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Facing my fear at high altitude

By 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…”

John Muir

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 the 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 goodbye as they continued 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, two, at Cathedral Grove to stare at trees en route to Tofino on Vancouver Island.

The conversation broke off when we entered the valley that would be our last stop before flying home. It was enough 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, 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.

My love kept me moving; we were the last people on earth. Is there anything better than this?

Well, yes, 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 we were rewarded with a view that kept us company.

We had been gone for hours. If I had an extra sparkle 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 healthy resort town due to its thermal spring waters.

We loved to end the day in the healing pools.

That and a 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 was I peering over cliffs? Nope. There it is. Riding shotgun, cliffside, and car routes that lead to magical spots has proven tricky for this traveller. Just beam me up, Scotty.

Evidence of said phobia is 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, one of the most spectacular on the planet—high praise in Greece where pretty and beach are passwords.

Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia island, Greece and the water is really that colour.

Drivers must negotiate steep hillsides and “You’re kidding me! We are driving that?” roads to get there. 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 only floating in the stunning water brought my breathing back to normal.

Four years later, I am in a convertible on a much higher trek on the Grossglockner High Alpine Road.

Note my bottle’s tight grip; 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 Pasterze glacier. Hugging cliffs, our car began the climb as I cursed myself and my stupid ideas. 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 could arrive safely, trying not to 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, a snail’s speed, built through the mountain. As we emerged 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 is 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.

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