Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No Sleep 'Til Sonthofen, Day 4

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We rose early to a sour-tempered Frau Hubertus. In the dim light of a foggy morning, with what must have been a magnificent hangover, the English woman served her American guests a Germanic breakfast of sliced meat, cheese, thick brown bread, butter, jam and tea. There was no more talk of a desk manager position for Charles. In fact, there was no talk at all, just a dark, lurking spectre who would appear from time to time, growl and retreat. After breakfast we were presented with a bill that was twice what we had expected. The previous evening Charles had asked for the room rate and Frau Hubertus had, instead, told him the price per person. It was an honest mistake, and $42 was not exorbitant by any fair standard. Even so, we took our leave in not so jolly a fashion as we had arrived.

This was to be our most demanding day yet. We had planned it that way, hoping to hike a double leg. We needed to avoid a certain alpine hut known as Staufner Haus in which Charles had been ill the previous year.

The alpine hut system requires a bit of background. Scattered throughout the alps are hundreds of remotely isolated huts, each with its own personality. Some are ski huts, mostly empty in the summer, others are hiking huts that close down in the winter. From any given hut, one can count on finding at least one other within walking distance.

Although some huts are privately owned, most are run by the alpine club of their respective country. Many are sponsored by a particular alpine club branch and bear the name of a town or region in that country. All offer rustic accommodations, many serve meals, and most offer at least one local beer on tap. To be ill in such a close setting is a miserable experience both for the victim and for the other guests sleeping close by. Charles had a horror of reliving that experience, and that was our main reason for this doubly long day.

Charles was still carrying a half-kilo tin of fish in his pack. This fish became our mascot as we started our first real ascent. If I were ever to design a family crest for Charles, canned herring would place prominently on his shield. It added significant weight to his pack but, he claimed, it would give him strength when he needed it most.

The first part of our hike was a climb up to Staufner Haus, the hut that we wished to avoid. The uphill hike was tiring but not so harsh as Charles remembered from the previous year. The trail was well-traveled and wide, winding over the grassy foothills that lead to the hut.

We reached the hut around noon but did not stop. Instead we continued hiking until we reached a nearby ski lift with a restaurant. There I ordered my standard spaghetti bolognaise and Charles indulged in a plate of weisswurst. So far we were making good progress. Best of all, we had finally reached real, honest to goodness, mountains. Beyond Staufner Haus, the cliffs were striated where layers of rock had been turned on end by some prehistoric tectonic collision. Between the standing layers of rock, pine trees grew neatly in rows, as if intentionally planted. Overlooking this striking scenery we finished our lunch and continued on our way.

It was 5:00 when we noticed the storm clouds behind us. We were in the middle of an extraordinary ridge walk, completely exposed on all sides. On our left, the ground dropped off sharply to green pastures hundreds of feet below. On our right, diagonal layers of rock formed great downward cliffs, progressively eroding into to a steep grassy slope. To encounter a thunder storm on such a ridge could be life threatening. We picked up the pace, glancing warily over our shoulders, but the ridge went on and on with no visible end in sight. Worse, on the right side of the trail a barbed wire fence snaked on for miles in either direction. It occurred to me that one strike, anywhere along that fence, could light up the entire trail.

Adding to the problem of the storm, we were both starting to suffer from trail claustrophobia. We could have enjoyed ourselves infinitely more by hiking separately for a couple of days. Without space, we became peevish and unbearable, imagining slights and devious motives where none could possibly exist. I remember secretly, and unfairly, blaming Charles for our lodging issues. Charles, tiring of my frequent thoughtlessness, was starting to snap at me.

Really, I was being terribly inconsiderate. I was relying on Charles for everything: he ordered my meals, he found us rooms, he handled the maps. He had even paid for my plane ticket. The only thing he didn't do was carry my pack. And I don't think I had yet thanked him for any of it. Instead, I resented my dependence on him and that made me irritable. All the same, I did not have the courage to strike out alone for even one day. Having since found myself many times in the position of trail guide, I understand well the pressure that Charles must have felt. It is no surprise to me that he was sometimes a little out of sorts.

At about 6:00 we started to notice the play of lightning on the mountains behind us. I am not a cowardly man and am willing to take my chances with all sorts of weather but lightening on a ridge, I'd rather not face. We sped up again and were thankful for a blue patch of sky that seemed to hover over our heads while everything in sight turned grey. From this vantage we warily watched as the storm swept through the valleys on either side of our ridge. Soon the rain was falling like curtains to the east and west. As the evening wore on, those curtains were closing in.

It was 9:00, and we had just stepped onto a road, when the sky opened up on our heads. Fortunately the road took us through the heart of a thick pine forest. That was some consolation, as we would be safer from the lightning if not from the rain. Unfortunately, we still had three miles before the first chance of a room.

As the sky darkened and the rain pelted down, we put on our headlamps and rain gear. Half a mile later, we stopped to look at our map. It was encased in a plastic map bag and difficult to read through the raindrops. As we studied the route, Charles' trail claustrophobia got the better of him.

"Stop looking at me!" he snapped. "Your light is shining right in my eyes!"

I apologized, half-heartedly, and suggested that he walk on ahead. He did so and we continued, both stewing like a dysfunctional married couple.

Two and a half miles later we came to the first pension. Charles knocked as we huddled, half covered by the awning above the door. A moustached man in lederhosen opened it a crack.

"Do you have any rooms available?" Charles asked him in German.

The man looked us up and down and seemed to consider for a moment. We shuffled impatiently, soaked to the skin, waiting for him to show some courtesy and let us in. We must have made quite an impression.

"Nein" he finally replied, and made as if to close the door.

"Excuse me," Charles said, again in German. "Can you at least tell us how far it is to the next pension?"

He shrugged, "One kilometer, maybe two?" and then closed the door neatly in our faces.

Now we had a common enemy and could direct our irritation away from each other. We spent the next mile replaying the incredible scene and thinking up new epithets to hurl back over our shoulders. I remember imagining that this walk was my atonement for sins of the past. Charles was thinking along the same lines, promising God aloud that he would be a better man if we survived. It was all very melodramatic.

Our anger got us through the first mile but, into the second, despair began to take hold. At every turn we expected to see the lights of a town but Sonthofen was still a full hour away. It was there, at 11PM, that we finally spotted the next pension. We had determined that our pathetic appearance had lost us the previous chance. We did not want to risk a repeat episode so, across the street, in the vaulted doorway of a church, we changed into our best remaining clothes. Then we crossed back and rang the buzzer.

The young lady of the house, a dark-haired beauty, hustled us into the hallway and out of the rain. In complete contrast to the moustached man's greeting, she was all courtesy and kindness. Charles was not hungry but I was famished. I asked her if there was a chance of getting something cold from the kitchen.

"I can make you anything from the menu." she replied pleasantly.

"How about a steak?" I asked, testing my luck.

"No problem," she said.

Fifteen minutes later, at a table in the rustic dining room, I ate the best steak of my life. I fell asleep at midnight, feeling very fortunate that I was not sleeping in the church doorway -- or even in the same bed as Charles.

Next week
I Go Solo, Days 5 and 6

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