Thursday, August 27, 2009

E5 Epilogue

Hiking In The Alps

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Bolzano, Italy, known as Bozen to the German speakers in the region, once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Just like the rest of South Tyrol, it came under intense pressure to become more Italian during the earlier part of the last century. The city has, more or less, capitulated, though the region as a whole is still quite ethnically divided. Consequently, as we were soon to discover, the German language is of little or no use in Bolzano.

By the time we stepped on the bus in Moos in Paseier, we had both decided we were done with our hiking trip. We had some regrets about not completing the entire section of the E5 from Konstance to Bolzano. Nonetheless, we had done the lion's share of it. The remainder was child's play compared to the hundred miles we had already covered.

Looking at myself in my hotel room's full-length mirror the previous evening I had seen a skeleton. My ribs were visible above a sunken stomach, my cheek bones protruded. Maybe it was just the fluorescent overhead bathroom lighting but, at least in that light, I was beginning to resemble a starved prisoner of war.

Charles had other concerns. He couldn't stop thinking about his office and the problems to which he should be attending. Being so far out of touch at a time of crisis was hard to endure. We still needed to make it back to Paris somehow and then, if luck was with us, catch an Air-Hitch flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Thinking about the time this would take was practically giving him hives.

The bus dropped us off at the train station in Bolzano. The station was striking to look at but, much like the region itself, it had a peculiar split personality. The right half was all grey Doric columns and Greek styling. The left half was more Mediterranean in design with a tall, square clock tower and reddish brown shingles. Clearly one half had preceded the other but it was hard to tell which might have come first.

We said goodbye to the Übers and they went off in search of a cable car to take them to the beginning of the next trail. We were sorry to see them go, not knowing if we would ever see them again, but after 11 days in the mountains we were tired of bunk rooms and ready for some city food.

We entered the ticketing hall and Charles went to the window to buy tickets on the night train while I waited with the bags by the entry way. When he returned he was beside himself with anxiety.

"We're stuck in Bozen," he said. "We may as well find a hotel and settle in."

"What to you mean?" I asked, incredulous. On the board were at least two trains leaving for Paris that very day. "Look at the departures."

"Oh there's trains, " he replied. "We just can't get reservations on any of them... not for the next four days."

I was stunned. Bolzano was a nice little city but we couldn't possibly stay for four days. I shook my head. "That doesn't sound right," I said. "That just can't be possible."

Charles tilted his head and looked at me with a hard, fed-up stare. He was as tired of me as I was of him. It wasn't the first time I had let him do the dirty work and then questioned his results. "Well, if you want to go and argue with the lady, be my guest."

Now nobody likes a know-it-all -- or so I've been told more times than I can possibly remember. My main problem is that I believe myself to have remarkable insight into things that I don't really understand at all. This belief, coupled with a fairly good track record for guessing, has driven many former friends and acquaintances to absolute distraction.

The fact that I came back with tickets won me few points with Charles. He could tell, from the thinly veiled smirk on my face, that I was gloating.

"What the hell?" he said when I gave him his ticket.

"I think you were asking for a reserved ticket," I said -- making a weak attempt at tact. "These seats aren't 'reserved'. We just sit wherever there's an empty seat."

It was probably better that we split up for the rest of the afternoon. Charles went in search of a Döner kebab and I went off to read in the shade. We agreed to meet back at the station thirty minutes before departure.

Bolzano felt tropical after our time in the nearby mountains. Vines tumbled over high, stuccoed garden walls, and everything was lush, fed by no fewer than three glacial rivers. Kiwi fruit dangled from backyard trellises, shaded by their elephant-eared vines. Vineyards anchored the nearby slopes, and the mountains, still capped with snow, were the backdrop of every vista. The homes on the nicer streets were vast and square. They were invariably stuccoed and either yellow, peach or beige in color. Where this wealth came from and how these grand properties continued to be maintained was a mystery to me.

We met back at the station in the early evening and claimed an unreserved cabin on the train. The train was an over-nighter, arriving in Paris the following morning, and we were determined to keep the cabin to ourselves. To do so, we came up with a devious, and blatantly inconsiderate, plan.

Initially, we spread out our bags to make it appear that every seat was taken. This ruse worked well, and soon the train was rolling out of the valley and into the darkness of the countryside. But now we needed to lie down and, somehow, keep others from trying to claim the seats we were using as our beds. I don't know which of us came up with part two of the plan in which we put on our headlamps, shut off the cabin lights and laid down -- heads at the outside wall of the train. Every time the train came to a stop, we would turn on our headlamps and aim them at the door. Anyone who paused to look was greeted by two bright beams staring silently out of the darkness. Needless to say, nobody had the courage to turn on the lights and ask if they could take an empty seat.

We arrived in Paris fairly well rested and took rooms in a youth hostel. We didn't see much of each other from then on. I wandered the city for a couple of days. Charles went right to work with Airhitch and got himself a flight out early the next morning.

Three days later I was back in Boston, at home with my girlfriend and working at my dead-end job. But that trip had changed me. It planted in me a travel-bug and, dare I say it, a sense of confidence that has, so far, been responsible for nearly a dozen European adventures as well as a dramatic career change.

Two weeks later we met to debrief in a bar in Somerville. Instead of reminiscing, we nearly came to blows. We had bottled up so much mutual resentment that we could hardly stand to be in the same room, let alone sit at the same table. I don't think either of us realized just how tired we were of each other. After that evening we wrote off our friendship entirely.

