The Austrian Alps are beautiful. Grey peaked mountains rise up into the sky like spires in a bucolic dream. Their sides striped with dark green cascades of pine sliding down clefts cut by milennia of spring thaws. Their bases guarded by steep canyons carved by mountain streams feed in turn from misty waterfalls. The clunking jingle of cow bells wafts faintly through the crisp air, originating in alpine pastures spotted with cows and cottages. The scent of pine and water are everywhere. Pristine Austrian villages, whose wood and plaster houses are draped in myriad hanging flowers, are surrounded by fertile fields and glacial lakes.
The views are stunning, particularly when they’re your only distraction from the fact that that you’re dangling by a cord a hundred feet up the face of a cliff, your arms spent by the strain of clipping into the safety cable, your legs drained from the exertion of the last two overhangs, and your mind wearied by the knowledge that the only way off is to climb another fifty feet.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. This is the story of four boys, a Ford Fiesta, and the frosty Austrian Alps; and I don’t want to spoil the ending by divulging whether we made it off that cliff alive.
The SMS from Daniel read, “Hey buddy. Long time no see. Me and a friend are going hiking in the alps this weekend. You interested?” These are the kind of text messages I like to – but rarely d0 – receive at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, especially when the weekend in question follows a long awaited pay day.
Daniel was introduced to me as a “Czech friend” by Kim last Easter on a trip into the mountains. Due to the introduction I was surprised when his first words after the four hour bus ride were, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.” It turned out that he’s a not Czech so much as a Czech born American from North Carolina. Over the past year we’d done several other excursions together to various parts of the Republic. This time we were being joined by his fully Czech colleague, Jiří (“Jirka”), an experienced hiker and rock-climber; and our mutual friend Miguel (“Mikey”), a Mexican-American from Prague.
The invitation was for a hiking trip but before we left I learned that we’d actually be doing via feratta. Owing to the litigious nature of American society via ferrata will never become widespread as it consists of a series of cables fixed to the walls of mountains and canyons by which a hiker traverse routes otherwise only accessible to fully equipped rock climbers. I’d seen via ferrata routes cresting the outdoor climbing wall that I visited this summer. My expectation was that we’d be hiking up to top of an alp and using the cable to traverse the ridge. I was soon to learn differently.
Mikey and I started out trip from the Florence bus station on a sunny Friday afternoon. Our first leg was a four-hour bus ride from Prague through gorgeous Czech countryside – including the UNESCO heritage site of Český Krumlov where we went slow-water rafting this spring (like the Delaware River improved by a medieval town and makeshift pubs along the way) – to meet Daniel and Jirka in Kaplice: a sleepy town on the southern border with Austria.
The sun was setting when we arrived. It’s crimson light creating dramatic silhouettes out of the forested foothills that had appeared over the last hour. The boys were leaning on a car as we disembarked; the last two at the bus’ last stop. Daniel’s mirrored Oakley sunglasses pushed back on his forehead, an easy smile on his face. His spacious Peugeot 406 had been replaced by Jirka’s Ford Fiesta due to mechanic difficulties so we packed the hatchback to the brim, my pack between Mike and I in the back seat and the two of use squeezed in like sausages we were soon to be roasting over the campfire. After meeting Jirka, a tall, handsome 23-year old Czech from České Budějovice, we hit the gas station, and headed towards Austria with the last rays of daylight.
Once the sun was down the journey became a blur of German road signs and Austrian villages. It wasn’t until we got into the foothills of the Austrian Alps (where I finally learned the name of our destination: Wolfgangsee, a huge Alpine lake near to Salzburg) that I started paying attention. The nice thing about driving into the Alps is that it makes you pay attention. The further we drove the more dramatic the landscape became. The heavy black outlines of the mountains were clear against the deep navy blue sky freckled with stars. The moutains dropping so abruptly to the shore of the lakes that the road required a series of tunnels winding through the stone despite never straying more than fifty feet from the shore. The opposite shore was lit with evenly spaced lights which defined the base of the mountains and the far edge of lake and effectively exaggerating the scale of the landscape.
