On the hunt for minerals

My brief was to write a blog about minerals in the Ziller Valley. Just right for someone like me, who knows absolutely nothing about stones and minerals!

Garnet found in the Ziller Valley

©Marion Pepeunig

Created by Marion Pepeunig

However, I accepted the challenge and was surprised by how much I learnt. An article on collecting minerals in the magazine Höhenluft was exactly what I needed to get started. 

©Blickfang Photographie

The "Original Mineral Hunter" - WALTER UNGERANK

Seek and you shall find…

The journey from a small lad in short lederhosen, who inherited a fascination with stones from his father, to a renowned mineral expert has been a long one, over hill and dale, but one which the ‘original mineral hunter’ Walter Ungerank continues today with undiminished passion and commitment. His love of minerals is no coincidence, as the Ziller Valley is known as the treasure chest of the Alps and has always been an ideal location for natural scientists to mae discoveries. 

Addicted to stones

Walter Ungerank was first introduced to collecting stones as a ten-year-old boy and was immediately hooked. The house quickly filled up with his precious stones. His fascination knew no limits; again and again he had to find space, or make space, for a new find.

Höhenluft spoke to this passionate collector, who covers hundreds of kilometers and thousands of altitude meters every year in search of new treasures. 

What qualities do you need to be a mineral collector? 

Walter Ungerank: Above all, you have to love nature and be able to go through life with your eyes wide open. You also need to enjoy it, despite the necessary physical effort (which requires a good level of fitness). 

What commitment is required? 

Walter Ungerank: During winter 2010/11, for example, I purposefully went on a diet in order to squeeze myself into a tight crevasse the following spring. One more kilo of body weight would have made all the difference.  As I painstakingly maneuvered my head through the hole, I was the first person who had accessed this undiscovered part of the mountain. For me that was a dream come true! Especially, as what we collectors don’t salvage and bring back to the valley will be mercilessly destroyed by nature. 

How often do your expeditions push you to the limit? 

Walter Ungerank: I have been very lucky on several occasions. For example, when I risk a jump or when time gets away from me and I’m relieved to get home at night fit and well. Once I dislocated my shoulder at an altitude of 2,800m and had to be rescued by helicopter. I have also had two hernias operated on. 

Minerals in the Ziller Valley
©Marion Pepeunig
Minerals in the Ziller Valley
©Blickfang Photographie
Minerals in the Ziller Valley
©Marion Pepeunig
©Chronik Ginzling

What equipment do you need to go looking for stones? 

Walter Ungerank: A pickaxe, hammer and chisel, as well as a good lunch. A bar of chocolate is important to give me an energy boost before I start back to the valley. The most I have ever carried back down with me is 40 kilograms – you really feel that in the evening! 


What fascinates you so much about your passion? 

Walter Ungerank: The hunt. When the stones are on display, I am pleased that people enjoy looking at them [for example, at his 2012 exhibition in the Europahaus]. Also, the research aspect and documentation process with photos and short films. 


How many stones have you found in your career? 

Walter Ungerank: I think I’ve found about 3,000 stones over many years. My cellar is full of display cases where my treasures are stored including clear mountain quartz, black smoky quartz, red and green garnet, violet scepter amethysts and dark green emeralds.  I am quite proud that I was the first to discover the stone age tools made from mountain quartz at the Schlegeis, which are around seven or nine thousand years old. In comparison, the famous Ötzi discovery is "only" 5,300 years old.

You are well respected and renowned amongst experts in the field.

Walter Ungerank: I work together with geologists and archeologists at the University of Innsbruck and am honored to oversee the mineral collection at the Tyrolean State Museum (Tiroler Landesmuseum). I attend many lectures in Austria and abroad, and also give lectures myself. 


Have you documented your finds, adventures and experiences?

Walter Ungerank: I have kept diaries fastidiously for the last 50 years, documenting every mountain expedition, every person who accompanied me, whether I found anything and how and where I found a stone. 48 thick folders contain countless stories of the mineralogical and geological history of the Ziller Valley.


Do you actually believe in the mystical powers of stones? 

Walter Ungerank: As an amateur scientist I have to say I don’t really believe in this. I could maybe believe that quartz could have a certain “effect” on headaches. 


What tips do you give adventurous hikers who want to follow in your tracks? 

Walter Ungerank: Hike to the Berliner Hütte and start looking around the area by the former garnet mill. Everyone can find something there – it’s even a great place for children to get a first taste of collecting minerals. I still have my first quartz that I found when I was ten years old. 


How does a fanatic collector like you survive the long winter months? 

Walter Ungerank: Polishing and cleaning the stones I have found and documenting the finds. And waiting for the snow to melt so that I can finally get back out into nature and start looking for stones again. 


Facts about minerals

The Zillertal Alps have long been known as a mineralogical treasure chest. Even at the end of the 17th century, peddlers used to make a good side business out of their valuable finds. Some hut owners were lucky enough to find crystals and could earn more selling them to salesmen than it was possible to earn in a year of farming. This attracted natural scientists and mineralogists to the Ziller Valley, where they became the first summer tourists.