Soon after, I began making landmark changes to my life. I ended my 4-year relationship and moved in with an Italian con-artist, a French exchange student and a nymphomaniac dental hygienist -- but that's a story for another time. I helped launch a Web design company and buried myself in my work. My main goal was to make enough money to travel whenever I wanted. Nothing mattered except my next hiking vacation to the beautiful mountains of Europe.

I was, however, troubled by the thought that I had lost such a good friend. I couldn't even remember the reason. All I could recall were the good times. The embarrassing "Heiße Liebe" sundae; the Übers; the magnificent glacier over Braunschweiger Hütte; the giant breakfast in Zwieselstein.

So I stoked up my nerve and called him. A machine on the end of the line told me that the number had been changed. There was a forwarding number, however, so I wrote it down and tried it. A woman answered.

"Is Charles there?" I asked hesitantly -- not sure if I might have misdialed.

"No he's not. Can I ask who is calling?" she replied.

I told her.

"Oh, it's you," she said, smiling on the other end of the line. "I've been trying to get him to call you."

"You have?" I asked, puzzled. Who was this woman and how did she know me?

"Yes, he is always talking about you and the great times you had together. I told him it was stupid that he was so stubborn and that he should just call."

I left a message and Charles called me back that very evening. It was as if we had never once argued in our lives.

It may sound strange but I feel that our friendship did not really start until after that reconnection. Since then we have hiked many times together (see my Kungsleden travelogue) and many times apart but we have always taken this lesson with us: it is great to travel with a friend but one must have the courage to hike alone and to be one's own guide.

I am pleased to say that we have maintained a rewarding long-distance friendship with the Übers. Robert has come to visit us here, and Charles and I hiked with the whole family again several years later. Robert is now in his mid twenties, with a graduate degree and a fianceé. His English is better than ever, and his parents, ten years on, continue to hike over alpine glaciers.

Hiking a Knife Edge In The Alps

Happy trekking!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Over Timmelsjoch and Into the Italian Alps - Day 11

Fernwanderweg E5

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The trip to Zwieselstein brought two minor miracles. The first was, of course, Charles' survival on the treacherous snow field. The second was an 8 oz bottle of Canadian maple syrup that we found in Zwieselstein's tiny supermarket. I must caution my more adventurous readers that this supermarket has since been replaced by an ill-stocked convenience store with little more than carbonated drinks and junk-food snacks. At the time, however, we were able to piece together all the ingredients of an elaborate Lumberjack Breakfast for the entire hiking party.

We treated the Übers to what we imagined would be a breakfast epiphany. Once they had tried our breakfast, we speculated, word would spread through Germany and the entire continent about the pleasures and benefits of the Lumberjack Breakfast. I called home for my favorite pancake recipe, Charles fried up eggs, fatty ham (a decent bacon substitute) and diced potatoes. We offered orange juice and coffee, the whole works.

To our great surprise, the Übers didn't quite get it. Perhaps they were taken off guard by the heaps of carbohydrates, sugar and cholesterol. They didn't seem to know what to make of the maple syrup that I was pretty nearly drinking off the plate. For people who were used to eating their oats raw and their meats in paper-thin slices, it was probably a bit of a shocker. Regardless, we were very pleased with ourselves. My meager morning rations had been making me very homesick.

By the time we had cleaned up, the Übers had a good head start on us. We had arranged to meet for lunch at Timmelsjoch, the mountain pass into Italy.

Our morning hike started uphill from Zwieselstein. There was some confusion here due, I believe, to an overzealous (or sick humored) trail blazing team. The guidebook suggested that we hike up a dirt road but the first blazes we spotted were in the middle of a field. So we climbed the fence and proceeded to wade through damp, thigh-high stinging nettles and field grass up a thirty degree slope.

We soon found ourselves running back and forth, like desperate squirrels, searching for rocks with painted red and white stripes. Eventually the blazes disappeared entirely and we were left standing like idiots in the middle of the field. So we trudged blindly upward. The real trail, discovered on later hikes, is the dirt road that runs up the left of the field. Our farce concluded when this road crossed the field about a quarter of a mile up. Wet with dew, and exhausted from bushwhacking, we clamored over the stone wall and onto the real trail.

We soon passed through a pine forest and then out into fields again, this time with a proper trail and miles of open grassland. The sky seemed vast and beautifully blue after yesterday's fog. We were now crossing the high plains of the Ötz valley. A road ran through the center, taking traffic up to Timmelsjoch, our lunch meeting place and half-way point and the psychological (if not the actual) half-way point between Zieweselsteain, Austria and Moos in Passeier, Italy -- our destination that evening. As the trail opened up, Charles walked on ahead. My energy was lower than usual, and my pack felt heavy.

Sheep grazed lazily on the alpine grass, bored and unattended. I found water in a stream under a footbridge and refilled my bottles. The trail crossed the road several times as I climbed the grassy slopes of the canyon. It was a pleasant walk, despite my lethargy.