While Mikey and I were crammed in the backseat, admiring the shadowy views and imaging our coming adventures along the crests of these soaring ridges; Daniel and Jirka were trying to figure out exactly where we were going. The clock drew near ten as we got close enough to Wolfgangsee to start looking for the campsite. The moon had still to rise and it was as dark as the night would get. After a few wrong turns we found a hotel which was still open for directions. They sent us into a rustic mountain village sliding down the mountain from pastures above into the massive lake of Wolfgansee. After few more wrong turns and we found the campgrounds on a hill above town, overlooking the lake. The campground was closed for the night and was only for camper vans. Apparently “camping” has a more specific meaning in German.
“Shit,” someone said.
“Well?” I asked from the back. “Where to now?” Sleeping in the car was out of the question, as we were packed as efficiently as opium in the hold of a smugglers ship. Mikey got out to take a leak while Daniel and Jirka fluttered in Czech.
“We’ll find a field to camp in, I guess,” said Daniel, and we started driving again.
On our third attempt at driving down farm roads (the first field was across from a house and the second covered in fresh manure) we found the perfect spot. A truck road scraped the bottom of the Fiesta as we drove up through a small, immaculately manicured wood and into a sprawling field. The owner clearly used this land. The wood was cleared in one spot to serve as a storage facility for large piles of gravel and the field we found contained a complex of buildings: two long sheds sheltered large stores of cut firewood and random bits of lumber; a pole barn housed a tractor and it’s components while a small barn sat stoically in the rising moonlight, the perfect accessory to an Alpine field.
The field was isolated with only a couple houses visible in the distance and the woods cutting us off from the road. Yet the real reason to stay here was the view. The very mountains we were to climb rose unobstructed from the foothills in front of us. Their base shrouded by low clouds glowing in the moonlight while their peaks were framed by more clouds in the distance. So we decided, we were staying here and hoping that the farmer either took Saturdays off or didn’t mind the odd camper. (Mikey told a story about how a friend, similarly camping in an Austrian farm field, once woke to an inquisitive farmer who invited them home for breakfast.)
After we set up camp – two tents neatly placed in front of the car – Mikey and Daniel went about building a fire while Jirka tried to get his campstove working (it never did and he donated some gas from the canister to getting the fire going). I was nervous about disrespecting the farmer’s property so I made sure the fire was set into a shallow pit in the gravel driveway and everyone lectured before promptly pillaging the sheds for materials to make benches.
We kept the fire going for many hours that night: drinking beer, admiring the scenery; eating the short, fat Czech hotdogs (pictured above); teaching Jirka more English; spinning glowing nunchucks; and practicing throwing knives. Throughout the night we were interrupted from somewhere in the distance by a bull groaning and the forest dropping it branches. By the time we were ready for bed a fine layer of frost had developed on the car and tents but I was content curled up in my sleeping bag with the sounds of farm and forest replacing the squeal of tram wheels and drunken laughter.
I woke up bleary eyed, chased by rumbling engines in my dreams to the sound of tractor passing nearby, and was instantly alert. Perhaps we’d overstayed our welcome, I thought, as I crawled out of my sleeping bag. The rumble of the tractor passed and was slightly muted as it followed the dirt road past our camp around a bend. There was a pause, then the sound of an avalanche of stones being dropped somewhere behind the trees. As the the tractor returned I cracked the frost off the tent zipper to watch the driver pass by. He seemed unconcerned by our presence.
As the sound diminished out towards the road I unzipped the tent and beheld the splendor of the Austrian morning. We had almost watched the moon circumscribe half of its arc the night before but he was still hanging in the sky to the east, framed perfectly between a couple of spruce. Leaping up in front of the tent, the now sun drenched alpine crags rose in the distance – their scale written in the diminishing size of the pines climbing them. The shadows of trees and hills across the valley were covered in frost, dramatizing their shapes with a pale blue shadow. The sun had already thawed what lay under its touch, casting the grass and trees in vibrant shades of green to contrast the frosty shadows. Somewhere in the distance, the bull groaned.
