Standing at the edge of the snowfield, I stare down its precipitous incline, knowing I don’t have the courage to cross it, even though on the other side lies the path up to the pass. Midway across, I’ll panic. I’ll slide all the way to the bottom. I’ll die. I look up at the only other way to get out of the mess we’re in—a narrow, steep scramble enclosed by the snowfield and a rocky outcrop jutting out all the way up to the pass. Between the two lies a narrow channel of thick mud, scattered with small, sharp shards of rock. It isn’t inviting, and it might be just as dangerous, but it feels safer than sliding all the way down the snowy field, so steep I can’t even see the bottom. Am I ready for this?
I’ve come to Austria to celebrate my 65th birthday, beginning with my first hut-to-hut climb in the Alps, followed by a week-long bike ride from Vienna to Prague. Although my partner, Mary Ann, is using trekking poles, I shunned a pair myself—heck, I’d climbed to the rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro and had hiked in the Peruvian Andes with only a walking stick fashioned from whatever wood or bamboo was available! I certainly wouldn’t need trekking poles in the Alps, far lower in altitude. So instead I find a thin fallen branch and turn it into a hiking pole. We begIn, climbing up an easy path that winds through a forest and affords us no real views. By late afternoon we reach Hans Wödl Hütte where we will spend the night before climbing to Preintaler Hütte, our next day’s destination, including a more than 2500-foot climb up to the pass.
Leaving Hans Wödl Hütte the next day, I’m overcome with joy, staring at the vista before us. It must be over 7,000 feet from the narrow valley floor to the crests of the snow-capped mountains. At the bottom of the valley lies a long lake, clumps of snow still clinging to its edges, fed by narrow, steep waterfalls. Patches of pink flowers are scattered here and there. We follow the path down to the lake, then head up toward the pass. Soon the path becomes much steeper. I turn around several times to stare across the valley to the mountains on the other side, inhale the fresh mountain air, and watch Hans Wödl Hutte recede until it’s a tiny dot perched above the lake. The vastness of the scene and the combination of blues, pinks, greens and grays are almost more than I can take in. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be climbing in these mountains.
But, entranced by the view, we somehow find ourselves off the trail, which we don’t realize until we reach a narrow snowfield, with the trail on the other side. It’s too late to go back down. Mary Ann, who’s hiked in mountains all her life, chooses the snowfield. I hold my breath, but she’s across in a minute, digging her heels into the snow, creating a level path, and sending her poles below the crust of the snow for balance. My hiking pole is woefully inadequate to dig into the snow, and with no experience in the Alps, far steeper than anything I’ve ever seen in the Sierra, I can’t force myself to follow her.
So I start off, up the muddy channel. Hampered by my backpack and pole, I find it slow-going. Move an inch, adjust, search for a handhold in the rock, pull myself up another inch, reposition my pole. Repeat.
* * *
Within minutes, I realize I’m not new to these minuscule movements. Fifteen years earlier, a week before my fiftieth birthday, I took the ‘ropes course’ at Fort Miley in San Francisco. Although we were attached to a harness and couldn’t fall, the tasks were daunting, especially if you looked down.
On my first challenge of the day I stood on a platform, thirty-five feet in the air, looking at the ten-foot-long, four-by-four-inch plank I had to cross. I was petrified. The guide on the ground tried to talk me through. “It’s OK. All you have to do is take small steps and look just a little ahead of your feet. And remember—you can’t fall—the harness keeps you safe.”
Her encouraging patter broke my concentration. “Don’t talk to me!” I yelled down to her. She went silent, recognizing her usual cheerleading role wasn’t going to work with me. I couldn’t move until I had mentally prepared myself, until I was ready, and I’d completely quelled the feeling of panic. Five minutes later I screwed up my courage and inched along, to the end of the plank.
I made it through all the challenges, with one to go—clamber thirty-five feet up a skinny pole topped by a circular platform the size of a medium pizza, climb onto it, and then leap to a trapeze about six feet away. My son and his thirteen-year-old friend had made it look easy, but no other adult had succeeded in latching onto that trapeze. I was going to try. Shimmying up the pole wasn’t the problem, but moving onto the “pizza pan” required the tiniest of movements if I wasn’t going to fall. After about ten minutes of making microscopic movements, wiggling this way and that, I finally made it to my knees, then gingerly stood up. I found the plate was not only tiny—it also wobbled. In front of me hung the trapeze, which from where I stood seemed a football field away.
Now I just had to get ready for that leap to the trapeze. My guide knew not to give me any verbal assistance. I rehearsed it over and over in my mind, then bent my knees and swung my arms back and forth, practicing this move probably fifty times, as if I were a swimmer about to begin a race. Still, I wasn’t ready. Five minutes passed, maybe ten. Finally, I combined the image in my mind with the practice moves and leaped. I caught the bar, and the trapeze swung me back and forth. I hung there for a minute, a mixture of relief, satisfaction and pride pulsing through my body. Gradually the guide lowered me to the ground.
* * *
There was never a danger at the ropes course. But now, moving inch by inch up the muddy, shrapnel-rock crack between the snow and the rock at an over-fifty-degree angle, I am keenly aware that any false move could result in a very long slide down the mud. I look once more at what lies ahead of me, take a deep breath, and begin inching my way up the muddy channel. Sometimes I wedge myself against the snow, facing the rock wall, and try to find a finger-hold in the rock to pull myself up. Other times I brace my pole against the rock and push up. Sometimes I’m looking up, searching for a crevice, and other times I’m pushing down with my feet. Sometimes the mud almost disappears and I am entirely on the snow, clinging to the rock and just hoping I don’t slide. Despite the snow at my back, I’m sweating, and it drips into my eyes. But I’m so focused on what tiny movement to make next that I hardly notice. Inch by inch.
I slowly wriggle up the muddy channel between the snow and the rock until, an hour later, I arrive at a place, less steep, near the pass. Now I can safely scramble the rest of the way up. Mary Ann stands, cheering me on and snapping photos of my final few steps.