Timmelsjoch stands at the border between Italy and Austria. My first sight of it was an old, dilapidated building on a distant ridge as I climbed up the left side of the Ötz. On the road below, motorcyclists and trailer trucks sped by. The terrain was becoming dryer and more desolate, a marmot screeched in the distance and a hawk circled overhead. The sun and the dry wind evaporated my sweat as soon as it started. I could see Charles, perhaps a half mile ahead, climbing steadily. I was in no hurry. My pant legs were hard and caked with dry dust, and my appetite had not yet returned.

When we got to the top, we met the Übers at the small Rasthaus Timmelsjoch, 8231 feet above sea level. The Übers had taken a long table with a large picture window at one end. The view was impressive, and we happily joined them for lunch. I ordered a weisswurst and, on a whim, decided to try an Almdudler, a soft drink that I had seen all over Austria. It tasted a little like a ginger ale but indescribably better, and I immediately regretted not having drunk more of it over the past week.

The sausage came quickly and was perfectly acceptable but I was starting to feel just a little bit off. The Almdudler helped, and I ordered another. Charles practiced his German and I faded back from the conversation. I was glad that the climbing part of the day was behind us but we still had several hours of weary descent before Moos.

Leaving the restaurant we stepped into the dramatic Passeier Valley at the frontier of Italy and Austria. Down the slope were the remnants of battered buildings and redoubts that appeared to be World War I defenses. Before the war, both sides of this pass belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The slope seemed to have been fortified and defended against the Italians -- perhaps falling to the invaders as the Austrians retreated.

Since the treaty of Versailles, the region of South Tyrol has belonged to the Italians. The German speakers of the South Tyrol are still said to resent their Italian government. These days their solidarity takes the form of a blue apron worn by most German-speaking men in rural towns. This traditional apron is part of their working class heritage but also shows a passive resistance to Italian influence.

As we descended the slope we could study the shattered fortifications (or what we Unterhalb der Grenze near Timmelsjoch, Italytook to be fortifications) first hand. Goats and cows grazed in the empty foundations. Stone walls crumbled, pock-marked with age or, perhaps, bullet holes. I stepped into the most intact building, its wooden shutters rotting, doors falling off hinges, windows barred. The floor was littered with broken furniture and rusty wire. I tried to imagine what it might have felt like to man such a place in a time of war. The winters would have been merciless, the summers bloody. Now it looked, and smelled, like the birds had taken over.

Dietrich told us that there had been a massacre somewhere on these slopes in the early 20th century. My research has revealed no mention of the incident, however, so I can neither confirm nor deny this story. Regardless, we were impressed both by his knowledge of history and by the fact that we were standing on the brink of such a terrible, beautiful, place.

As we worked our way down during the following hour, the valley became greener. The sound of cow bells echoed off the canyon walls and rocky slope gave way to fenced pasture land. Soon the trail rejoined the road that had come down from Timmelsjoch.

The next stretch was treacherous, along the side of a busy highway where motorcyclists and sports car drivers, high on exhilarating switchbacks, took little notice of the weary hiker. The road was hot and the heat penetrated my boots. The sun burned the back of my neck and I sought shade at every opportunity.

I was still feeling queasy and, when the trail finally diverged from the road, I started to fall behind. The farms in this valley were both quaint and intriguing, clinging to the walls of the canyon like oysters. Near one farm, a generator buzzed away in an outbuilding, powered by a small stream. Goats grazed and farmers toiled, seemingly unaware of the nearby highway linking them to the outside world.

Rabenstein/Corvara In PasseierCharles and the Übers were waiting for me at the edge of the road in the beautiful mountain village of Rabenstein. We hiked through town and a bit further before the trail diverged to follow a concrete-lined river bed. The river was divided into a series of ugly, artificial waterfalls. Even so, angular marble boulders were everywhere, standing by the path and obstructing the concrete bed. Fallen from the cliffs above, they seemed determined to take back the river.

The path, itself, was littered with bits of marble, and there was evidence of quarrying everywhere we looked. I picked up a bright white lump while Robert was walking beside me. "For your girlfriend?" he asked, and I had to admit he had read my mind. I wondered what other talents this insightful young man was suppressing.

Near Moos in Passeier, Italien -- Moso in Passiria, L'ItaliaBefore we reached Moos, Dietrich told us that his family would skip the next several legs of the hike. "The next few sections are not so dramatic," he said. "We will take the bus to Bolzano and continue from there."

This was a surprise to both Charles and me. We had come to consider the Übers part of our hiking party and would regret being left behind. Still, we had not planned to continue further than Bolzano and had no maps of that region. Charles had fond memories of the next several legs of the trail from the previous year but he had to admit that there was far less altitude and much more pasture.

Our path passed a rock wall covered in chalk smears and bolted for climbing. Shortly thereafter we entered the tiny town of Moos in Passeier/Moso in Passiria, a town that appears to be built around three or four small, central hotels. We arranged with the Übers to meet at one of several outdoor cafes in the middle of town, and Charles and I retreated to separate rooms to wash the dust from our bodies and clothes.

My queasiness had been replaced by mental exhaustion and a mild depression. Heavy drinking lowers the serotonin levels in the brain. I have, since, realized that this tends to make me depressed several days after a bender. I attribute my poor performance on this day to my drunken night at Braunschweiger coupled with the physical exertion of the hike. Had it not been for that binge, things might have turned out somewhat differently.

