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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