Warm­ing melted the ice rink, so a Dutch skat­ing fes­ti­val moved to Aus­tria

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - TIMES TRENDS - An­drew Keh & Pete Kiehart

At­hou­sand Dutch skaters con­gre­gated be­fore dawn on the frozen sur­face of the Weis­sensee, the long, slen­der lake that gives this small Aus­trian moun­tain town its name. The skaters had been warned not to re­move their gog­gles, lest their eye­balls frost over in the wind.

The con­di­tions, by any rea­son­able stan­dard, were bru­tal. But the skaters were in heaven. “The most beau­ti­ful thing in life is skat­ing on a floor of black ice, in the cold, hear­ing the sounds of ice skat­ing in na­ture,” said Wim Wil­tenburg, 53.

Speed­skat­ing on nat­u­ral ice is a beloved Dutch na­tional pas­time. The tra­di­tion is alive and well — just not nec­es­sar­ily in the Nether­lands, where cli­mate change now yields win­ters too warm for the wa­ter­ways to freeze over with any con­sis­tency. The con­se­quences of this have been felt most pro­foundly in a his­tor­i­cal event called the Elf­st­e­den­tocht, a one­day, long-dis­tance speed­skat­ing tour through 11 cities of the Fries­land prov­ince.

Cov­er­ing a con­tin­u­ous route of about 200km, the Elf­st­e­den­tocht takes place only when the lakes and canals of Fries­land de­velop 6 inches or more of ice. That was once a rel­a­tively com­mon phe­nom­e­non; lately, it has been ex­ceed­ingly rare.

But the Dutch refuse to let its spirit die. So ev­ery winter, close to 6,000 peo­ple from the Nether­lands make a pil­grim­age to Weis­sensee. Cli­mate mi­grants of the sports world, they seek the cold and the ice of this town’s enor­mous lake. Known as the Al­ter­na­tive Elf­st­e­den­tocht, the re­lo­cated race has been em­braced by the Dutch as the rare chance to skate the same stag­ger­ing 200km dis­tance.

In the mean­time, the Al­ter­na­tive Elf­st­e­den­tocht in Aus­tria tries to ad­dress the Dutch yearn­ing for ice. The 12.5km course last month folded back and forth along the lake.

Par­tic­i­pants skated 16 laps, keep­ing one eye at all times on the ice, which showed long, hazardous cracks, like an­cient mar­ble. They hy­drated and hoarded calo­ries, grab­bing cold raisin bread again and again from track­side ta­bles. They ranged in age from 14 to 77. Ev­ery­one started the tour in the dark, and the last skaters fin­ished in the dark, 11 hours later. Ici­cles formed on fa­cial hair. In­juries abounded.

Weis­sensee now has be­come a reg­u­lar stop for many Dutch speed­skaters. Last year, the air­line Transavia cre­ated a di­rect flight route from Rot­ter­dam to Kla­gen­furt, Aus­tria, to help ac­com­mo­date the pil­grims. Dur­ing last month’s event, Dutch na­tional flags were stretched across bal­conies, and Dutch vis­i­tors zipped along snow-cov­ered roads on their bi­cy­cles.

Af­ter the sec­ond run­ning last month, hun­dreds of the skaters, some cheek­ily dressed in tra­di­tional Aus­trian clothes, packed into a lake­side tent for the Blis­ter Ball, a rau­cous party that fea­tured floor-sway­ing sin­ga­longs, plumes of fake snow and at least four peo­ple dancing with newly bro­ken arms. “For two weeks, Weis­sensee be­comes Dutch,” said Ger­hard Koch, the mayor of the town.

NYT

KEEP­ING TRA­DI­TION ALIVE: Skaters take part in the Al­ter­na­tive Elf­st­e­den­tocht in Weis­sensee, Aus­tria

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