An hour later, when I met Charles in the foyer, he was visibly concerned. He had called his secretary, just to check in, but it turned out that something serious had cropped up while he was out. "I should be doing damage control," he said. He did not go into details but I knew from past conversations that his work-place was a hub of intrigue. From what little he told me, I assumed that someone was taking advantage of his absence for their own political gain.

I probably dismissed his worries without showing much empathy. In this travelogue I have shied away from dwelling on our tension but it had continued to grow by the day. I was still treating Charles as a tour guide more than a friend and failing to appreciate the efforts he was making. I took for granted his help with translations and resented him for not being able and willing to communicate all of my wishes to every hotelier and shopkeeper. The details are not central to this travelogue but the repercussions would alter our friendship in significant ways.

Despite these tensions, we still felt like celebrating with the Übers. We had hiked with this amazing family for what seemed like a very long time. If we were never to see them again, we wanted to make the best of this final dinner. The cafe we chose turned out to be a good one. Robert helped me to order a meal that we both thought might be gnocchi but which turned out to be cheese balls again. Now you might think that, after all of the cheese balls I had endured, I would have dumped the plate into the nearest plant and ordered another dinner. Instead, I gave them another try and, amazingly, they were actually quite tasty. A good Italian cook can make just about any meal great. I drank a large beer and enjoyed a cheese strudel for dessert. The entire thing came to less than $12. Of course, the exchange rate was much better in those days.

With the future of our hike uncertain, we agreed to take the morning bus to Bolzano with the Übers. Then we each retreated to our separate rooms and I, for one, fell directly into blissful sleep.

Next week,
E5 Epilogue

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Off Topic - The Guns of New Hampshire

When I was 22, I worked in a pottery factory in Dover, New Hampshire for about nine months. It was a dirty job but it did not require me to think too much. As I was in the midst of finishing the final four credits of my Bachelor's degree, this suited me just fine.

One day Joe, one of the other employees, showed up and made a point of exercising his legal right to bear arms. More specifically, he brought a handgun to work. He showed it to us at the picnic table outside the building and proceeded to clean and oil it while the rest of us ate our lunches.

Nobody was really afraid. He was harmless, just a little peculiar. We had all seen guns before, most of us had owned one at one time or another, but we all recognized that bringing one to work was a very bad idea. It was, indeed, this man's right to bear arms -- an undisputed right where I grew up in New Hampshire. But it was also his employer's right to have him escorted away by the police and to terminate his employment immediately. Which is exactly what happened.

A majority of Americans support the right to bear arms, as do I. A majority of Americans are also moderates and, generally, they don't want people showing up at political rallies, or other public functions, with guns strapped to their thighs. If you are going hunting, you carry a gun. If you are going to the firing range, you might carry a handgun -- hopefully in a locked case. But, much in the same way that you don't show up at a wedding in your Speedo, you don't show up at a political rally with a handgun on your hip. It is bad form, bad sportsmanship, and very likely to lead to more restrictions on our Second Amendment right to bear arms.

As most people still remember, in the 1970's the Democratic party, rightly or wrongly, became associated with leftist extremism. This reputation weakened the party considerably in the decades to follow.

If the Republican party wants to remain viable, it must distance itself as quickly as possible from the bizarre fringe that is alienating the majority of moderate Americans with lies, angry rhetoric and, in the case of these recent gun incidents, pure nuttiness. To avoid obsolescence, it must encourage and engage in constructive dialogue and discourage party-spoiling and rumor-mongering. It is important to both Democrats and Republicans that this happen sooner rather than later.

The responsible Left needs the discipline of the responsible Right as much as the Right needs the creativity of the Left. Neither the Right nor the Left functions well in isolation. Politicians and pundits need to lead the way. If they cannot do so, we will soon be a one-party system. As desirable as this might seem to some Democrats, history teaches us that an unbalanced system is always more prone to collapse. Collapse is followed by chaos, and after chaos the other extreme quite often takes charge.

So can we all please start acting normal again?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

To Zwieselstein, Day 10

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I was wide awake by four, weighing whether it would be rude to go to the restroom for the third time. Would the Übers start thinking there was something wrong with me? Were they already awake and wondering? Was my water bottle really empty again? Why was my mouth so dry? Would I be hung over on the most dangerous stretch of the hike? Would they mind if I used my headlamp to read?

Worries grow like weeds in the middle of the night. After they've taken root it is pointless to even try sleeping. So I slid out of the top bunk, grabbed my boots and my bag and slipped out the door. The dining room door was closed so I sat on the floor in the hall, between other people's boots, and read about Kerouac hiking down from Mount Desolation in tattered sneakers. Thank goodness for boots!

I was not feeling sick, which was lucky considering the circumstances. I felt very alert, even excited. The thought occurred to me that I might still be drunk but I didn't feel that way. That day I escaped the worst of it. A few days later I would not be so lucky.

The Übers opened the door around 6:30, wondering where I had gone. They had soon packed their bags and we proceeded to the dining room together. At breakfast I began to realize how thrifty they really were. They had brought their own bread and butter, as well as cheese, jam (in a heavy glass jar no less), a large slab of ham, freeze-dried coffee, a dried up sausage and milk in an aseptic drink box. And while I was paying $6 for my morning rye bread, they ate a better breakfast for next to nothing. Of course, this meant that they carried it up and down every mountain but they didn't seem to mind. As a rule, Germans don't complain much.

