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Underground in the mine

On discovery

When you climb a mountain, you're heading toward the sky. But what if you go in the opposite direction? If instead of climbing up the mountain, you climb into the mountain? Then you end up with a whole series of primal fears: narrowness, darkness, disorientation. Facing them while climbing a mountain is a unique experience. One that lingers on.

Three degrees, drizzle, a thick soup of fog: When Robert Gruber, the managing director of the Villanders Mine Cultural Association, greets me at the visitors' parking lot, it's not exactly mountain weather. Nevertheless, a mountain tour is on the agenda. One that is completely new territory for me, one that I only know will take me deep into the Villanders mine, one that Robert has said is "a bit more extreme". More extreme than what? I don't know, but I tell myself that the comparison was with the normal visitor tour. It's doable, I think. I hope so.

So the weather fits the mood in my head perfectly. It's just as cloudy, a few questions have been running through my brain in a continuous loop for days: How will I feel in there? How will the fact that thousands and thousands of tons of mountain are piling up above me affect me? What if I panic? And how on earth will I get out of it?
"How will I do in there?"
Robert's good mood helps to forget all that for a few minutes. He shows me where our tour will take us. Even on the map, it's a challenge, since dozens of generations of miners have done a great job. In almost 1,000 years, they have cut through the Pfunderer Berg like a Swiss cheese. Around 20 kilometers of tunnels run through the mountain on several levels from around 800 to 1500 meters above sea level.

The tunnels run crisscross, steep passages connect the levels, some of the passages end in the light, others in nothingness. It's good that I don't have to memorize this. It's good that I have Robert and his son Klaus with me as guides, who know the tunnels like the back of their hand. After all, Robert has been digging his way through the mountain here for over 40 years.
Crawling, climbing and scrambling

But it doesn't matter whether you walk, crawl or climb. It is always an irrepressible urge to explore that drives you on. What's around the next bend? What awaits me in the next gallery? What difficulties await? And what beauties? Because one thing is clear: Anyone who expects the mountain to be a dreary gray is completely wrong.

The congenial interplay of water and minerals has created one wonder of nature after another here, completely undisturbed over centuries. Filigree stalactites hang from the ceiling, here and there bright white cave pearls form on the floor, molds draw cream-colored, leaf-vein-like webs over the wood. Again and again, fool's gold (pyrite) glitters in the light of the headlamp, and luminous gypsum crystals cover the walls, as if someone had wanted to salt them. Completely unexpected is also the colorfulness that unfolds down here. Washed-out sulfur leaves yellow stains and welts, lead emerges from the walls in deep black, iron provides rust-red nuances, and then there is the copper, which colors walls light blue or bright green, as if a child had been playing with a paintbox.
That, too, is part of the fascination of climbing a mine: you're walking on ground rich in history. Every time I take quicker steps through one of the tunnels, I wonder how long it took the miners to break through the same distance: with hammer and pickaxe in the glow of a burning pine chip clamped between their teeth. Robert has an answer to this question, too (as to pretty much all of them): a squire managed eight to twelve meters a year, or two to three centimeters a day. One month of hard labor then, one step today.

The hardship under which work was done here for almost a millennium is hardly imaginable today. Neither is the wealth that the operating families, above all the Augsburg Fuggers, made from it. Up to 1,000 people were employed in and around the Villanders mine alone; copper, zinc and no less than 30 tons of lead were extracted per year in the best of times - and 135 kilograms of silver, which was more valuable than gold around 1500.

And the fear of the dark?

That's another story. Shortly before the end of the tour, Robert gathers us around him and asks us to turn off our headlamps. What surrounds us is absolute, impenetrable, pitch-black darkness. The all-encompassing nothingness. "So," Robert asks, "how does it feel, the darkness?" He himself and most visitors find the pitch black liberating, feeling an almost infinite vastness, he says.

And me? I'm not the one belonging to those 'most visitors'. I only feel the infinite expanse when I step out of the Lorenzistollen back into daylight, when the view no longer extends only to the next bend, but goes out into the heart of the Unesco World Heritage Dolomites: to the Geisler peaks, the Sella Group, to the Langkofel and Plattkofel. As stupid as it sounds: my eyes breathe a sigh of relief. And I have made it: richer by a unique experience and a few insights.

Good luck!

Text from: Berge erleben - Das Magazin des Alpenvereins Südtirol AVS
Text written by (German): J. Christian Rainer
Publication: 04/2021

A man in the mine of Villanders