How to Lose Your Alpine Virginity
by: Anna SzlaviCategory: Mountaineering
In the last couple of months, I had a bunch of “first experiences” (first via ferrata, first multi-pitch rock-climb, first kiss [OK, that no] 🙂 but none was so impressive as my first high mountain climb.
Imagine sleeping in your winter jacket and 4 layers of blankets, walking in dense fog and an immense whiteness, falling into a crevasse covered in snow, feeling like collapsing of altitude sickness before the peak, dropping an iPhone after the summit photo, and crashing in bed after the climb at 5 in the afternoon when normally you sit down for a tea to plan the evening party.
Not your average Thursday, right? Not mine at least.
And I couldn’t even imagine it, until I was there.
Of course I was trying to imagine it. Imagine how it will be, my trip to Grossvenediger.
In order to know what to pack, you need to foresee what can happen, which posed a pretty big challenge at that point. (Since then I have put together a packing guide for you guys, because I didn’t want you to struggle the way I did.)
The only tip I got from my colleagues was: “Take your 28L backpack. Whatever doesn’t fit, you don’t need it.” (Thanks very much, Valentino.)
Well, of course a lot of things I would have wanted to take didn’t fit. My brush and my eyeglass holder seemed like luxuries so I left them home (those who know me understand what a big thing that is!).
But even like this, I had to attach my crampons and my harness onto the bag, which is not very ideal if you need to cover your bag because it starts to rain.
And of course it did. 🙂
On the first day we had to reach Defreggerhaus at the elevation of 2,964m from the village of Hinterbichl. In the rain, it was a long and hard climb, even with my “teeny tiny” backpack (hm, the guys were carrying 45-65L bags, which contained, it turned out on the last day, 4 cans of beer for example).
When we arrived to the Hut at around 7PM, it was empty, so we could dine and sleep like kings. The food was much better than I expected: yummy goulash! And since I had brought some herbal tea, I only had to order hot water, actually, a liter, for half the price of a cup of tea. (Smarty pants!)
The beds were comfortable and we had plenty of space. But it was freeeeezing cold! We were sleeping in winter jackets and with like 4 layers of blankets. Not just me, even the guys. OK, I was even considering gloves.
But it soon turned out, temperature would not be the biggest challenge for the night. At around 10PM, I started to feel the effects of what mountaineers like to call the altitude sickness.
I had a killer headache, feeling a shortness of breath, and hardly slept anything. When we got up at 5AM, nausea appeared as well. (Yaaay!)
But it’s summit day. I thought, I’d try to manage somehow (but don’t think I wasn’t hesitating!).
Today we had to cover another 700 hundred meters of elevation, this time already in the snow. Crampons and sunscreen on!
The weather was somewhat better but it was still foggy. With Grossvenediger, fog is quite dangerous because the route is specially hard to spot, and if you get lost, you might freeze or fall into one of the many crevasses on the way.
As a matter of fact, two of us did slide into one, which was nicely covered in snow. That was a special kind of experience! 🙂
We were roped together, which gave us the sense of security (like when one is falling), but at the same time it made the tempo hard to adjust to. No matter if you are tired, you need to be going, because the ones before you are pulling — or occasionally the ones after you might be pulling the other way.
The symptoms of my altitude sickness worsened: I experienced fatigue, breathing problems, nausea and a constant high heart-rate. Whenever we stopped, it was a little heaven (although never enough).
We needed to go fast, because the fog was just not lifting.
There was a group of local climbers in front of us; we wanted to stay close to them, in case the weather conditions got worse.
We knew it was for our safely, but the speed was exhausting for all of us. Some of us were measuring all kinds of data, and it turned out our pulse was way above 140 for 30-40 mins several times.
Photo: Ati’s smartwatch
When we reached the last meters, getting to the notoriously thin ridge that leads to the Promised Land, we were so drained (-oh, btw, can you guess which part of the above shown heart metrics we are at now? Bet you do!)
…sorry… so I was saying, we were sooo drained when we reached the most killer part that we were much less scared than we could have.
It’s also true that the fog was kind enough to obscure the depths and dangers.
Later on, some of the guys watched a video of how the ridge looks in bright weather just to conclude they wouldn’t have passed had they only seen.
You see? You need to look at the bright side of things! Our summit photo may look as if we were in Yoghurt Land (with no sights of the promised Grossglockner, Austria’s highest) but we could more easily tackle the Eerie Edge like this!
It was funny when, standing in the middle of the ridge, our guide quickly noted, just “by the way”: “If one falls, you all duck and I’ll jump to the other side of the abyss.”
Later the guys laughingly admitted, their instinct told them to cut the rope rather than to jump for the other. (But please!)
Oh, another cheerful note to the story: we dropped the iPhone we used for The Summit Photo, but thank god a rock just below the peak caught it and we could climb and get it back.
Important moral: 1) Don’t go for the peak photo. Go for the journey! 2) Or at least remove your gloves when you take the photo! 😉
On the way back, we were a lot more relaxed and content (my nausea was still with me, son of a bitch!). The weather started to clear, we stopped for several photos and opened up for the celestial beauty of high mountains.
It was like walking above the clouds, in complete silence, where humans are just gracious guests, not reckless rulers.
After a short break in Defreggerhaus, we continued the descent to Johannishütte (2,121m).
The walk back was uplifting and fascinating: not just because it’s less exhausting to descent than to ascend, but also because the weather cleared up. We saw groups of lambs, cows and the famous whistlers (one of girls was so fascinated by the little rodents that she bought herself a stylish T-shirt with them in the village).
The flora was also impressive: one of guys saw an edelweiss (I bet you can guess what this prompted him to do in the Hut! :-).
After we arrived to the scenic valley of Johannishütte in the early afternoon, we had a big lunch (again, food was great, especially my Kaiserschmarrn), a lively chat and a plan to check the bouldering place close by. “We just take a short nap”, some of us said.
Oh yes. The next time we got out of that bed was 7AM next morning. 😀
What a great night! Never in my life had I not cared about people snoring next to me! This time I was sleeping like a log (finally, no headache, no nausea, no fatigue!).
I wasn’t even bothered by the alarm of one of my fellas that was ringing at 4AM for like 2 minutes before she heard it. (Familiar story, right? Whoever sets the alarm is the most immune. 🙂
After the gigantic rest, we got up, had our last Austrian breakfast and took the Venediger Taxi, which was supposed to take us down to the village.
It was a hilarious ride: two taxis arrived to the Hut for the two groups of 11 but the drivers thought it was fun to cram us all in one car. The empty one, which we kept referring to as the “Safety Car”, was driving in front us, while our veteran chauffeur, close to his 80-s, was racing behind it with his two dozens of passengers.
It was a real joyride! 🙂
The Morning After
Looking back at my first climb to the clouds, it was an epic experience! Again, like with most outdoor adventures, I felt transformed.
Very few things in life are really necessary for happiness once you realize you can make it in a 28L backpack, with no internet, no phone, and no shower. 😉