by S. Abbas Raza and Morgan Meis
Abbas: Some months ago when Morgan told me he was going to come and visit me in Südtirol from Sri Lanka in the first week of June, I stupidly agreed to go on an extended trek through the alps with him for several days. The idea was that we would hike to the tops of various peaks in the Italian alps around here, stay in huts overnight, and then move on to a different peak, doing this several times. Luckily, I quickly realized that neither he nor I was in good enough physical form to last more than at most one day of climbing followed by a day of coming down, plus I also realized that what the locals call “walks” could pose a severe challenge to my fear of heights. After consultations with my wife and a few other local denizens of Brixen whom I now suspect of being talking mountain goats disguised as humans, it was decided that we would do a hike/climb from the Seiser Alm to the Tierser Alpl Hütte, the red-roofed hut shown in the center of the picture above, stay there overnight, and come back down the next day. Lest you think this looks easy, consider that we were planning on coming over the ridge that you see directly behind the hut from the other side. We would then take the easier route coming down towards the lower left in the picture. You should also know that in the four years since moving to the Tyrol I've done lots of little two-hour hikes in the mountains, but never anything like this. I was scared. And as you'll soon see, for good reason. [Click photos to enlarge a little bit.]
Morgan looks at maps and other information on the internet the night before. It would prove to be of little use. Or maybe he was just doing his 3QD posts.
My wife Margit has bought matching supplies for us, and also gives us two sets of hard-boiled eggs, gloves, binoculars, towels, warm hats, long underwear, sandwiches, oranges, apples, and God only knows what else. Just the water and Gatorade weigh about 5 pounds! She has also dug up two backpacks from somewhere into which she packs all this. She also insists that I go out and buy a pair of proper hiking boots and that the “walk” cannot be done even in my tennis sneakers, much less the nice dress shoes I had planned to wear. This really makes me very nervous. I manage to borrow a pair of hiking boots from someone and save myself nearly $300. Morgan takes my wife's boots as they wear the same size.
Once my wife leaves for work early in the morning, I take out pretty much everything she'd packed into my bag and replace it with a pack of cigarettes, some betel nut, green chillies, a few limes, and a bit of spicy fried moong dal (lentils) in a plastic bag. I figure Morgan has water and other stuff if I need it. Meanwhile Morgan feels bad that Margit has gone to all this trouble and keeps all the things in his backpack, plus he packs even more stuff. The result: my backpack is essentially empty and weighs about 2 pounds and his about 200.
We take a bus from Brixen to the village of Seis, where we are confronted by this view of the Dolomites. The picture does not do justice to the sense of physical intimidation (and in my case, vertiginous fear) one feels at the sight of these mountains rearing up.
Well, maybe Morgan felt the fear too as he immediately needs to find a bathroom, but is initially frustrated in his search. He eventually locates one inside this music school.
We get into the cable car which is going to take us up to the Seiser Alm. Morgan tells me he is afraid of cable cars. Of course, needless to say, I am too. We focus on breathing calmly.
Yes, I maintained a similar bewildered expression for hours. And, yes, that is a Brooks Brothers jacket. And, yes, I am ridiculous.
Finally, we are on the alm with the Dolomites in the background. But we have still to take one more chair lift up to a hotel called the Panorama, from where we will begin our real trek.
So we are now on the ski lift and can see the Panorama Hotel just behind the pylon. We will be climbing the mountain directly behind the building. Unlike in this photo, they looked very far away and very high. I don't feel too good about our adventure at this point.
We are at the Panorama Hotel where the Italian military is conducting some exercises. Men are being dropped out of airplanes (with parachutes, this is not Argentina) and this helicopter has just landed on the alm.
We take a quick look around after I eat a popsicle and drink a Coke from the hotel. The weather is perfect: cool but not cold. The air is crisp and clear. The sky is an amazing blue up here.
I decide I should calm myself just before departure with a cigarette. The air is thin. The cigarette won't stay lit. I give up. And we're off…
Looking back at the path we are walking up.
Looking back again after a while. We are quite high up now.
Morgan is walking ahead of me. We go at a leisurely pace and stop to look around every little while. So far so good.
We are quite high now, as you can see, but we have to go much higher.
Here is the first time when we realize what we are going to have to do: cross over the mountain ridge between the two dark rocky areas at the upper right of this photo. See next photo for a close up. Our hut is on the other side of this ridge. This does not look doable to me, but we keep going.
This is a closeup of the area in the upper right of the photo above it. You can see the path snaking up. I have marked the turns with red circles here. It looks very steep and is covered in snow and ice as well. I am not at all happy looking at this. A slip on this part will mean grievous injury if not death, but we keep going.
Turns out the hikings boots I have borrowed are a little small for me. Especially the left one for some reason. I am in pain. Morgan waits for me to hobble along.
As you can see, the incline that the path is on gets steeper and eventually is more than 45 degrees. This is starting to give me serious vertigo when I look down to my right, so I stay focused straight ahead. You can see Morgan walking on the upper left here.
