Sense of wonderment

Ski mountaineering leaves you cursing your own existence as much as you thank God for making such a beautiful world.

snow walking 88 224 (photo credit: JORG LUYKEN)
snow walking 88 224
(photo credit: JORG LUYKEN)
As the wind whips around my face, blowing flurries of snow into my weeping eyes, I struggle forward, pushing one tired leg in front of the other. I am on a valley floor in the Alps in the midst of a thick blizzard. Above me, 3,500-meter peaks disappear into the clouds. All I can see is a rope tying me to a man several meters behind and the undulating hills before me. Suddenly, the snow gives way underneath me and I lurch over a ledge. I fall, but after a couple of meters the rope holds and I hang suspended in midair. The next thing I see is a bronzed, leathery face peering over the edge. "That was all right?" he asks in faltering English. "Excellent," I reply and give a thumbs up. "Schön," he chuckles. "Okay, let yourself off from the rope now." I release myself and slide a few meters down before coming to a halt. It is the fifth day of a guided trek through the Hohe Tauern region of Austria. The weather has deteriorated to such an extent that climbing mountains has become an impossibly dangerous task. So, instead we practice what would happen if, heaven forbid, the worst situations arise. An hour before we had been desperately digging "fallen companions" out of avalanches; now we are practicing the routine for when somebody falls into a crevasse. Not that Hans, our guide, would normally have smiled and told me to let myself fall selflessly into the abyss. Or one would hope not. My brother and I had been inspired four years previously to start winter mountaineering - me with skis, him with a snowboard and snow boots - after reading a book called Touching the Void. It is the true account of two climbers who become the first people to climb the north face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. However, it all goes wrong when one of them falls down a crevasse and his partner cuts the rope, leaving him for dead. It was a most macabre way to find an interest in a sport (although miraculously both climbers survived), and not a situation we planned on repeating ourselves. My brother, Lewis, had several years' climbing experience, and we both had been ski-mountaineering for three years. But hiring a guide, which we did through the German Alpine Association, teaches you not only the basics of mountain survival, but also how best to plan your route and how to approach the downhill skiing. IT IS A dangerous, sometimes unrewarding sport. But Touching the Void's author, Joe Simpson, manages to capture what makes mountaineering so special. "It seemed, sometimes, fleetingly, you could come close to the ineffable edge of perfection when it all goes to glory for the briefest of moments, an inarticulate moment, that leaves you with a vulnerable shattered sense of wonderment," he writes. "It was life enhancing: pure emotion." Although he was talking about climbing, the same applies to the skiing. When you are descending a fresh layer of powder, gliding through the snow from one turn into the next, alone in a deserted valley, you have the sensation that you are flying, and it is quite incomparable to anything else in the world. Joy floods through you and at every turn your gut leaps, asking if this time you'll be thrown off balance and crash. On the perfect day, you can look back up and just see a couple of tracks snaking their way down the mountainside, knowing one of them is yours. The trouble is that the mountains are rarely so kind. The high point, both literally and metaphorically, of our trip was to be the ascent of the Grossvenediger, a 3,660-meter peak that dominates the Venediger range with its statuesque, pristine slopes. It is the fourth largest in Austria, and its name - "the Big Venetian" - is apparently derived from a view from the summit that stretches all the way down to Venice itself. Our own view at the summit was slightly more limited. In fact the only thing to give it away was a large steel cross looming out of the mist that had engulfed us for the last couple of hours. The cross, a feature of every mountaintop in the Austrian Alps, is a testament to the religiosity that still pervades this isolated region of irreligious Europe. Most of the crosses, at least three meters tall, have been carried up by groups of locals in the summer (although on the more inaccessible peaks, helicopters are sometimes used instead). At any rate, it puts any grumbles about the weight I was carrying on my back into perspective. "Where are we?" somebody in the group inquired. Somehow, after all that time stuck in the fog, seemingly making no progress, it was hard to believe that we had just reached the summit of the right mountain. "I think we're on the Matterhorn," another of our companions quipped. The emotions that enter your head on reaching such a great summit on a day like this one are hard to disentangle. Firstly there is an overriding sense of relief. You have just spent a good six hours climbing, laying one ski in front of the other thousands upon