Thursday, July 23, 2009

Memminger Hütte, Day 7

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Charles and I were each hiking solo again. The day before had been a welcome break for both of us. Charles had arrived at Kemptner Hütte shortly after I checked in. After getting his own mattress spot he headed off to find a quiet place to read. I stayed on the deck to read Kerouac and write in my journal, only retiring inside when the sun went behind the western cliffs and the chill of the evening settled in.

In the morning the dining room was a hive of activity. At a busy window I traded a ticket for my "großes Frühstück" ("large breakfast"), then borrowed the unused corner of a table from a friendly family and ate with very little gusto. The "large" breakfast looked familiar but small: three slices of rye bread, tea or coffee (I took tea), some jam, butter and several thin shavings of meat and cheese. If I had not been so tired of German breakfasts, I might have finished it. I would have traded my new hiking stick for pancakes, bacon and eggs. Instead, I ate the perishables and one slice of the bread, wrapping the remainder in a napkin as usual.

The trail from Kemptner Hütte took me south east through a grassy field of boulders and up a well-maintained trail to a notch in the far side of the bowl. At the top were two signs, one a round yellow shield with the menacing shadow of the German Eagle, the other was striped red and white with an Austrian eagle in the middle (what is it with countries and eagles?) This was the only indication that I was crossing from Germany back into Austria. So I passed through the imaginary line of the border and said a final farewell to Germany.

In those pre-Euro days, all this border crossing made it a challenge to keep track of my currency. By this point I had French and Swiss Francs, German Deutsche Marks, and Austrian Schillings all thrown together in the outer pocket of my backpack. Soon enough I would be adding Italian Lira to the mix. I was beginning to feel a bit like a morris dancer jingling up and down the hills. It was rumored that Austrian huts would take German currency. This would be a relief if it proved to be true. I still had at least twenty dollars of unused German notes and coins. It would be a shame to bring them home with me.

The view from the notch was a grand expanse of jagged peaks and valleys. As if in torn patches, white snow glimmered through gray gravel rock slides, adding dramatic depth to the vast panorama. The towering mountains rose, layered for miles, turning pale blue as they approached the horizon. My trail led downward to the valley floor, curving and ducking through scrub pines, around large stones, and across mossy, flower-strewn fields.

By 10:00 the trail had widened to a road, taking me alongside a twisting gorge cut deep by a rushing series of watery cascades. Ice bridges arched over some sections. In others, water tumbled around towers of rock to appear, white and aerated at another bend in the trail. I tried to photograph a waterfall through a tunnel of rock but without the third dimension it proved impossible to capture.

This amazing performance continued for perhaps a quarter mile before the falls flattened into a river. I soon arrived at Holzgau, a quaint little village featuring a small hotel with an outdoor cafe. There I ordered an apple streudel and a "Radler", a local concoction of weissbeer and lemon soda. On an adjacent hillock stood a picturesque church with pointed red roof and a small cemetery. I pondered the church while I devoured the freshly baked pastry. Once fully refreshed, I felt ready to skip the shuttle ride and to tackle the road to Madau -- the base for my next ascent. This was despite the suggestive fact that all the other hikers were waiting for the shuttle bus.

The ensuing three-hour slog turned out to be another prime example of my dubious judgment. I was quickly learning that it never pays to second-guess Germans. The pine woods may have been beautiful but the "trail" was mostly a paved road with little respite for the feet. On the way my boots, already tattered, began to fall apart, splitting at the seams and separating from the soles. I changed to my Tevas for a short stretch but soon realized that this was a worse idea. With a 35 pound pack, I need proper ankle support and cushioning.

To rub salt in my wounds, every half hour the shuttle (a minibus) would speed by in a cloud of grit and diesel fumes, and I would be forced off the road, dodging into the brambles or flattening myself against a wall of blasted rock. I began to think that the driver was out to get me. When I finally emerged from the trees and into the sunlight near the trailhead, I was thoroughly exhausted. Swearing that I would never pass up another bus ride, I gratefully stepped back onto the real trail and began my ascent to Memminger Hütte.

The hike from this point was unrelenting. A thin, crumbling path takes one up the side of a steep valley. Scrub brush and flowers line the sides of the trail which is almost a trench in some places. The way is lined with memorials and a tiny chapel, each dedicated to someone who lost his life on the mountain.

Half way to the hut, the trail crosses a field and then a glacial stream. The field was a beautiful sight, as was the rushing water, and I refilled my bottles, following the example of the other hikers. The water was clear and fresh. I drank an entire liter and refilled it again.

I was becoming quite hungry. There were several old slices of bread in my pack as well as emergency rations of dried fruit and chocolate. I decided to pause for a snack, although what I really wanted was a burger and fries. Still, I had no idea how much further I might have to hike, and the chances of a burger when I got there were somewhat less than nil.

I chose a large, flat rock by the water and was quickly joined by a dozen soft brown moths who fluttered down to settle on my arms and legs. I took this to be a good omen. I later discovered that these little brown friends of mine, who found great pleasure in licking the salt off my arms, also feasted regularly on cow dung. So there I sat, oblivious and happy, covered in dung-eating moths.

I was soon hiking again. The remaining hour consisted of another thousand vertical feet. As I climbed, the greenery became thinner and more superficial. As with the last vertical part of any strenuous hike, every step was becoming a burden. My pack felt like lead on my shoulders and waist, and I reduced my pace to a crawl. I lost track of the scenery and looked mostly at the reddish earth, fixating on the crunch of every painful footstep until finally I found myself staring across the flat green bottom of another glacial bowl. In the near distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile further, stood Memminger Hütte, like a small wooden ranch against a backdrop of colossal, looming cliffs.

I pretty much jogged the final stretch, arriving completely winded with shaking legs and a light head. The vastness of the moonscape was hard to absorb. I dropped my pack on the porch, sat my back against the building and pulled off my dismal boots.

I had been hiking for nearly nine hours, over demanding mountains and hard asphalt. I was ready for a beer and as much dinner as I could afford. I entered the wood-paneled dining room and found a small, empty table. From the menu, scratched on a chalkboard, I ordered the tagessuppe (soup of the day), a vegetable medley that I finished in under five minutes. I moved on to the suppe mit wurst (a pea based soup with hot dog bits). Each meal came with the typical dense rye bread which was infinitely more palatable when dunked in the soup. After this I drank two hefeweizen and felt quite satisfied. I had not yet discovered a staple as satisfying as spaghetti bolognese but, sooner or later, I hoped that I might. In the meantime I tried to remember the names, and consistencies, of the dishes I had ordered, so as not to repeat my mistakes.

I spent the next two hours wondering when, or if, Charles would arrive. When he finally walked through the door, he looked just as exhausted as I had recently felt. He had started late, he assurred me, and had taken a number of longer rests. His bronchitis was completely gone but he was nonetheless ready for sleep. We confirmed that we would meet in the morning and he headed for the dormitory.

My bunk that night was, again, in the matratzenlager (mattress camp). I was starting to realize that the better rooms were always booked well in advance. Since I did not have the confidence to negotiate a reservation over the telephone, I reconciled myself to more lousy nights of sleep. Even so, I was enjoying the trip more than ever. Tomorrow I would be hiking with Charles once again. He was going to help me to buy some new boots. The hike would be shorter and mostly down hill, and we hoped to find private rooms in Zams.

Next Week
Zams and the über Familie


  1. I had hoped to see you use your polished prose to describe the Kemptner Hutte ritual washing of the cajones.

  2. Don't worry, Rex, we get there in a few episodes. I didn't really notice this phenomenon for a few more days, much to my later dismay.


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