A Brush With Death in the Austrian Alps

46°44’10.14″ N   13°26’22.67″  E   –   Elevation:  7,077′

There are experiences in life that simply tower over all others.   Such was the case that summer of 1980 in the South Austrian Alps, a period along the grand time continuum of life when Death whisked by for just a moment and then left.

Looking out my window, now 37 years later, over to the mountains here in Colorado, I sometimes think about that morning, about the time I froze in place halfway up on that 1,650 foot, north-facing, granite wall.   How did I ever power through my sheer panic that morning, I wonder? It had seemed like a small eternity as my mind shut down and I began to make peace with my impending fate.   I think back to that overwhelming feeling of sadness that had swept over me as I surrendered to the idea that this was going to be my last day.

It’s easy to take shelter within the lines, but most of us know that there’s no fun in that.   We read about the fallen mountaineer, the sailor who goes missing, or the stunt plane that crashes in the field and we acknowledge that death can find us anytime.   But the alternative?   Why, that’s death as well; just a slower and more insidious one.

Seeing the older couple in my old neighborhood each day rocking their remaining lives away on their front porch saddened me.   I wanted to walk over and show them a better way.   “Come.   Won’t you explore the trails with me? Won’t you please live before you die?”

My brother, Steve and I grew up in Eastern and Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, really only returning to the US when we went to college.   Moving every two to three years, we really had no home to call our own.   We lived like vagabonds.   Then out of the blue, in 1969, our Austrian mother announced to us that she had bought an old, rustic farmhouse high up in the Alps and our lives changed forever.

I can still remember the first time we drove up to the house.   As the roads got narrower and the switchbacks crazier, our spirits lifted ever higher.   Undeterred by the logging truck barreling down the steep, mountain road towards our tiny, VW bug, our stoic Viennese mother blew the horn until all we could see was the truck’s massive grill.   She had the right of way going up and she’d not back down an inch.   And so the tone was set and the locals knew there was a crazy woman in the valley.

Pavement turned to dirt on that one-and-a-half lane wide road up the mountain.   No guardrails.   And up we went until she saw the house and our otherwise reserved mother lit up.   “There!   Look up!   There it is!”   And we pressed our little faces against the window to spy a look up that steep, grassy slope to the farmhouse above.

Spellbinding.   Nothing seemed out of place in this magical, high alpine valley; immaculate structures, grazing cows with cowbells, old farmers still cutting the hay by hand with scythes.   Sure was a contrast to our current lives in still war-torn Warsaw, the old buildings scarred with bullet holes around the windows and doors.

The promise of summers here was emotionally overwhelming to us.   And as the little VW ground its way up the last few hundred meters of rough road, each jarring bump seemed to signal that we’d have a place to truly run wild and to explore.

And the summers passed, year after year, and our parents’ marriage began to fray.   Sadly, my brother and I could sense that the summer of 1980 was to be our last at our precious farmhouse.   Life was changing for us all.

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Out of our kitchen window was the Staff, a mountain whose summit seemed to tower over us.   Its lines were so very pleasing and I’d gaze out and imagine the path I’d take one day to the top.   Looked like an easy route along the high ridge to the left, above the trees.   Yes…

Who knows how things come to be.   I probably mentioned this at dinner and my brother talked to Hans, the neighboring farmer’s older son who was Steve’s age and so the die was cast.

I’m older now, but my spirit is still 20.   Last year, I had a couple of 4,500’ climbing days.   Sure, the sight of my truck through the pines at the trailhead turns my legs to jello after a long day.   But I always find enough energy to stumble to my trusty camping chair, reach in for a beer, and break out some good cheese and chorizo as I bask in the warm sun recalling my grand adventures.   Last year, I went up a total of 102,542’. No rocking chair for me.   No way.

And all of this drive to live out my days in the mountains, I know, began decades ago in that wonderful valley in southern Austria.   Funny what the mind wants to remember and repeat.