Surprisingly, I was the only one awoken by the tractor dumping two tons of rock into a pit twenty yards from our tents. More surprising still was how neatly we’d squared away the camp the night before. The fire pit was no longer visible where it was covered with gravel and stones; the borrowed lumber was stowed safely back in the overhead compartments; and all our garbage was kicked cleanly under the car. All that was in the field was a frosty car and two tents sitting in a neat little row.
The sun was warm and after a short cat nap on a log, Jirka started to rustle so we woke the other two and broke down camp with a quick breakfast of sausages, granola and crisp apples from a nearby tree. As we were doing so the tractor returned and began working in the forest below us. As we were standing around jawing, a middle aged man came up the road on foot dressed in work clothes. He stared at us for a moment from the edge of the wood until Jirka waved to him, “guten morgen!”
“Guten morgen,” he mumbled grumpily, and walked away. Then we packed the car, assumed our sardine positions, and drove off – everyone but the driver hopping out when we got to the road so that the Fiesta didn’t bottom out crossing from dirt to concrete.
The area was somehow less beautiful in the day – its mysteries revealed. As we drove out to the park we passed dozens of beautiful alpines houses draped in hanging flowers, cords of wood stacked neatly under sheds in tidy lawns with cow pastures surrounding them. Apple trees laden with fruit smattered the countryside.
Once we got into the forest and we started heading up. The road followed a stream, which cut up along the side of the mountain, and began to switch-back as we crossed over the stream, passed waterfalls and wove along cliff walls. Twenty minutes later we were there. Piling out of the car in a gravel pull-off packed with other cars and a few vans whose owners appeared to have made an earlier start.
It took half an hour to cover ourselves in gear, including a harness to which we attached a braking cable with two two-18 inch safety cables to slow and stop a fall, and a safety cable from which to suspend ourselves while resting; a helmet; gloves for handling the cable; and backs filled with water, chocolate, and granola bars.
The initial trail barely existed, marked only by painted stones overgrown and fading. We set off on the route in high spirits as it dropped off the parking lot along a steep hillside of rough terrain. Jirka was leading the way and we backtracked a few times as the switchbacks tumbled along a confusing route of exposed roots, rocks and wet sliding topsoil. This wasn’t anything new and unconsciously I weighed the danger of a fall. It wasn’t terrible. After sliding twenty feet I’d be able to regain control and climb back to the trail.
Ten minutes of slowly descending this route, happily chattering away led to the beginning of the via ferrata route known as The Clammy. The trail hadn’t changed but a thick cable appeared on the uphill slope and now I could just make out the edge of the gorge about fifty feet below, obscured by small trees and underbrush.
Jirka carefully explained the technical process and one-by-one we clipped into the safety cable. The trail here was easy but as we progressed for the next five minutes I could see the value of the cable. The slope had stood up. It was now a particularly steep slide to the edge of the gorge, whose bottom had yet to reveal itself.
I was just beginning to enjoy myself when the first obstacle presented itself. A rope bridge hung over the gorge between two thick oaks. Trekkers crossed Indiana Jones style by stepping on boards strung between the two foot-level cables then (very unlike Indiana) clipped onto the safety cable that ran just overhead. There was a loose guide rope to the left of the bridge to help those crossing keep their balance. We stopped for a moment at its foot to let two quicker hikers pass. For this we had to unclip from the safety cable for a moment and I set my feet into the slippy mud surface of the slope and started to sweat. Despite being ten feet from the edge, I still couldn’t see the bottom, but I knew if I started to slide there was nothing but the bottom to stop me.
