I finished my summer camp two Sundays ago; waking up on a drizzly day with bags packed and a mild headache. The restaurant – usually packed with wild kids and weary counselors – was nearly empty, the breakfast sparse and the next summer camp already plastering their signs on the walls. As the morning wore on many tearful good-byes were said as alone or in small groups, the last of the staff trickled out on their separate journeys.
My journey wasn’t nearly as lonely as some. My friend Koru, in preparation for her friends visiting, had booked an apartment in Zell am See for the week. With all our gear in tow Koru, Ben (another camp friend) and I left one summer home for another – this one a small flat in the center of town.
Sunday was spent in a well-earned laze: playing cards, napping, watching the Olympics and inventing events like Olympic-catching-peanuts-in-your-mouth where I earned gold in the synchronized and height events while intermittent rain showers made visiting the town unappealing.
On Monday, two of Koru’s friends arrived from Ireland for the week. Since it was Ruth’s birthday there was much celebration in the form of balloon animals (due to Ben’s Olympic-balloon-animal gold which also scored us free drinks from Olympic-giving-balloon-animals-to-children), Jager and hamburgers which in a game of nails at the local nightclub.
The next day Ben left for Frankfurt while the girls and went on an expedition to the world’s largest ice cave, perched 1600m up in the alps. After taking a train and a bus, there was a twenty minute uphill hike to a cable car which took us up 200m to another hike up to the mouth of the cave – a yawning, cavernous opening which funneled down into a smaller opening that had been walled off to preserve the cold. During the hike, even at this altitude, the temperature was in the high eighties. Now everyone was putting on sweaters over their t-shirts as the temperature was about to drop to freezing.
Before entering the cave the guides armed some of us with heavy kerosene lanterns which gave of an anachronistically dim, but atmospheric, light. Yet as we entered the cave, a massive gush of wind blew out all of our lights and we walked for 20m in near total darkness until the guide could relight our lanterns.
Once inside, before we began climbing 700 sand-covered wooden stairs up into the cave our guide lit a coil of magnesium to give off another atmospheric light and reveal a small portion of the cave, a massive ice sheet receding up a 30 degree incline into total darkness studded by massive mounds and pillars of ice sparkling under the intense chemical light of the magnesium (think Gandalf in Moria, “Let us risk a little more light” – it felt exactly the same.) In the distance you could see a dozen twinkling orange lights led by a bright white one, surrounded by blackness and ice, making their descent.
While we explored, the guide would often stop, tear off a length of magnesium, tack it to a wall, light it and lead the group on leaving eerie lighting following us. Sometimes it would be behind an enormous ice sculptor or wall leaving part of the cave glowing a dim blue as we moved along. At one point, in an enormous cavern with a frozen pond, we all blew out our lights and stood for a minute in total darkness. I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust and my mind started to imagine the shapes I’d last seen but there was only blackness.
Throughout the kilometer hike, Koru could repeatedly be heard uttering, “wow…” while my kerosene lit face was locked in a drop-jawed expression of silent amazement. If you’re ever near Salzburg I highly recommend this excursion.
Afterwards I went back to Zell and fell asleep on the couch while the girls went into Salzburg for dinner. The next day I left Austria on my own, bound for Slovenia.