It was after breakfast that I discovered what a bad idea it had been to fill my water bottle from the plastic hoses in the washroom. The washrooms in huts are frequently equipped with faucets with plastic hoses that hang, like elephant trunks, from the faucet spouts. These hoses are just the right size for the mouth of a water bottle and had made filling mine much easier than cramming it into a tiny European sink. I had filled my water bottle this way in every hut we visited.

Regrettably, it was not until that morning at Braunschweiger Hütte that I first observed the bathing habits of the other men. It may seem strange that it took this long but I am a modest man and usually prefer to use the facilities during the quieter hours of the late evening. This morning, however, I was going through water more quickly. So I slipped into the bathroom at a very busy time. There, to my horror, I realized that the aforementioned plastic tubes were intended for an entirely different purpose than filling water bottles. In short, German men are very thorough with their washing. And, since there were generally few if any showers in the huts, the hoses were actually intended for up-close cleaning of regions that would, otherwise, be awkward to rinse. Cruelly disillusioned, I retreated to search for a tiny European sink.

We met on the terrace, the Übers and I, to finish our packing and to pull on our boots. There was little to see through the fog. Dietrich looked serious as he brushed up on the guidebook. Regarding the day's hike, the Cicerone Guide states firmly: "Under no circumstances should it be attempted in anything but perfect weather conditions." At the time, however, there was no English translation, so I was getting all my information second hand -- not that reading it myself would have made any difference at all.

"This will be a very tricky climb," he said. "I am not sure what it will look like on the other side of Pitztaler Jöchl but if it is too dangerous, we may have to come back to the hut and descend the way we came."

I did not argue but was determined to go over the top. Dietrich had his family to think about but I was feeling stronger than ever. I think Dietrich sensed that my over-confidence might be as much of a liability as an asset. He took firm control of the party and, by the tone of his voice, made me understand that it would be best to follow his lead.

Walking in the fog was like being in a bubble. We could see for perhaps twenty feet in all directions but finding the trail markings was a treacherous business. At first the trail was easy to follow, leading us through a series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain, but somewhere near the top, we ran into a dead-end at a jagged rock wall. The Übers paused while I scouted around to find another red and white trail marker. I started to climb the wall, to get a better view, but Dietrich stopped me: "I think that is not a good idea," he said, and I realized that this was an order, albeit a polite one, rather than an observation. I imagine he was particularly concerned that his 14-year-old son might try the same stunt.

We finally located the markings and struggled up to the pass. On the far side was a steep descent down a slope of sheer ice. Above the slope was a jagged, looming cliff of boulders, some larger than houses. Until recently packed tight with snow, the entire loose wall was creaking and groaning as the rocks shifted and settled. Scattered down the mountain, across our path, were the rocks that had recently fallen. It was only a matter of time before another large rock shook itself loose and came tumbling down.

After a brief scramble over giant, tilting slabs, we reached the top of the icy slope. After a bit of a search, we found a metal cable that trailed off over the ice as far as we could see. We could only assume that there was a path below but the quality of the path was impossible to know. Dietrich decided to risk it. He announced that he would lead the descent and man the bottom of the cable. I would remain at the top, assisting Haike and Robert to take hold of the cable and start downward.

When Dietrich reached the bottom he yelled back up. "There is a path! Not very good but good enough."

Haike went next. She was nervous, as were we all, and moved slowly, hand over hand, down the cable. The ice gave no foothold except for small, frozen stones so she strained every muscle in her body to stay rigid. I realized that we were fortunate to have no weak links in our party. Everyone, including Haike and Robert, was capable and strong. Haike reached the bottom and Dietrich yelled up for Robert to begin.

Robert lowered himself slowly without incident, and I followed. The ice was so slippery that it was a challenge to stay upright. I worked my feet from one tiny stone to the next, using these minuscule footholds to keep myself upright. I gritted my teeth and my knuckles went white but I soon made it, like the others, to the relative safety below.

At the bottom of the cable was a thin path carved into the icy slope. We had to walk carefully to keep from slipping, and the rocky cliff still loomed up above. As we slid our way forward, like children learning to ski, we could hear the grumbling of the rocks. We wanted to run but all we could manage was a careful, plodding pace.

Dietrich turned to me and said "I hope Charles does not attempt this alone. That cable was hard to find, and it could be very dangerous for him."

I had not given much thought to Charles until this moment but was not particularly concerned. Being Dr. Death is really more about blithe negligence than intent. "I am sure he will be alright," I said. "He did this hike last year so he knows what to expect." It turned out, however, that Dietrich was, indeed, justified in his concern.

The trail wrapped around the north wall of the valley and down to a parking lot. There we found a restaurant and bathrooms. We took advantage of the latter, and put on our rain gear, as the fog outside had turned to drizzle. We briefly considered the optional bus to Zwieselstein but, realizing that the way was less difficult from here, we decided to walk.

The next stretch was a decidedly dull, gravel service road running parallel to a highway. For an hour or so we tramped through sparse scenery until the trail branched southeast through pine trees and fields.