Death has buzzed me a few times; close enough to feel the Grim Reaper’s wind blow past me.   But the one time he lingered was on the North Face of the Staff.

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(Me and Steven, the Staff at left)

Going ultra light, the three of us hiked up in the late afternoon to Hans’ family hunting cabin on the other side of the valley, up a couple of thousand feet over our house.   With a perfect view of the wall the night before, we naturally thought it wise to finish off a complete bottle of his family’s schnapps and to see which of us could tell the most bad-assed tale that night.

Oh, the temptations to sign the Faustian Contract to, once again, regain my youthful body…but keep my wiser mind.

Something woke us up early the next morning. Dragging ourselves to the table, Hans pointed to his family’s homemade bread and speck (thick, uncooked bacon) and butter and encouraged us to dig in.   It was a simple, log cabin.   Unheated.   But nothing more was necessary.

And as we made our way down the steep, grassy hillside to the base of the mountain a lone sheepherder slowly made his way up into the same valley and past us.   Dressed in the traditional lederhosen, the old boy really looked his part.   Tipped his hat and smiled when we told him of our grand plan that day.

As we approached the base of the wall and looked up, I wondered what route Hans would find for us.   Surely he wasn’t going straight up, my head was still swimming in the schnapps from the night before.

Examining the wall, Hans turned to us and said, “Wir gehe auf diese weise.” and off we went.

The steepening grade was imperceptible at first.   Maneuvering through the boulder field and through the tall pines seemed pretty straightforward and I gave no thought to any of it.   And then things got more interesting as Hans pulled into the chimney and now the rocks, still cold and moist from the morning dew, got steeper in a hurry.   Like a mountain goat, Hans had been climbing since he was two and his movements came naturally… but increasingly, not for me.

Who knows how long we took to get about half way up.   The morning’s sun had begun to light up the valley below  as the momentum slowed while Hans stopped to find his next hold and it was then that I realized he really was taking us straight up the face!

No way…   With my brother about ten feet below, I quickly lost confidence and told him that I needed to get down quickly!

“Sorry, big brother, but the only way is up.” And it was then that I knew that this was going to be it.   They waited for me to gather my thoughts and courage and reach for the next hand and foothold, but I did not move. Shaking with complete fear, it was all I could do not to fall.   And then, as though my little brother had just waved Death away, he said, “Hold on. I see a way around.   Let me show you.”   And then it was all ok; strange, as I think about it now.

Just a nudge from a more confident voice is sometimes all it takes to press on past life’s cruxes.   Later, we find a way to pay it forward.

And up the three of us went to the summit, free soloing up a class-4 and 5 granite wall gaining a sweet momentum now to the summit, but not before I was eye-to-eye with a curled up, black viper on the final ledge! Oh, the cruel mountain gods.

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(Summit!   Hans and Steven)

The Italian Alps were only about 10 miles to our south, that morning as we took in our magnificent, summit views.   I’m sure I wrestled that smartass Austrian for a couple of minutes, expressing my displeasure.   But the grins on our faces pushed the unpleasant moment behind us as we made our way down the wide- open slope to the alpine lake below.   The beers at the tavern never tasted so good.   Glory days!

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(Steven.  Returning to the scene of the climb.   2004.  Route in red is approximate.)

I recently examined this route on Google Earth, just shaking my head.   Ran out an elevation profile and sat back and laughed. 84 degrees at its steepest.   No wonder I froze.

How I ever made it up that insane, big wall with zero climbing experience, I will never know.

There are plenty of walls up above tree line up in the high valleys in the mountains across the way, many with eerily similar profiles.   But I like to think that I am a wiser, old mountain goat now.   Nothing extreme left for me to prove.   Happy to leave that glory to this batch of young ones.   But don’t you write me off too soon.

Pass me up on the trails you will…, but I shall always find you at the top.

DCIM100GOPRO

(Humboldt Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado; September, 2016)

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