Jirka crossed expertly and set up on the other side to take pictures. Daniel crossed next, more cautiously. When it was my turn I ran into the first problem of the day. On the first step of the bridge I realized that I couldn’t clip into the safety cable. By wearing a crotch harness instead of a full body harness I lowered safety cables on my body by eight inches – a crucial amount – and they reached an inch below the safety cable. This meant that I had to jump that inch to clip in. I did it but I didn’t like it. Then I was free to cross
Crossing was it’s own adventure. Remember that seen in all the movies were someone who is afraid of heights has to climb a building or rock wall? They’re always told not to look down (advice which every protagonist in the history of film has ignored). Well, you don’t have the luxury of avoiding eye contact with heights when you need to watch were every step goes on a swaying rope bridge seventy feet above a rocky canyon river. Each step along the bridge took me a little further beyond my control. The further out I went, the more exaggerated each sway of the bridge became and the more I could feel each shift in my weight playing out against the movement of the cables. All the while staring down below me and tensing up.
When I was halfway across I heard, “Ian!” shouted from the far bank and I momentarily averted my gaze from the abyss.
“Ian! Check it out,” Daniel shouted pointing off to my left. From the middle of this chasm there was an inspiring view of one peaks surrounding the area. I rested for a moment in its splendor and then carried on reinvigorated. The two minutes it took to cross felt like twenty. I had gripped the safety cable so tightly that my right arm was shaking as I tried to clip into the tree on the opposite side. But I clipped in and instantly started regretting my decision for the day.
Once I was safely across, the sour bile taste of fear and adrenaline congealing in my mouth, Mikey started his traverse. Six steps along the bridge he looked up and shouted to us, “Hey guys, you wanna see some hero shit?” as he let go of the guide ropes and took a step forward.
“Mike!” Daniel called, “What the hell are you clipped into? That hand rope can’t hold you! You have to clip in overhead!”
All of us grimaced. Mike’s defiance vanished, replaced by a concentrated look, as he grabbed both the hand rope and the safety cable with either hand then switched his clips from the flimsy guide rope to the sturdy metal cable. Then, again safe, his defiance returned and he showed off his mud “war paint” with a war cry.
After the bridge we continued along another steep forested path and my confidence returned. The sun occasionally peaked in among the sturdy pines and towering rock walls that rose above us on our left but the area seemed like it was usually wet. Thick moss clung to the rocks and lichens covered the trees. The ground was slippery but we moved quickly anyway, clipping and unclipping every twenty feet, confident in our safety measures, occasionally pausing to admire the view of the gorge falling away behind us: the mountains framed by its steep slopes or the icy pools of water below.
Soon we arrived at the next challenge. The forest slope had been boxed out by steep rock walls. The way forward was along these smooth, perpetually wet walls and to aide in this we found sturdy iron pegs hammered into the walls to act as steps. While pulling ourselves forward with hands on the cable, ours backs pressed against the wet canyon wall we climbed for thirty feet before a ledge jutted out to return our footing.
Then it was time to cross the gorge again. This time there was a tight rope walk aided by four hanging ropes. It was much easier than the rope bridge. The new section of the canyon was narrow and wetter than before. Iron staples were hammered into the wet grey stone to provide footing and we continued along, hands on the cable while our feet followed the iron path. Fifty feet below the stream rolled lazily through blue pools and over boulders.
Mike was without gloves and the cable had taken a bloody tole on his hands. Jirka used a roll of bandages to create makeshift gloves perfect for climbing while Daniel and I pressed ahead, ascending and descending along the iron path which passed under a small waterfall and led us to the Gattsprung . Just as I got comfortable crossing cable bridges it was decided that these were a luxury. Instead, there were two staples facing each other across a 6 foot gap.
Daniel felt comfortable practicing his split across the gap while I stood nervously to the side sipping water. Despite the coolness of the canyon I was drenched in sweat from the exertion of our travels. The wait for Mike and Jirka to catch up left me chilly and eager to begin again.
When they caught up Daniel stretched across and started climbing the opposite wall. I stepped into place, eyed up the gap and then stretched my left leg out as far as possible (and then a little more) until I caught the other side. Mike and Jirka posed for some pictures, then the lanky Jirka stretched easily across. It was only Mikey, the little Mexican, who couldn’t reach across the gap. He slipped while trying (and made me a little nervous) before he leapt the gap like a champion (making me quite nervous).