Just as we were beginning to feel hungry, and just as the drizzle turned into a shower, we found a small restaurant near a village called Gaislach. I asked the waitress to bring me the best meal that $10 could buy. I was feeling adventurous and figured I'd end up with some strange sausage. Meanwhile, the Übers had noticed a special wild mushroom on the menu called Pfifferlingen. It was expensive, they said, but well worth the splurge. I knew nothing about mushrooms at the time. Knowing what I do now, I would definitely have opted for the rare Pfifferlingen (chanterelles). What I got, instead, was more Käse-Knödel. While the Übers rejoiced in their gourmet meal, I resigned myself to eating yet another serving of cheese balls. I explained my bad luck with this local specialty and they offered me tastes of their wild mushroom dinners. The Pfifferlingen were, indeed, delicious.

Outside the rain had let up, and we descended through warm pine forests to the small town of Zwieselstein -- an hour and a half walk down the trail. There we claimed rooms in the Talherberge Zwieselstein, an unstaffed Austrian Alpine Club hut with a full kitchen and, if I remember correctly, showers. I took an empty bunk room with four beds and a view of the river burbling noisily by. The sun had finally burned a hole through the clouds so I hung out my clothes on the line in the yard. Then I moved a chair to a shady spot and waited for Charles to appear.

It was two and a half hours before Charles finally wandered into the yard. He looked a bit shell shocked and I noticed large slashes in the seat of his rain pants. When he had taken off his pack and unlaced his boots he sat down on a bench and told us his story:

"I made it to Braunschweiger Hütte in record time. It was brilliant to stay in Mittelberg. The way up was amazing with the river and the glacier, and it was not until after the hut that I started to have problems. The fog moved in just beyond Braunschweiger and I got a little bit lost near Pitztaler Jochl. On the other side it was sheer ice for as far as I could see in the fog -- there was no path at all. I tried to walk from stone to stone but I fell right away and started sliding out of control. I was sliding faster and faster, barely steering myself with the carbide tips of my poles. Thank God for those tips."

"It was then that I noticed the edge of the cliff. I noticed it just in time and, by jamming the carbide tips deep into the ice, managed to drive myself into a large boulder. I must have been going at least twenty miles per hour because it hurt like hell when my boots slammed into it. After I caught my breath, I crawled, hand over hand, using the tips of my poles like ice axes. I have no idea how I finally made it down. It was pure adrenaline."

Dietrich had been right. Charles could have easily been a splotch on the pavement below Pitztaler Jochl. And Dr. Death would have had some serious explaining to do. But the carbide tips from Charles' new poles had saved his life. After he finished his story, I crossed the street to the store and bought several bottles of beer which we shared with the Herr Über. We raised our glasses to Charles' health and to our tremendous good fortune to be safely together again. Then Charles and I went across the street to find dinner at Hotel Gasthof Zwieselstein while the Übers cooked their dinner in the hut.

Next Week
Over Timmelsjoch and Into the Italian Alps

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Braunschweiger Hütte and the Ötztal Glaciers, Day 9

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The next morning those beautiful white sheets still felt clean and cool. The bells of a nearby church rang out seven o' clock. Through the window came the smell of geraniums, and I could hear the muffled shufflings of Charles on the other side of the wall.

The day's hike would be demanding, bringing us within spitting distance of the Ötztal glacier field and the highest hut of the Fernwanderweg E5, Braunschweiger Hütte. It would also require careful coordination with various modes of transport. The "Venetbahn" cable car would bring us to the start of our hike. We would need to leave early to make the first lift. Later in the day, we would need to catch a bus from Wenns to Mittelberg, the small village at the bottom of our main ascent. It was vital that we keep to a tight schedule or we might have to spring for a very expensive taxi.

So I reluctantly slid out of bed and began packing my things. The previous evening I had washed a pile of clothes in the shower with me. As I had done on earlier stops, I made myself into a human washing machine. The clothes went on the shower floor while I danced liquid soap into their filthy folds and the grey puddle at my feet slowly turned clear. In the morning, my belongings were still hanging from every protrusion in my room, excepting Mother Mary of course, and were mostly dry. I decided to wear the dampest. They would either dry more quickly or would soon be sweaty again.

I left my old boots in my room. It was the footwear equivalent of a burial at sea -- not exactly courteous to the staff but there was no obvious places to dispose of such large garbage. I wore socks down to breakfast, leaving damp footprints on the hardwood stairs, with my new boots slung over my shoulder, tied by their fresh green laces. They took their place by the front door, next to my pack, while I found a seat in the small breakfast room. There was fresh fruit for breakfast and bowls of yogurt, muesli and corn flakes. There was even a bowl of hard boiled eggs, still hot. So I made the most of this royal feast, eating something from every plate on the buffet.

As I ate, the matron shuffled in and out of the breakfast room. When it was clear that I was done eating, she started talking to me as if I understood German, which of course I did not. The only German words that came to my mind were "my friend" and "Deutsch" (German), so that's what I said, pointing to my mouth to indicate the verb "to speak" and to the stairwell to indicate where Charles most probably was.

I am not quite sure what she made of this charade, "My friend is eating Germans upstairs," perhaps, because she looked perplexed and a little concerned. Finally I dug into my pocket and pulled out some Austrian Schilling notes. She nodded several times and then left the room, returning shortly with a pad of paper and a pencil. On the pad she tallied my expenses. I handed her a large enough wad to cover it and she gave me back a respectable pile of coins. I passed back ten percent, which seemed to evoke appreciative noises, and our awkward transaction was complete.

I went outside to wait in the sunshine on the stone staircase.

When Charles came outside he looked tense. He walked quickly down the steps and I had to throw on my pack to follow. "What's up?" I asked, as I struggled along behind him.

