A thousand 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.