he explain how the instruments work, but he also wants to teach the future guides how to fill visitors with enthusiasm for the starry night sky.
Dr Norbert Span
The geophysicist and meteorologist Dr Norbert Span was responsible for the project planning of the Venet star gazing park. He’s been fascinated by telescopes and star gazing since his childhood. His thoughts and photographs were published in the book “Mountain under Stars” (only available in German: “Berge unter Sternen”, Knesebeck Verlag) in 2017.
The first thing Norbert always asks is: “Has anyone ever seen their astrological sign in the sky?” First, we search for the visible signs while standing on the terrace. Then, a short introduction in the reception room follows. Only red light is used in this room. Red light is less dazzling than white light and ensures that our eyes that have already adjusted to darkness don’t readjust to daytime brightness. On a computer monitor, we receive a short introduction to everything that would be visible if the clouds finally disappeared. Afterwards, we go up a staircase leading to the 5.5-metre-wide dome. When the Plexiglas rotates with a quiet whirring sound, it’s hard to know whether the roof or the floor is moving. Right in the middle of the room on a pedestal is the reflecting telescope – the form reminds me of a small barrel. The narrow tube mounted on top is a solar telescope for daytime observation. When visiting the star gazing park, it’s all about visual experiences. So according to Norbert, it’s important to set one’s sight on something spectacular.
Saturn for example. “The rings of Saturn usually take away the observer’s breath.” Norbert isn’t exaggerating. Even when using a smaller telescope, the view of the rings of Saturn are spectacular. It’s surprising how sharp the light orbits become apparent on the dark background. The motorised device allows you to let your gaze roam over the greatly magnified crater rims of the lunar surface. It seems like you’re flying over the moon. Astronomical observatories are an incomparable experience: Not like a simulation you can see at a planetarium, but an amazing view of real objects. When you look up into the starry sky, you’ll see a part of nature which can no longer be taken for granted. ‘Light pollution’ is a much-discussed topic among astronomers, physicians, and biologists. The bright lights in buildings and dazzling city streetlights have negative consequences for wildlife – and it also impairs our healthy sleep.
Dr Norbert Span, geophysicist and meteorologist, offers trainings for future star gazing guides.
Many people know – and have experienced first-hand – that nowadays it doesn’t get very dark at night. However, only very few people know what this means and how much has become invisible. Standing in a really dark place, you can see about 3,000 stars at night. But when standing on the outskirts of a town, you can only see around 100 stars – if you’re lucky. It’s estimated that 60 per cent of Europeans cannot see the Milky Way galaxy from where they live. And 99 per cent of all Europeans live in a light polluted area. The light dome that emanates over a big city reaches as far as 160 kilometres. That means: We have made a large part of our environment invisible. That’s probably why so many are fascinated by astronomical observatories nowadays. They kind of fill a gap in our image of the world.
Star gazing in Tirol
The only astronomical observatory in Tirol is located at the top station of the Venet cable car. The Venet summit hut offers overnight accommodation. Information and dates for star gazing at: www.venet.at/en
More information about guided hikes under starry night skies in the Kaunertal Valley at: www.kaunertal.com/en
Some people even follow the darkness. Norbert Span is one of them; he’s passionate about astrophotography. “Many people fly to Chile or Namibia for star gazing. Or they travel all the way to see the auroral lights; but finding a room in Lofoten, Norway, is almost impossible nowadays.” A sustainable tourism branch has developed around places without light pollution. The International Dark Sky Association awards cities and regions for their work protecting the night from light pollution. ‘Dark sky parks’ promote their night skies, which are undisturbed by artificial light. Not all these parks are in the Atacama Desert though; there are also places in Central Europe which are shielded from the large light domes that emanate over cities.
One of these places is situated in the Kaunertal Valley in Tirol. Hikers and mountaineers love this area because there’s no mass tourism, and nature is widely intact. But at night the valley also has its special attraction. At the south end of the valley, where the glacier becomes narrower, there’s hardly any artificial light. Guided hikes under starry night skies have been possible here for the last three years.
“It’s an unusual time to be at an unusual place. We are experiencing something that we would usually not be able to experience,” says Andreas Hudler from the office of the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman. With their campaign “The Plight with Light” (“Die Helle Not” in German), the Tyrolean Environmental Ombudsman has been drawing attention to light pollution for more than 15 years. The office supports projects like this hike under starry night skies in the Kaunertal Valley because these kinds of projects can help raise awareness for this topic. According to Andreas Hudler, darkness is not only important for astronomers. The importance of darkness for the ecosystem is being explored: Nocturnal insects are disappearing in areas where humans artificially lighten up the surroundings. Which in return has an effect on the flora and animals. Light pollution is just like any other form of pollution; it disturbs a balance in nature which humans have not yet fully understood.
