August 1, 2011

The Death March

Turn in to the "The Good Shepherd,"
and we will gladly entertain you,
spare your tired limbs,
eat and drink and come on back.

These are the words that greeted AIMS tubist Elliot and I upon completing the Bärenschützklamm gorge traverse and arriving (after another steep climb) at "The Good Shepherd" alpine hut. We'd been hiking...and climbing...and scrambling for a couple of hours...often in the rain...and BOY was it tempting to take a load off for a while. Elliot insisted however that the view from the next hut would be well worth ascending another 45 minutes or so (the Austrians measure the length of their trails more frequently in minutes than in kilometers) and that once there we'd really be able to eat lunch in style! "Allright!" I said (perhaps a little too emphatically), "sounds good!"

I had used this response all morning while pushing my lungs and thigh muscles to their limits and doing my darndest to keep up with Elliot's killer pace without obviously breathing too hard or falling behind like a wimp. Back at the Heim when he'd invited me to go I assured him, "Oh yeah! I love hiking...would go all the time back home in Salt Lake City!" And when he voiced his intent to go all the way to the Kreutz at the top of the Hochlantsch I replied, "Awesome!"

At 10:20 that morning we'd boarded a train and rode out to the little town of Mixnitz--about 1/2 hour from Graz--and from there followed a neverendingly steep trail up to the beginning of the Bärenschützklamm ravine. After paying 3 euros at the gate, the real adventure began.

In 1901 the Graz Alpine Club erected a long series of 164 wooden bridges and ladders traversing the Mixnitzbach gorge (Bach means stream by the way). These sturdy but vertigo-inducing walkways fit right up against the vertical cliff walls one minute, and then soar up and over the top of rushing waterfalls the next. The climb is only moderately strenuous, but for someone like me who's always been a little leery of heights my heart rate was doubly amped in response to both the exhertion and the terror...especially once it started to rain and the planks beneath me took on an unnerving slippery sheen...yikes!

All fears aside, the views you get climbing a gorge this way are unparalleled and I stifled my acrophobia just enough to take a few pictures and keep up with my mountain-goat of a hiking partner. It's amazing how much courage can be mustered out of the threat of public humiliation!

So, now we've scaled the ravine, passed the "Guten Hirten," and are now trekking on up to the second hut...this had better be good...

Mercifully the trail leveled out for a while and we walked through a field where a herd of horses was placidly grazing and (this little guy at least) sleeping off a good meal...

Elliot blazed on ahead with hardly a pause, but fortunately turned around just as we were about to reenter the forest and saw this...

"Wow!" I exclaimed, relishing the brief opportunity to rest almost as much as the great vista. "Oh...that's just the beginning," said the mountain goat, "there's way more of that up ahead!"

...and so we moved on...

It surprised me how quickly we made it to the next hut and I breathed a secret sigh of relief as we walked down to snag a table. I had to acknowledge the that the view was incredible and once I poked my head over the edge of the balcony almost forgot all the effort it had taken to get there.

Elliot told me to sit down and came back a few minutes later with two Radlers: a mixture of beer and lemonade characteristic to German speaking countries that he insisted was the best and most refreshing mid-trail beverage. Loaded with calories, it would give us the burst of energy we'd need to ascend to the Kreutz. We sat for a few minutes eating sandwiches and Studentenfutter (a package of trail mix I'd purchased called, literally: "student feed") and making fun of a very large and particularly whiny dog at the next table. A cold wind was blowing up from the abyss and chilled our sweaty limbs to the bone--even beneath jackets--so we headed out again if only to get the blood pumping and stay warm..."Alright!" I said (a little too emphatically).

Now, I love that Austrians are avid mountaineers and it was encouraging to see so many people of all ages out on the trail together, but if there's one criticism I have it's that they have clearly not figured out the joys and benefits of the switchback. To be sure, most trails are beautifully maintained and scrupulously marked--I think it would actually take some effort be to get lost here--but if there's a hill to ascend, whoever designated the routes must have just drawn a straight line from the bottom to the top and said "there it is."

Our final ascent to the Hochlantsch Kreutz was steep and relentless. The mountain goat surged on ahead as I struggled to work what was left of my aching muscles and avoid slipping on the rain-wet rocks. I hoped that the trail would eventually begin a more merciful series of switchbacks--the terrain certainly didn't look like it would be prohibitive for them--but those hopes remained unfulfilled and I trudged on up the mountain. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I crested the final rise and beheld a magnificent cross...our destination was in sight!