thousands of times. Sometimes trying to keep your grip on the edge of steep, icy slopes, slipping, feeling your balance going. You put on Harscheisen to assist having a grip, then you take them off. You tie yourself to a rope, more climbing. A binding slips out of place. The whole group has to wait as you fix it. More climbing. Eventually you scramble onto a narrow ridge. You're tired and the thick cloud distorts your sense of balance. Placing your ski poles to either side, you can't see it, but you can feel that the ground falls away very sharply. Finally you reach the top and you're safe, at least for the time being. The disappointment on missing out on the view is negligible. When it is clear, the scenery can be wonderful. But, strangely, being up on the summit is never the best time to enjoy it. You enjoy it when you're caught by surprise on the way up by the sun breaking over the top of a valley and catching tornados of snow being whipped off the peaks. Your mind is relaxed at times like that. At times like that it is impossible to feel worried. On the summit, though, butterflies are fluttering in your stomach. You know that now awaits you the part that makes it all worth while. In the case of the Grossvenediger it is a descent down a wide rolling glacier, over a ridge into the adjacent valley, onto the soft spring snow and down to a mountain hut 1,500 meters below. Nagging at you at the same time, though, are the worries. What if I don't make the most of the descent? What if the snow is too heavy or too deep? On the summit of Grossvenediger the worry went beyond skiing, there was to be no skiing, other than following each other in close formation as we "snowplowed" down through the cloud, trying not to lose one another. The slow descent was made the more eerie by the whistling we heard coming from the distance. The form of a body appeared and disappeared in the periphery of our vision. Shouts echoed across the hill, muffled by the claustrophobic atmosphere, as a group of Austrians who had made the top with us struggled to stay together. Then we broke through the clouds and it was as if they had never been there. Across the ridge and the next valley was a sun-kissed paradise. We regrouped, but one of the Austrians was missing. An anxious wait followed. People muttered German curses under their breath and flashed anxious glances back up the hill. Not long after, though, the sound of snow being carved up was heard and the lost man turned a corner, made an elegant stop and grinned "Hi" as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. THE GROSSVENEDIGER climb wasn't the best of days and it wasn't the worst. None are, that is as long as you come back in one piece, which besides a few blisters and bruises everyone did. It is the days when the weather is at its worst that you learn the most about the mountains, and cliched as it may sound, about yourself too. My own will to accomplish something is always challenged by the devil on my shoulder which tells me that it would be much easier to turn back or just lie down and forget about the pain. But, save my first ever ascent four years ago, this has never beaten my will to achieve something. In large part this is due to the mountain huts and the wonderful women who run them. Our own base camp was the Johannishütte. The Alps are scattered with huts; some are manned, others not. These often longed-for sanctuaries against the storms are almost always beautiful in the simplicity of their wood panelled designs. Three sweaty, unwashed men sleep on the same bed and in the mornings you have to put up with hearing what living at 2,000 meters does to another person's bowels, as only a thin wooden panel divides you from the man next door. But each and every one of those huts shoots the Ritz or the Savoy out of the water - not least because of the food they serve. To describe it as anything other than basic would be a gross exaggeration. Dumpling soup, followed by schnitzel and then tinned fruit is the chief's special on most days. But after hours on the mountains, you're swilling Weissbier (wheat beer) round your mouth like a vintage wine, and you're letting the dumpling slide down your throat like an oyster, wallowing in every taste. Across the dining hall, Austrians with big bushy mustaches strike up a drinking song, enthusiastic groups pour over maps and weather reports, others play cards as the valley slowly becomes immersed in darkness. Our own tipple was a dice game called Chicago, apparently entirely based on luck, yet at the end of which either I or my brother would inevitably end up buying drinks for the table. By nine o'clock you can barely keep your eyes open anymore and as soon as you hit the bed you go out like a light. Ski mountaineering isn't for everyone and it leaves you cursing your own existence as much as you thank God for making such a beautiful world. Moreover, anyone who takes pride in the appearance of their feet only needs look at mine to be put off for a lifetime. But, for anyone with a sense of adventure, a moderate level of skiing, and a love of Weissbier and Wiener schnitzel, it is more than recommendable.