by Chris Colin: In Austria, where the Alps cover 62 percent of the country, hiking is just a part of regular life. An intrepid American writer laces up his boots…
I’m told there was nothing to see at first, just a staccato rumble thundering up from the valley below. It had been a quiet afternoon in Tyrol, the next blast of summer rain still just a threat to the east. Over at the mountain hut Bettelwurfhütte, the day’s arrivals moved out to the patio as the rumble approached. For 125 years the stone and wood structure has been a refuge for weary hikers, an outpost of warm beds and hot goulash high on the southern face of Austria’s Kleiner Bettelwurf. At 6,814 feet, when the patio is not shrouded in ghostly mist, the view takes in the full vertiginous majesty of the surrounding peaks. Elsewhere in his beloved Alps, the 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin wrote of the “ghastly poise” these mountains command. On this day, I learned later, someone had glimpsed that ghastly poise a little too directly. The rescue chopper at last swept into view, slicing clockwise through the clouds and banking toward the hut.
Helicopter rescues are not uncommon here in Austria’s craggy west. Climbers fall, succumb to heat or cold or exhaustion, wander into the path of falling rock. The country’s highest mountains are here, its steepest ski runs, its most formidable hikes. Whatever dangers lurk are indivisible from the grandeur and the splendor and the sheer geologic scale; as with all things sublime, the beauty and the terror are one. But there had been no falls, no exhaustion, no rock encounters that day.
The hiker being rescued had started her trek at Pfeishütte, a hut five-and-a-half winding miles to the west. Her expedition had begun with a broad arc along the edge of a gorgeous limestone valley, amidst wildflowers and patches of snow and the tinny clang of sheep bells echoing across the hills. As she went higher, she entered a separate plane of cold and gray, that Sound of Music backdrop giving way to fog and barren rock. She would have just passed memorials to some previous hikers when she saw it.
Through a narrow notch in the jagged ridgeline—I’ve done my best to cobble things together—the woman peered down the back side of the mountain. What lay below was a stomach-churning drop down a nearly vertical face. You couldn’t even really see the bottom. A sickening realization followed: That faint thread etched across that nearly vertical face is the trail.
What the hiker did next was arguably what any sane nonprofessional mountaineer would do: She turned around. Adding miles to her trip and many hours to her day, she walked back down the mountain she’d just climbed and all the way around it, and the ones next to it, until, via the longest route possible, she at last reached Bettelwurfhütte. As it was conveyed to me by hikers who had witnessed the incident, she arrived safe, sound, and traumatized. In the safety of the hut’s warm interior, a kind of deferred panic set in. She had seen something terrifying, perhaps the prospect of her own demise, and she needed to get off that mountain—not later but now. The rescue helicopter summoned to facilitate this touched down in a clearing nearby, just hours after my friends and I arrived at that same stomach-churning drop, and peered down at that same impossible trail.
Some 24 hours earlier in Innsbruck, Tyrol’s capital city, the five of us had inhaled eggs and pastries and sausages at Hotel Innsbruck, thrown on our packs, and walked merrily along the Inn River until we reached the Hungerburgbahn’s Congress station. Austrian efficiency being what it is, you can get from an espresso in the old town center to the mountains in minutes; one funicular, two cable cars, and there you are. The view of Innsbruck alone is worth the ride, the spires and red tile roofs and grand old Hofburg palace unfurling below, a city squat and grand. My friends and I snapped photos and ascended blithely into the fog ahead.
These peaks didn’t just represent a set of achievements to check off. They were an expression of a collective idea, electrified by new understandings of nature.
The five of us comprised a loose Venn diagram of high school, college, and grad school friendships. Curtis is a wry university lecturer with black glasses and a nimbus of curls; José and Maple are a documentary filmmaker and a lawyer I’ve bounced around with since college; finally, there’s another Chris, an Oakland schoolteacher and the most organized among us, forever tapping his foot while we futz with our hiking poles. We were rowdier in days past. Now—in our 40s, most of us fathers—an interest in long walks had taken root.
A four-day, three-night hike through the Austrian Alps had struck us as ideal for our purposes. Our purposes were: Have fun. Don’t carry too much stuff. Let someone else cook. Finish each day’s trek at some sort of convivial group lodging, without having to hike back into town each night. Each day’s hike was around six miles (except for the last day, which was 12 but mostly downhill). We were all decent if hardly obsessive hikers, and the hope was to brush up against what remained of the golden age of alpinism, that decade or so of mountain lust in the mid-19th century when many of Europe’s highest peaks were summited, and Romantic sensibilities about them helped transform conceptions of nature itself. Of course we wanted that.
Making all this possible was the patchwork of humble but homey mountain huts erected mostly toward the end of that century, perched on rocky promontories and tucked into soft, rolling valleys. You can find these buildings throughout the Alps, though the flavor and provenance differ by country. Many huts in Slovenia were created by anti-fascist Partisans, for example, while Austria’s huts were born of a more romantic sensibility: balm for the soul, solace from the depletions of the industrial world, and so on. Many of Switzerland’s huts date back to the Middle Ages, when shepherds needed shelter during their months in alpine pastures.