"I'll tell you in a second," he said.

When we were well down the sidewalk he finally relaxed his pace. "God that was hell." he sighed.

"Really?" I said. "My room was great. What happened."

"Oh, the room was just fine," he said, "It wasn't that."

"Then what?" I asked.

"Well, last night I decided to finally eat that tin of herring."

"So at least you won't be carrying it any further," I suggested, filling dead air with a plausible up-side.

"Yeah, but there wasn't much flat space to eat it, so I opened it on top of the television."

"Oh no," I said, already guessing the next part.

"Well, anyhow, it kind of exploded. So then I had fish oil all over the television and the lace doily, and then the hand towel that I used to wipe it all up. I got them as clean as I could but the room really smells like fish. I don't know how they're going to get that smell out."

"Shit... First Staufner Haus, now Gasthof Gemse. Guess you won't be going back there, either."

"Definitely not. Too bad, though, it's a nice hotel... Damn, these E5 hikes are really starting to feel like a one-man version of Sherman's march to the sea."

At the Venetbahn we found Kirsten and Werner who were also waiting for the first lift. A teddy bear poked its nose out of Kirsten's pack, and Werner was chain smoking hand-rolled Drum cigarettes. The top of the mountain was obscured by clouds and none of us had heard the weather forecast. Charles and Werner chatted in German. Charles enjoyed practicing his German and Werner was happy not to struggle with English.

The door finally opened and we climbed the steps to the platform. The cable car was a steel box, large enough for maybe two dozen cramped hikers but this morning it was just the four of us. As it clunked and bumped out of the lift station and cranked its way up to the sky, we watched Zams disappear in the mist. Droplets built up and skidded along the windows. I was sorry that the view was obscured. All we could see were the tops of thinning trees and the support towers passing like speed bumps.

Half way up, Charles told the not-so-reassuring story of a hot shot American Marine surveillance pilot who, in February, had flown through the cables of a similar car on Italy's Mt. Cermis, hurling all 20 passengers to their deaths. I am not really afraid of heights but, given the setting, the story definitely made an impression. Charles has a remarkable memory for details, morbid and otherwise.

We disembarked into a misty landscape and surveyed our maps. Werner paused to roll another Drum cigarette and then we were off. The way pointed east along a wide, green, treeless ridge, to a nearby peak known as Glanderspitz. A forty foot cross marked the top of the mountain. There we paused only briefly, to reconnoiter, then continued to a second cross. By the time we reached this next minor peak we were walking in spitting rain. We decided to throw on our raingear. Werner, Charles and Kirsten all realized that they had matching red ponchos which seemed rather funny at the time, so I took this picture with Charles looking a bit like Marilyn Monroe just before an upward breeze.

We now began a long descent on comfortable, spongy turf. I jogged for a bit before coming to my senses. A twisted ankle or a blown out knee would mean the end of my hike. So I slowed to a more reasonable pace and followed the path down into the valley below. I had lost my companions but intended to wait for them in Wenns. In the fog, the scenery was fuzzy and close but it cleared as the sun climbed toward noon. I entered a pine forest which eventually gave way to green fields and old farms. The trail went directly through farmyards, around the corners of barns and through and over fence stiles. The smell of cows was, at times, overpowering but the pastoral scenery of well-built barns made for fair compensation.

When not alongside a barn, I was on a dirt road that wound down through the hillside grazing slopes. I could see other parties hiking on the switch-backed road above and below me, and I passed several families by cutting through the tall grass that divided us.

Though surrounded by cows, it is hard to resist calling Wenns a one horse town. Its main claim to fame is the bus that connects it to Mittelberg. There was very little commerce, and I was disappointed not to find a convenience store close by the bus stop. I was dying for a Coke. Several other families had already queued up for the bus and I was nervous that Charles might miss it. Busses being infrequent, this could set him back by several hours -- or perhaps an entire day.

I was, however, pleased to find the Übers all queued up to go. Dietrich told me that several parties had formed an ad hoc group to qualify for discounted tickets. It was with some reservation that I pitched into the discount, realizing that this might mean leaving Charles wondering about me. But Charles and I now had a firm agreement to hike more independently. So I threw in my hand with the newly formed party and sat down on my pack on the sidewalk.

While we waited, I chatted with young Robert about his family. He had been born in East Germany several years before the wall fell. Career opportunities were better now for his father, and his home town had recently undergone a period of intense reconstruction. Still, there were prejudices against "Osties" ie: people from East Germany. West Germans resented the subsidies given to the reclaimed regions, and this sometimes made him feel like a second-class citizen. And although Dietrich had more opportunities, it was still harder for East Germans to find work than it was for their West German cousins.

Just before the bus rolled up, Charles turned the corner and joined our group. He had left Kirsten and Werner a mile or two back and had run down the fields to the town. Charles was beat and had decided to stay at the hotel in Mittelberg. He would hike over the mountain the following day and catch up with me in Zwieselstein.

This seemed like a turning point in our hike. We had already hiked separately but had always been able to check in at the end of the day. Splitting up would mean being out of touch for a day and a half at the very least. And if Charles did not appear in Zwieselstein, I would have some tough choices to make. I was determined to hike up to Braunschweiger Hütte, and did not want to lose the Übers, so I nodded and said "no worries" but that easy expression covered a deep sense of concern.

