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Austrian lake offers climate haven for Dutch ice skaters

For over two decades, climate change has prevented a hallowed fixture in the Dutch ice skating calendar. But devotees of this national obsession have found refuge in the Austrian Alps—all thanks to James Bond.

Over the past two weeks, thousands of ice skaters—almost all of them Dutch—have flocked to the Weissensee lake, 930 meters above sea level in southern Austria, in order to recreate the spirit of outdoor ice skating’s Holy Grail: the “Elfstedentocht.”

It’s a race which originally linked 11 towns in the Netherlands via frozen canals but for 22 years a lack of ice has meant organizing it there has been impossible.

Instead, hundreds could be seen gathering on the lake before sunrise earlier this week, headlamps ready and raring to set off on the 200-kilometer (124-mile) route in temperatures of minus 10 degrees C (14 degrees F).

“We searched for solutions in several European countries,” says Toine Doreleijers, the organizer of the “Alternative Elfstedentocht.”

“But nowhere else did we find a frozen lake that was so stable.”

And it was none other than James Bond that led them to the discovery in 1987.

“When the film ‘The Living Daylights’ came out, there was a car chase scene on a lake and it was obvious that if this ice could support that, it could also support thousands of skaters,” says Doreleijers.

The race has proved a godsend for the 700-strong Weissensee locality.

Almut Knaller, from the local tourism office, says the event pulls in 40,000 overnight stays.

“Beforehand, after Christmas, it would get very quiet. Thank you, James Bond!”

‘Ice Master’

The “Alternative Elfstedentocht” has been held annually in Weissensee since 1989, while the original route in the Netherlands has only been usable once in that time, in 1997.

Harry van den Heuvel, a 56-year-old logistics manager, is one of those who’ve come halfway across the continent to compete.

“The true route is really something mythical. So much so that the number of participants had to be limited to 15,000,” he says.

It’s Harry’s fourth time at Weissensee, and this year he finished behind his personal best, with a time of eight hours and 22 minutes, held up by 15 falls on the way.

Professional skaters compete on separate days and normally finish in under six hours.

The job of preparing the ice for these two weeks of competition falls to one man—72-year-old handyman Norbert Jank.

Jank can remember the days when he just used the frozen lake for horse-drawn sleigh rides—since then he has been dubbed the “Ice Master” for his knowledge of the lake.

“The crew for the James Bond film asked me to ensure that the ice would hold for the shooting,” he remembers.

Since then he has worked together with his team to produce 25 hectares of ice suitable for skating, encompassing the 12.5-km ring used by the Alternative Elfstedentocht.

Skating on thin ice

Weissensee owes its particular iciness to “a basin effect which sees cold air pile up on the surface of the water, and also to the fact that in general there is no fog to retain heat,” says Gerhard Hohenwarter, of the ZAMG meteorological institute.

But Weissensee is now also finding out that there is no escape from climate change.

“As with everywhere else in the Alps, temperatures have risen by 2 degrees C in 40 years,” says Hohenwarter, adding that several other lakes in the region which used to be suitable for skating now don’t freeze over reliably.

Jank has seen the effects in action.

“In the old days, the ice would be around 50 cm thick, sometimes 80. Now it’s more like 30. I wouldn’t bet on it being fit for skating in 20 years’ time.”

Until then, Weissensee “allows us to keep Dutch outdoor ice skating culture alive, it’s an essential part of our heritage,” says Doreleijers.

But van den Heuvel still dreams of the day when the original route will reopen.

“I very much hope to be able to race on it,” he says. 

Topics: Dutch ice skating calendar , Elfstedentocht , Toine Doreleijers , Gerhard Hohenwarter

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