The appeal of these places isn’t just cozy lodging and a home-cooked meal, but the wholly different spirit behind them. Like a comprehensive rail system or functional health care, the mountain hut is one of those institutions we don’t really have in the States. Various structural explanations exist, but ultimately it bespeaks a basic difference in how we relate to our wildlands. In the United States, we sing about our mountains, carve faces on them, send postcards of them, and, once in a while, after much preparation and buying of gear, we actually climb them. Mountains for the average American are Special Occasion geography. In Austria, where the Alpine Club boasts more than 600,000 members (nearly 7 percent of the population) and an afternoon Wanderung is as accessible and likely as a coffee, mountains are just a regular part of life.
Hence, the locals who exited at the top of our gondola ride scarcely blinked at the forsaken world we’d stepped into. My friends and I blinked. High in the clouds, socked in by fog, we could see almost nothing—except that the trail was impossibly narrow and bordered on one side by certain death. Of course a fatal fall can happen on any mountain. But here the edge was just so close, the bottom so bottomless, no margin for missteps. No guardrail protected us at key vistas, no signs warned what would happen if we took one more step. It struck me as some kind of unspoken Austrian pact one enters into, trudging into the mist: We are adults, and these are mountains.
Periodically we’d realize the cliff beside us had mellowed into merely an extremely steep dropoff, and falling would only result in breaking all our bones.
The climb itself wasn’t brutal—we’d had rougher workouts—but it had a seriousness to it. This was not the kind of trail where you periodically encounter a nice little bench, named after some happy fellow who liked smoking his pipe and contemplating poetry there. No benches here, and no contemplation. I’d pictured our hike as a time for reflection, but as we panted our way up a series of steep switchbacks, it became clear there was no room for rumination. Wholly fixated on each step—Is this rock stable? Is that one wet?—my mind went white with focus. Step, pole, step. Glance ahead, locate the trail marker, step, pole, step. Periodically we’d realize the sheer cliff beside us had mellowed into merely an extremely steep drop-off, and falling would only result in breaking all our bones. These were relaxing moments, and we filled them with chatter.
We had just rounded the southwest corner of a bulging, fog-cloaked outcropping when the rain began. It pelted our faces and slicked the rocks, but we were ready. In a moment of foresight back in Innsbruck, it had dawned on us that our carefully researched raincoats would be no match for a prolonged mountain storm. We had found some cheap ponchos big enough to cover our packs, and now, in the shadow of Mount Mandlspitze, we helped each other into them.
It’s funny, the things that get you through. Fortified with a thin layer of polyester, I felt a surge of defiant energy. Is that all you’ve got? The mountains’ answer—Ha, no—would come the next day. For now we followed the trail down a welcome descent and, beneath the austere plane of rock and fog, into a soothing green world of pines and wild grass. To the left, a rolling carpet of moss poured down a gentle slope in a series of soft lumps, presumably the bodies of our predecessors. Finally, just a few hours after we set out, came a glorious sight, resolving in the fog: a large brown hut, built nearly a century earlier by people who understood our every need.
The wood stove was roaring at Pfeishütte, the log walls thick, the common room toasty, the small window warm from the setting sun. We sat at a corner table, the smell of ancient pine and hikers past filling the room. At the next table, a couple old guys were huddled over a chessboard, and at another a father and daughter reviewed a trail map. We drank big glasses of beer and tiny glasses of schnapps, then wolfed down hearty plates of house-made venison sausage and dumplings. From a realm of extreme ruggedness, we had moved into one of extreme pleasantness and communal good cheer.
When the dinner rush subsided, I fell into conversation with the woman who had brought us our food. She told me she’d had some kind of fancy corporate job before this, but something wasn’t right. She quit, gave away half her stuff, and found this gig, attending to aching hikers in a remote, creaky old building. She loved it. “Even cleaning sinks and toilets, I’m happy,” she told me. I asked what kind of personality the job requires, and she closed her eyes in concentration. “You need . . . an imagination for the mountains,” she said.
Later that night, my friends and me stacked tidily in our bunks, I thought about what an imagination for the mountains meant. I had spent the weeks before our trip immersing myself in the modern history of the Alps, and of alpinism in general. As best I can piece it together, there was a minute when a central concern throughout 19th-century Europe was joining the latest cursed expedition up the Aiguille Verte or the Grandes Jorasses. These huts that were sheltering us had been built to accommodate a growing fervor. These peaks didn’t just represent a set of achievements to check off. They were an expression of a collective idea, electrified by new understandings of nature and the mastery thereof. A romp in these mountains entangled you in grand ideas about destiny, character, nation, and soul. It seems that humanity was having a whole lot of feelings, and needed a realm massive enough to contain them.
It was starting to make sense to me. There you are, a mile above your ordinary life, breathing the invigorating air of pure survival, relying on nothing but your wits and fortitude. All the muddled whys and hows of daily existence vaporize, replaced by the great binary: Will I or won’t I make it? From there it’s not hard to imagine how the thoughts grow ever headier. You make it to your destination, sip your bracing schnapps, and pretty soon you’re developing a school of aesthetics around the alpine experience; or threading your religion through it; or, in the cases of some in the 19th century, your devotion to nationalism.