Now we were almost done. A little more work traversing up and down the canyon walls and we came up on the final rope bride – a luxuriously small one next to a beautiful cascade of water feeding into the canyon.
Once across there was a momentary rest were we ate some power bars, rehydrated and swapped stories of our impressions through this section of the trip. Jirka then told us that this was the easy part – my heart dropped a little.
After a short difficult climb up vertical stone we were out of the canyon, able to unclip and to continue up the steep forested path. We stopped at a gorgeous three-tier waterfall momentarily where we posed for some pictures and rested for the next leg of our climb: a sheer white-stone cliff wall rising out of the forest.
The beginning of this section was more like strict rock climbing and I regretted leaving my climbing slippers in the car. Again, Jirka took the lead, then me, then Mike, and then Daniel in the rear. The first thirty feet up were the worst. There were two overhangs that we had to pull ourselves out from under while continuously unclipping and reclipping our safety gear. My lower harness increased my workload and I felt the strength in my arms quickly fading. Here Jirka saved my ass. Before we left he had attached a safety rope to the rest of my gear. It hadn’t made much sense to use it below in the canyon, where there was plenty of good footing and walls to lean on, but here we working along the bottom of overhanging slabs of rock; there was no way to rest but by clipping in and letting go.
For those of us who have never climbed open rock there is nothing more unsettling than letting go. However, there is no other way to rest your arms and legs than by not using them. This means clipping the resting strap to the wall and dangling while you recharge. I’m not used to hanging with my feet above the trees but quickly learned to feel safe in this precarious position.
As soon as I became comfortable with the resting precautions the whole climb became easier though, to be honest, I remained terrified throughout the rest of the rock face. However, as the amazing views opened up above the tree tops it all became worth the risk of the climb.
There were a few tricky places were the metal staples created awkward obstacles – banging my arms and legs – but with patience they were passed. After a little more climbing we unclipped once again and I resisted the urge to sing, dance and hug everybody. It was the top.
The way back to the car was more of a frolic in alpine fields than a hike and I’d be remiss in my journalistic responsibility if I didn’t mention that the The Hills are Alive from The Sound of Music made an appearance in our gay descent.
That evening, after a giant platter of thick cut Austrian meats and cheeses we returned to our “campsite” exhausted and satisfied by the day’s adventure. Everyone was a little nervous about trespassing again. As we came through the road in the woods we passed a truck parked by the gravel piles that hadn’t been there the night before. But we rationalized it and settled in anyway, willing to take the risk of being kicked out and driving back to Prague in the night. When the headlights of a truck pierced the the secluded forest we all shat our pants in the firelight but the farmer collecting his truck either didn’t see or didn’t care that we were there so the rest of the night passed uneventfully.
The next morning was as glorious as the first. I cracked frost of the tent and found a frosted alpine valley awaiting me. After a quick breakfast of fruit and sausage we cleared camp. Jirka had forgotten his sunglasses at the picturesque waterfall the day before and it was agreed that he and Daniel would take a quick run back through the canyon to retrieve them while Mike and I explored the surrounding area.
We were dropped off at the hotel that had come to serve as our home base for coffee, directions and cheer. Mike borrowed Jirka’s camera so he could learn photography as we wandered around the lake with me acting as his photo director.
I really wouldn’t mind retiring to this area – tomorrow. Wolfgangsee was everything that I expected an Austrian mountain town to be. We were coincidently there for an important cross country race that passed us several times as we walked along the enormous shore. There were sport climbing routes bolted to the impressive rock walls that appeared randomly along our trail. The village of Strobl was filled with quaint cottages and cozy looking pubs. Boaters set out from the docks for fishing or pleasure cruises.
We hung around until afternoon when Daniel and Jirka returned with his glasses, then set off. Five hours of car games, cards and idle conversation later we were back in Prague. My body aching from the climb and completely satisfied with the trip.