The road leading to the Gepatschhaus hut at 1,928 metres above sea level is accessible by vehicle. Standing on the terrace, you have an amazing view of the white glacier tongue, and a bit further below, embedded between mountains, there’s a valley bottom with green meadows and Austrian stone pine trees. In order to experience the darkness, it’s not enough to just wait until sunset. The sun must be far enough below the horizon. There are three different stages of dusk. The civil dusk is followed by the nautical dusk. Finally, there’s the astronomical dusk. That’s when it’s worth looking up into the starry sky. So, ten o’clock in the evening is the perfect time to start our hike. The lunar phase is ideal; it’s just shortly after the new moon. Although it was a promising sunny day, some clouds are now appearing in the sky. Equipped with our red-light torches, we start our hike by cutting across the field towards a stone cone prominently standing out in the landscape. It marks the point the glacier used to reach 150 years ago.
We continue downhill, cross a small crystal-clear stream, and hike along the valley floor – around us the silhouettes of the Austrian stone pine trees. The sky is now so overcast that it’s difficult to see any stars at all. Even the bright Vega directly above us is hardly visible. Philip Hughes, a local guide and astronomy expert accompanying the hike under starry night skies, explains what would be visible during good weather conditions. In great darkness, you won’t only recognise many stars, but also their colour differences. The blue colour of the hot stars, the yellow colour of the medium-hot ones, including our sun, and the red colour of the cooler stars, which often expand enormously with age. However, the sky above us remains murky. The Cygnus constellation, deriving its name from the Latinized Greek word for swan, is partly covered by a bright band, which is difficult to distinguish from all the bands of clouds in the sky. We can hear the water rushing and our voices sound muted. We continue our hike, following the light of our torches and paying close attention to the path. This part of the valley is extremely dark. We can only see the black colour of the mountains and the silhouettes of the trees around us, but otherwise no details of the landscape are visible. There’s no electrical light as far as the eye can see. Except at our starting point the Gepatschhaus mountain hut, where there’s a weak yellowish square light shimmering, maybe it’s the light from the kitchen window.
It’s nearly midnight, but there’s still a light on at the Gepatschhaus mountain hut at the south end of the Kaunertal Valley. Otherwise, there are no other artificial light sources.
Night hikers exploring the Ötztal Valley Alps with their red-light torches.
At least two planets are already clearly visible. Jupiter and Saturn are shining in the south, slightly above the glacier. Directly above us it remains hazy, but around the Ursa Major, also known as the Great Bear or Big Dipper, the cloud cover is breaking up. Throughout the sky, scattered stars are peeping through the curtain of clouds. Suddenly, the first highlight appears. The international space station (ISS) is moving from the Great Bear across the whole sky. We clearly recognise the W-shape, formed by five bright stars, of the Cassiopeia. The Ursa Minor – also known as the Little Bear or Little Dipper. “About here, just a little bit to the left, the Andomeda galaxy would now be visible,” Philip Hughes explains. It looks like we might be lucky after all. We’ve probably been out and about for 45 minutes now, and the weather conditions have completely changed for the better.
After about one hour, it finally happens: We are about to turn around, are just taking a last look into the sky, when the clouds finally blow over. The stars are tightly packed next to each other. There must be thousands of them up there. The Cygnus constellation is still partly covered by a grey band, but at a second glance, we realise that it isn’t a band of clouds after all. The Milky Way galaxy is clearly visible, spreading all the way down to the glacier and disappearing behind the mountain. We take one last look up to the spot where the Andomeda galaxy is supposed to appear. It’s usually recognisable as a very weak light spot – it’s our largest neighbouring galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. And the spot is really there. We can finally see it.
During the night, the chair lifts stand still in the mountains. It’s exactly this calmness and the absolute darkness that attract more and more visitors to the Tirolean Mountain Night.
The stars are shining in the night skies above the Kaunertal Valley – the mountain ridge is shielding the artificial light.
The famous constellations which are often clearly visible when standing on the outskirts of a town are now hardly visible because of the amazing glittering. An unforgettable moment. The curtain of clouds has disappeared. The darkness is now really taking full effect. Andreas Hudler and Philip Hughes hold a measuring instrument up into the sky. It shows 21,36 mag/arcsec². It’s a level showing the surface brightness and is enough to receive the ‘dark sky park’ title by the International Dark Sky Association.
We slowly make our way back to the hut. It’s quite difficult to keep your eyes on the path and not trip when all you want to do is look up into the spectacular sparkling sky. Time and again, we stop to gaze up into the sky. The outlines of the Milky Way galaxy are clearly visible now. It’s not an even band but has cuts, curves, and extensive eclipses. “Clouds out of dust,” Philip Hughes says. “They block our view of the centre of the galaxy.”
Our red-light beams illuminate the way back to the Gepatschhaus mountain hut. Although it was dark, it was never quiet: The rushing water of the stream accompanied us the whole way. Eventually, we arrive back to the terrace. There really is a light still shining through the kitchen window. It’s already long after midnight.
Spending a night in the darkness sounds so natural. Yet it’s still something so special. We saw the Milky Way galaxy. Something taken for granted so many years ago before we switched off this part of nature. This is an emotional moment for all of us.