We come to a water fall (it's hard to see the water but it's flowing over and under these rocks) and the path disappears. One just has to make one's way over the wet and slippery rocks to the other side. Morgan manages without difficulty and I manage with. We follow the path another 100 meters or so up behind a corner and it is getting extremely steep with a rather sharp drop on the right side. Suddenly I am struck by full-on vertigo and what feels like a panic attack: racing heart, sweating, the works. I look back down and am unsure I can even go back down the last 100 meters of the path I have just come up. (It's much scarier going down than up any given difficult part.) I look ahead and I can see it gets even more difficult. I sit down. I try to calm myself and breath slowly. Morgan tries to say soothing things. After a few minutes, I make a decision: I cannot go on. I had underestimated my fear of heights. While I am not tired and stamina is not a problem, I simply cannot face the cliff ahead of us. I ask Morgan to leave his backpack there and to carry my backback down the last diffcult 100 meters we have just come up as I feel too unstable with it on my back. Meanwhile a couple and their children come traipsing down the path as I step aside (on the two-foot wide path!) to let them pass. It was the final insult that broke my will and so it is that my alpine dreams were shattered and my mountaineering ambitions came to an ignominious end!
Here I am on all fours trying to get down the rocky part which the family with children had just walked down as if it were a set of normal stairs. Mountain climbers are all psychopaths.
I gave Morgan my phone and camera and wished him well and we parted ways. I then had to practically jog back all the way we had gone up already (it was not scary in this part) because otherwise I would have missed the last ski lift down from the Panorama Hotel. I only made it by 1 minute. Then there was the long cable car ride down to the village of Seis, and then an hour-long bus to Brixen, and then a bike ride home from the bus station, so I was completely exhausted after nine full hours of this stuff. I tried calling Morgan from my house phone. No answer. What a pain it will be to find a replacement for him at 3QD, I thought.
Morgan: This is the first picture I took after having left Abbas at what I will forever think of as “Abbas Point.” I had ascended another hundred meters or so. I suddenly wondered if Abbas might be dead somewhere on the path below me, around the bend just beyond my line of sight. Then I remembered that, try as one might, Abbas can never be destroyed.
Here I am sitting on a small bench. I had paused to take a drink of water and eat a few small tomatoes. I took a picture of myself holding the camera out to my left side. I wanted to capture the layers, the layers of mountain and valley all the way out to the snow-capped peaks in the distance. At the height I had reached, the Alps suddenly seemed to reveal themselves as a vast layering.
The snow started to appear in significant patches, even though the early June day was relatively warm. The craggy peaks above me marked what I knew to be the end of my ascent. But they kept getting further away the more I walked. The mountains are tricksters.
Here, as my expression clearly reveals, is where I stopped having fun. Blisters of alarming size had opened up on the backs of both feet. Also, the entire world seemed to be below me. I realized that this is a rather disconcerting standpoint. From here on out, the experience was continuously tremendous, but one I could no longer describe as “fun.”
I have reached the ridge. The rocks look like those sandcastles that children make by dripping wet sand into spindly towers. Also, am I on the moon?
From the top of the ridge, a vista opens up on both sides that cannot be described. It cannot be captured properly in a photograph, either. There is too much to take in. And there is the smell of the mountain air, the blasting of the wind when it comes up over the ridge, the noise of one bird calling out from somewhere below me.
Fully above the tree line. The path transformed from something earthen into something of snow and ice. It had become, I should mention, noticeably colder.
Mountain totems began to appear. I tried to shrug them off, knowing that hikers had set them up to mark their passing. This one looked particularly ancient, like it could have been placed there eons ago, perhaps by Ötzi man, the frozen mummy famous in these parts and now living at a museum in Bozen.
The Hütte at the top of the Pass. I knew, at this point, that I would not die, at least not tonight. I had another vision of Abbas lying prone in a field somewhere hundreds of meters below, panting out his last few breaths and smoking a cigarette as the wild marmots circled ever closer…
The crags just above the Hütte. Everything here is sharp; the rock, the light, the air, the mind.
The view from the Hütte down the pass in the opposite direction from whence I'd come. I planned to explore in this direction after dinner but took a little nap for nine or ten hours instead.
The next morning I awoke inside a cloud. The temperature showed 2 degrees Celcius. Silence.
I began my descent into the valley, taking a different route down. A woman at the Hütte gave me a napkin with a sketchy map printed on the back. I would pull it out of my pocket every few minutes. I called it my mapkin. Soon, I was lost.
You didn't believe me about the mapkin? Well, now you do.
There is a marmot at the lower-right of this picture. He was licking a rock, though I never discovered why. I didn't know it was a marmot at the time. I thought of these creatures as mountain beavers. Rock licking mountain beavers. Hundreds of them popped their heads from hillocks all around me.
This shot looks back up the path I had just come down. I'm below the cloud now. The battery of the camera expired just after this shot. My camera was dead. Abbas was dead. My mapkin was useless. My feet were torn to shreds. The land was quiet. Moments later, I heard noises. Two bikers were coming up the path. A couple in their early fifties. They were biking calmly up the incline I could barely walk down. “Kompatch?” I sputtered, “Wo ist Kompatch?” They pointed down the path, smiling. Just a walk in the Alps.