Thursday, August 13, 2009

To Zwieselstein, Day 10

<<First Page of Series
<Previous Day

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

1 comment:

  1. "...the hoses were actually intended for up-close cleaning of regions..."




© 2009, Sleeping in the Car Blog. All rights reserved.