The bus ride was uneventful. I sat with Robert and we chatted sporadically, the way you do when there is plenty of time to spare. At the end of the ride I decided to have lunch with Charles before we went our separate ways. Dietrich offered to reserve a bed for me at the hut, a kind offer that I readily accepted. We made plans to meet for dinner before they started up the hill along the trickling glacial stream.

At lunch Charles seemed very pleased with his decision. He assured me that I would see him in Zwieselstein, as if reading my thoughts. "Really," he said "I just need a little more rest."

I was in the mood for macaroni and cheese -- comfort food -- so I ordered Käse Knödel, having entirely forgotten the previous Käse Knödel debacle. Again, I was stuck eating three enormous cheese dumplings, heavy as lead and not the least bit enticing. And, again, I ate most of them -- not wanting to starve on the way up the mountain. I drank a large Coke, anyhow, which gave me some solace and courage in the face of my growing uncertainty.

Leaving Charles basking in the shade of an umbrella, I started my solo ascent. There was nobody on the trail, the other bus passengers having already disappeared up the mountain. To my right was the bed of a glacial river, but the gully was mostly dry. A thin stream trickled through the rocks of what I knew must sometimes be a formidable river. My path was a dirt road which led to the lower pulley of a small cable car. The car was designed to carry supplies, and hikers' backpacks, but was already half way up the mountain. Soon the road became a gravel trail which climbed toward the source of the river -- the Ötztal glacier field.

Hiking alone I could make my own pace, and I was in no hurry to reach the top. Through a series of alternating ridges, I could see the tongue of the glacier: grey, white and blue, hanging over a ridge up above.

The stream increased in power as I crossed back and forth below, then above, the layers of overhanging rock. I passed a spectacular series of waterfalls whose full force I could only imagine by the measure of this wide river bed.

The glacier's tongue was deceptively small when I passed it, giving no hint of the massive snowfields hidden behind the next ridge. Climbing, I spotted a family of gemse, or what we would call mountain goats. They peered over a cliff at me and then dashed out of view as I crept up the lonely trail.

My legs were tired but not so tired as I had imagined they would be. Hiking alone, at my own pace, was the best thing for sore legs. I had taken Dietrich's advice and begun at a sustainable clip. Now I was enjoying the dividends of this careful restraint, and the ascent was tiring but not yet devastating.

The trail diverged from the stream and a fog settled in, eclipsing my view of the emerging, compacted snow mass. I focused on my stride, pacing myself so that I could walk as far as necessary, uncertain of how long I had left to hike. I thought about Charles and the tensions we still felt. Things were better when we hiked separately but the last thing I wanted was to leave him behind. It was because of his willpower that I had made it here, and he was the only American I knew who understood the challenge and the scope of this adventure. It would be a shame if we didn't complete it together.

When the mist cleared, I found myself level with the first snowfield plateau. The scale was phenomenal. Vast blue crevasses, like stretch marks, cut deep into the tongue in horizontal layers. Grey brush strokes ran down lengthwise, and I realized that I had been hiking under a hanging colossus, oblivious to the danger above. Having left the sounds of the stream bed behind, I could now hear the ice, stressing and cracking, like massive earth-moving machinery. I stood stunned by the beauty and the power of the Ötztal Glaciers.

The final ascent to Braunschweiger Hütte seemed almost vertical. It had begun to rain again and I was too tired to take off my pack, imagining the hut to be above every ridge. It was stupid to tempt hypothermia at 9,000 feet. But despite my poor judgment, my luck held. After one final push I stepped over the lip of the small knob where Braunschweiger sits, like an island in a white sea of snowfields.

I pushed through the door and a warm rush of air nearly pushed me right back. The door led through a hallway to the dining room. I had dropped my pack just inside of the door and glanced around for the faces of my new friends. Dietrich hailed me. "Grüß Gott, Karl!" he yelled to me. "We thought maybe you decided to stay at the bottom with Charles!"

After stowing my belongings in a small room with four beds, I was soon deep in conversation with the Übers. They were joined by several other Germans who did not speak much English, but Robert enjoyed translating for me so I did not miss much. They ordered me a weissbier, which I was learning to love, but it was a special, local variety with more sediment than usual. Robert demonstrated the proper pouring technique, pouring most of the liquid slowly down the inside of the glass and then swishing the remainder so as not to miss the foggy murk at the bottom.

I ordered the spaghetti Bolognese, the safest choice, and was happy to recharge my carbohydrate-starved body. But dessert was the highlight of the meal. This Austrian Alpine specialty was called Kaiserschmarrn and consisted of strips of an eggy pancake covered in powdered sugar and doppled with a preserve made of small, purple berries. It was absolutely delicious.

After dinner, the Übers' friends wanted me to try a dubious substance called jägertee. It was a spiced tea with a serious kick, translating literally to "hunter's tea". It was strong and warm, and I drank it without considering the consequences.

At "lights out" I stumbled back to the room and climbed to my private top bunk. I had the good sense to bring with me a large bottle of water, but still awoke dehydrated in the middle of the night -- and had to relieve myself several times. The next day I was scheduled to cross the most dangerous stretch of the hike, over Pitztaler Jöchl at nearly 10,000 feet and then across the icy snowfields of an avalanche zone. A hangover would not be the best preparation for such a demanding hike.

Next Week
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