Facing my fear at high altitude
By Anne • July 24, 2013 • Travel
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
Not tired or nerve-shaken, but over civilized? Guilty and happily so, thanks to days traipsing through spectacular boulevards in Vienna and schnitzel in Salzburg. I won’t forget any time soon hearing my daughters sing for their last time as students together* in their school choir.
It was, after all, our incentive to go to Austria. We saw them perform and waved good bye as they continued on to Prague. Then we jumped in a rented convertible and headed south.
The approach into the Alps matches a list of other first impressions imprinted forever in my mental map: bumping between potholes through mango valleys in St. Lucia; driving in sleet through the hills of Connemara before the Irish mist cleared; sprinting from the car over the Prince Edward Island dunes to shout hello to a wild Atlantic; stopping for a minute, then an hour, then two, at Cathedral Grove to stare at trees en route to Tofino on Vancouver Island.
Driving into the valley that would be our last stop before flying home, the conversation broke off. It was enough just to ogle.
Deep in the woods, hiking one of a myriad of trails in Hohe Tauern National Park, a thunderous waterfall almost drowned out the pounding in my chest. A steady ascent will do that to an infrequent hiker.
Around a twist in the path and we stood before a wide clearing, cool alpine air filling our lungs. The peaks were hidden but still, suddenly massive.
I began to make little deals with myself about leaving it all behind-the toxic soup of city summer weather, the clogged tedium of traffic, the colliding and shoving, the search for a parking spot, the punishing pulse of activity rushing forward.
It is an ancient reckoning: small as we are in these valleys between high mounds of rock, we bump up against ourselves. I am home in these parts unknown.
I had my love to keep me moving and we were the last people on earth. Is there anything better than this?
Well, yes, in fact, there was an alpine hut waiting, with cold beer, wild blueberries and fish almost as blue. A note of caution when ordering poached or “blue” fish from the menu, it is in fact, just that: blue.
The alfresco meal gave us momentum to push on, for the next, slightly steeper ascent, strewn with twigs and other hazards to trip you up, should you falter, you in your Birkenstocks. Hiking boots would have tipped the weight balance of my suitcase, so there! The end of the path is the beginning of another long ascent, to a higher peak where a lake shimmers. Alas, we turned back, time waning and knees whining, but were rewarded with a view that kept us company all the way down.
We had been gone for hours. If I had a little skip in my step, it may have been the anticipated swim in our inn.
|Gruner Baum hotel Hoteldorf in Badgastein
Although most come to the Gastein valley to ski, it is known across Europe as a health resort town, due to thermal spring waters.
We loved to end the day in the healing pools.
That and glass of wine, and I might never have come home.
I will take up picnics to workers in the hills, I thought, and hand out beer between hikes. Braid my hair and wear dirndls, plunging neckline and all.
First, there was one last adventure. To do it, I had to stare down a phobia.
I didn’t know I had any until I slid into my forties. Spiders and snakes? Summer camp took care of that. Podiums before a crowd? I am the middle of five and was encouraged to speak up by my folks. Heights? The higher the better. But peering over cliffs? Nope. There it is. Riding shotgun, cliffside, on car routes that lead to magical spots has proven tricky for this traveler. Just beam me up, Scotty.
There is evidence of said phobia, somewhere in our home movie collection; footage of me, panting and emitting tiny shrieks. Shut off your dirty minds, naughty readers, I was in a jeep, racing to Myrtos beach, known as one of the most spectacular on the planet—high praise in Greece where pretty and beach are basically passwords.
|Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia island, Greece and yes, the water is really that colour.
To get there, drivers must negotiate steep hillsides and “you’re kidding me-we’re driving that?” roads. Along the route are little shrines to remind drivers of all those who took the turns to a tragic end. With shaky hands, I handed the video to my kids in the backseat and gripped the seat in a cold sweat. We made it but it was only floating in the stunning water that brought my breathing back to normal.
Four years later, I am in a convertible, on a much, much, higher trek, on the Grossglockner High Alpine Road.
|Note the tight grip on my bottle and no, it is not vodka.
The road winds through meadows and ice to the highest mountain in Austria, the Grossglockner (3,798 m) and the glacier, the Pasterze. Hugging cliffs, our car began the climb as I cursed myself and my stupid ideas. Yes, it was my idea and the Friendly Greek jumped on it. His idea of a great date once was to drive me from Toronto to the Big Apple on the 401 for a piece of apple pie. This is a man who loves to drive (and eat pie).
I was making deals again, muttering to myself about giving up all my crazy ways if only I can arrive safely; trying not shout more than half a dozen times, “Slow down!” so that my patient driver didn’t careen off the road. Somewhere, between a gasp and a tremble, I began to sink back in my seat and take it in, take it all in. We were travelling through a tunnel, snail’s speed, built through the mountain. As we came out into the bright light, I sat on my fear. If I was going to die, here was the place. It would be a sensational dive, even a crowd to witness my scream and perhaps a chance to yodel as I went down.
Joining us on the road were tour buses, a parade of Porsches, packs of motorcycles, cyclists, all of us, tiny dots moving in circles, round and round the mountain, the car temperature gauge slowly dropping. We stopped for a picnic and I gulped down the mineral water. Heavenly.
48 kilometres. 36 heart stopping bends. Altitude 2,504 metres. All of it spectacular.
The best kind of holidays leave you wanting to return.
I want to shout from the cliffs, BRING IT ON, BABY
Turns out, you have to stomp on your fear.
Life is out there waiting.
Auf Wiedersehen, Austria.
For other posts from my Austrian Adventure, see:
* My oldest was on her last trip with the choir as she graduated in June. To hear how we celebrated, read here.
Fangirl here. If you have a sweet tooth, I'm coming for you. Let's dish and dream together, shall we?
Wow. You took us there in your writing again Anne. I was up in the mountains too and you go girl. Facing that fear is a check off the bucket list!
Amazing pictures and great writing, felt like I lived it!
Thanks for the inspiration…