Elliot stood a few yards away and looked at me with a big smile on his face.
"Isn't it incredible?!" he exclaimed.
"Wow (pant) yeah (pant pant), it's awesome!" I replied..hoping he hadn't noticed how hard I was breathing.

Once I had my wits about me I was more fully able to appreciate the splendor. I followed Elliot around to the base of the Kreutz (he's in the picture above sitting on a bench on the right), looked back toward the opposite cliff face I'd just crested, and stumbled with vertigo. We were surrounded on all sides by a harrowing plunge...

It's a good thing I'd practiced swallowing my fear earlier that morning because the imminent drops might have otherwise paralyzed me.

At the cross was a thermometer that read 10 degrees C (about 50 deg. F), and a vicious wind whipped at the summit, sending my hair flying in all directions. "Boy I need a haircut!" I thought...

Off to the side was a little round table that displayed distances from the top of this mountain to various other landmarks and cities. I looked to the East and saw the Schöckl and wondered if I'd be able to see this peak in any of the photos I'd taken on friday. Straight ahead a few thousand kilometers was the North Pole. Standing up there I felt as though if the clouds were to suddenly clear I'd Have a clear line of sight over northern Europe, into Finland, and up to the polar cap beyond...

Back at one of the rest huts Elliot had picked up a regional map that showed all the local trails. He opened it up to me and said he thought it would be cool to hike down the other side of the peak to Teichalm, a little resort town surrounding a lake, and then take another trail back to Mixnitz. "It shouldn't take that much longer," he said and we both acknowledged that the thought of scrambling down all the rocks we'd just climbed up didn't sound appealing in the slightest. "Alright!" I said in my usual tone, and we were off.

The trail was a good bit kinder this time. I felt strong (relatively) and rejuvenated (well, almost) and in about an hour we reached the village.

Literally every Austrian town you encounter is picture-postcard cute. Everything is kept up beautifully and almost every house has these lovely little window-box gardens that send cascades of flowers dangling over their sides. It felt like a dream to walk out here...rolling countryside...cowbells jingling...pretty lake to stroll along...

...but shortly after, the idyll (and the pictures) cease. Turns out this round-about route back to Mixnitz was a bit (quite a bit) longer than the mountain goat had understood from the map. He'd also somehow missed the fact that we'd have to ascend again for a couple hundred meters just to exit the valley, and this time we were on the clock...we'd have to make it back to Mixnitz in time to catch the 7:20 train. We trudged up a long biking road (well...I trudged...he wanted to jog, but after a couple minutes of still trying to look tough I finally gave in and insisted we stick to walking), stopped to use the facilities at a lonely little hut along the way, and after another rise that took us up to a point that appeared about parallel to the summit of the Schöckl, we finally began our descent in earnest.

It was murder on the knees and I stumbled forward with single-minded intent. Even the mountain goat complained a little and admitted that maybe this alternate route was a bit more than he'd anticipated. Thank goodness for well-labeled trails, fresh springs for filling water bottles, and Studentenfutter. We finally limped into Mixnitz at 7:05 and made it to the train platform in plenty of time to stretch and take a load off. We traced our route on the map and figured we'd covered about 18 km (around 11 miles). The elevation in mixnitz is 400-some-odd meters and is roughly 1720 at the summit of the Hochlantsch: the highest point of the Grazer Bergland. We tried to guesstimate--with all our convoluted ups and downs--how much elevation we'd covered, but gave up after a while and just figured we'd tell people it was PLENTY! I apologized to Elliot for holding him back, but he said he was actually pretty impressed with how well I kept up (Oh good! He hadn't noticed!!!).

When I got home I ate an entire pizza for dinner.

It had been quite a day. Half the time I felt as though I were about to have a heart attack, and I have no idea where I got the reserve strength to complete that last long march back to town, but somehow it still all felt worth it. Hiking is one of those "no pain no gain" things that you sometimes hate and curse the whole time you're doing it (especially if you're as out of shape as I like to pretend I'm not), until you finally reach the summit and the whole wide world is spread out in front of you and it flips this switch inside you that makes you just have to do it again...and again.

1 comment:

  1. WAY TO GO KELLY!!!!! I would have loved that day! I'm so glad you shared it with me!!!!