The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Macht mit der Alpenporn!

[This is Part 2. Read about part one of this trip here if you haven't already.]

Kick, step. Seven. Kick, step. Eight. Wipe nose with back of hand.
Kick, step. Nine. Kick, step. Ten. Stop and breathe. Pant, rather. Steady your boots in the knee-deep snow. Keep your eyes in front, on the snow-covered face rising steeply in front of you. Do not look down behind you. Do NOT look at the 2000 feet of vacant air 10 feet to your right. Breathe. Balance. Steady. Not much further now. Just reach the ridge top, traverse left across the top of the slope. Then maybe only a hundred yards' scramble to the summit. Kick, step. One. Kick, step. Two.

Austria's Schesaplana is not a typical setting for this type of petit-Krakauer-style drama. It is not overly high (10,000 feet) and can be climbed without climbing gear by amateurs and determined novices in the summer months. It's only a couple hours' hike from the Luenersee, a scenic Alpine lake popular among trout fishermen and served by a cable car from the Brandnertal valley.

Fortified by a hearty Austrian breakfast (cold meats, cheese, dark bread, boiled eggs) and encouraged by the sun burning through the morning fog, I drove the twisty single-lane road up to the trailhead, tailgated most of the way by an ubermensch in German-plated BMW M3 since there was no room to pull over to let him by (c'mon, dude, this rented 1.2 liter Opel makes maybe 80 horsepower, cut me some slack on the steep uphills). The morning mist was just starting to burn off when I reached the Luenersee [photos; you're gonna want to click on these to view full-size].

The route to the Schesaplana summit follows a well-established, flat, graded path that traces the shoreline of the Luenersee, then suddenly pitches uphill and becomes rather rocky, switching back repeatedly and crossing scree slopes. After maybe an hour of leg-deadening climbing and increasingly nice views back over the lake and rocky meadows [photos], the trail tops out onto a plateau directly in front of the Totalphutte .

"Hutte" is something of a misnomer, since these Alpine huts maintained by the Austrian Alpine Club are actually pretty cushy as high-mountain lodgings go, offering dorm-style accommodations and hot meals. The spacing of these huts along the major hiking routes means that the backpacker need carry no tent, no stove, and no food--just the necessary clothing and gear. Since camping is forbidden in many Alpine areas anyway, such hut-to-hut hiking is the ideal way to go, and one could theoretically walk from France across Switzerland and much of Austria without carrying much more than a change of clothes and a toothbrush (and a wallet--hut accommodations and meals are cheap but add up)[photo: Totalphutte and trail to Schesaplana, actually taken on my way back down].

I stopped on the terrace of the Totalphutte long enough to catch my breath, and set out again. A trail marker pointed the way to the Schesaplana, but the trail quickly disappeared under the snow as the trail gained altitude and the temperature dropped. I quickly surmised that I was one of the first to set out for the summit on that day, as there was only one set of footprints ahead of me (and it being too cold for Tusken Raiders, who always travel single file to hide their numbers). Here and there a stone cairn poked reassuringly above the snow [photo: somewhat confusing plain of cairns in the snowfield].

As morning turned to afternoon, I found a dry-enough, flat-enough rock to sit on, eat a little lunch, and snap a few pictures. Unfortunately these would be the last pictures I would get from above the snow line, as my camera--perhaps perplexed by the temperature or pressure change, or just out of spite--went on strike for the rest of the climb and didn't start working again until I was back at the Totalphutte [photos, two looking back down at the Luenersee and one looking up. For scale, there are four climbers on the trail going up; the Schesaplana is not the peak at left but is peeking (heh) up at the center in the distance].

Still I pushed on, despite deepening snow and steepening trail, despite freezing wet hands from catching myself in the snow after sliding (way to forget your gloves, idiot) with a severe case of I've come this far... I can completely see why the people in those mountaineering-disaster stories always push on for the summit even when they're low on oxygen or bad weather is coming in.

Fortunately, there were no disasters to befall me, just excessive breathlessness, dead legs, and a couple of bad moments on slippery snow on an exposed ridge resulting in my creeping on all fours (way to forget your gloves, idiot) from the increasingly-vertical approach face to the summit ridge.

Then there I was on the small summit, under an excessively well-anchored wooden cross covered with ice. The cloud cover swirled around, shifting and occasionally breaking to reveal ephemeral glimpses across the glacier to Switzerland, down the west face to Leichtenstein below, and to the Rhine valley.

Again, my camera had packed up, so I didn't get pictures of any of these views, but I did take a picture of myself with my phone camera at arm's length, and upon looking at the captured image realized that I in fact had a perfect cell signal, 2 miles high and 3 hours' walk from the nearest road (I suppose was technically in line-of-sight with much of eastern Switzerland), so I sent the picture directly to V's e-mail account, where she saw it minutes later. What an age we live in!

Fortunately a friendly Austrian climber with whom I had traded celebratory slugs from our respective flasks (Kentucky bourbon for Austrian schnapps) used his camera to take a picture of me leaning on the summit cross-cum-summit-guestbook [photo of your semi-anonymous amphibian correspondent] and e-mailed it to me when he got back to civilization (Vielen dank, Kurt! Prost!)

After about 20 minutes on the summit, I was starting to get very cold, so it was time to go. The return trip was much faster, thanks to some probably-not-wise bounding recklessly downhill through the snow, slipping and falling every so often on unseen rocks, but generally uneventful. I collapsed back into my tent at the campsite just before nightfall, and slept the sleep of the exhausted.

And just as well, for tomorrow would bring... Leichtenstein! Look upon it, ye mighty, and despair!

[To be continued.]

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