Tackling the Alps || Arno Bohlmeijer

A life in a day’s time

When the early hour makes him quiver, the mountain puts an arm around him. The sunlight is fierce on some virgin snow that climbs to the shiny blue sky. It’s so still that he can hear the soil under his tough shoes.

At the ridge top, signs are broken, and his map helps no more than the worn paint marks on rocks. A dense cloud is tarrying and bullying, but it doesn’t pursue him.

He strays along the plain: a supernal area of snow, grass, and limestone with crevices in sublime shapes. Surely one can’t get “lost” here. The sun is still in the east, but it’s heating up. A snow hen is startled, and no wonder: who’d ever drift this way? There’s no real danger, but the irritation of uncertainty may be blinding and confusing.

A light kind of rustle close by draws his attention in the desolation. He listens and peers at holes and stones with coloured tussocks. After a hush, the sounds of shuffling are so short and skittish that he can’t locate them, but he waits again and sees a snout coming out with a beautiful beige and white fur.

Astounded, the young mountain marten looks at him, and he isn’t moving either.

Okay shyly keen creature, behold a human being or a groping soul.

But already the marten scurries back.

Further up, he spots a brown-red stripe on a rock: a faded mark from previous years!

Finding the track, he dances in the land of gentians and anemones with a friendly brook. It’s a playful trail across the largest limestone formations of Switzerland. Deftly he jumps the smaller clefts and kneels to feel the stone’s ripples—works of art over hundreds of yards.

He takes his clothes off and lies on a dry patch. The freshness itself is a caress, both cool and warm now at eleven o’clock, relished by every inch of stretched skin.

With a sandwich in his hand, he strolls around the lush field and paddles in the cold stream on rough stones that massage his feet and pass the effects on to the rest of his body. He regenerates from toe to top, aware of each step. From a distance, he can see his rucksack, map, and clothes, half wishing that a human were there.

When he’s dressed and moving on, his shoes feel new and walking is something else too, clambering past a colossal rock.

Far above him in the dark shade, a limping animal climbs the steep snow. Despite the uneven and slow gait, it’s lofty and steady. With the size, grace, and litheness of a deer, it must be a young chamois. Can it survive here with a handicap?

On the formidable plateau, a grown-male chamois runs at flying speed, but it stops in its tracks and stares eye to eye at the first person spotted after a long winter.

He can hear the blowing and snorting menace; the chamois is ready to defend its territory with violence—if need be.

Both of them wait until they’re more or less used to the situation. As a hesitant test, the chamois gallops again, pausing and leering this way. He takes care not to make any brusque movements. He treads with small and safe steps till the snorting diminishes. Then the chamois goes on in full and easy flight.

The “planned” route crosses a craggy part where fatigue looms. He’s climbed considerably more than foreseen, covering a lot of miles. A series of crevices are taking their toll on his muscles and mental strength. Sometimes he needs to leap a dozen feet down the snow without knowing what’s under it.

Occasionally he lets himself slide—with the handbrake on. But here comes a fifty-foot drop where danger grabs him on two sides. Above, the trail is hidden under icy and steep snow. Below, there’s a rocky passage that grazes the chasm hundreds of yards down. The gap towards it is visible; a fall here would be fatal.

The slippery snow is out of the question without crampons, and the only alternative is also impossible or very dicey for someone with a weird fear of heights. His mountain love is profound, but he doesn’t always know how to steer on the safe side.

Close to the edge, the ground is treacherous with loose stones and grit. He sits and sweats, gazing from right to left, while his brain works on feverishly; it’s no use going back with extra hours and increasing heat. He needs to choose between two impossibilities. His limbs grow numb, the sun is merciless, and the shade is clammy.

Afraid to move at all, he scrapes down a few inches over stones near the ravine.

Right when he puffs a load of air out, a man appears on the other side of the cleft, older than himself. For a guardian angel or major coincidence, he looks down to earth, and his actions are practical. He stands and waves his hand in greeting while assessing the scene. “The snow is no option.”

He observes a little more and “walks” down the crevice, climbs up and passes close by with an encouraging nod.

Still on his bottom, he finds a bit of grip and slips down childlike on hands and feet and buttocks. A fraction too fast can be fatal, but so can a hesitation.

The void beneath him is pulling and sucking. That’s the devilish part of this vertigo plague: the abyss is a magnet that leaves his mind useless. Unless his will can prevail against a trillion atoms of gravity or something. What did Einstein say again? He could do anything with relativity. Could the same be said for trivial practice?

A rock has come loose, and it rumbles away. One or two feet of ground remains drawing him down and draining him. He needs to take a step in trembling balance: let go and feel the space.

On the way up he can shove over stones with sturdy grass, crawl on all fours, and suppress this urge to hurry—just watch the world in front of him. Then relief and gratitude are soaring from heel to soul, roaring around the area with its beauty of wildness and silence.

 

Tackling the Alps, or life, and me

To climb from 1,350 to 2,850 meters and back in one day with a heart condition in a glorious, if raw, and deserted corner of the Alps could be mental and physical madness.

While Austria touches Italy and Switzerland here, I’ll be on my own in this distant area, so let’s not sprain an ankle or toe. Today is a test or “dress rehearsal,” and the weather forecast says “chances of a thunderstorm,” but not until three or four in the afternoon.

During a heavenly ramble along the Höhe Weg, the narrow trail tends to vanish into the air, and on steep, high slopes, I get giddy—from a wind gust, the big leak in my heart valve, or dead-normal fatigue.

Plenty of things can make me lose balance: rolling stones or gliding grit, my racing heart, a hornet or wasp, the sight of a rare bird, a magnificent view after hours of climbing, and certainly a loose shoelace.

A cross beside a scary drop has nothing to do with anyone dying here, but I don’t like it. There’s a better find for Main-Aim Day: delicious, cold drinking water straight from the mountain—great for the way down so I won’t need to carry a crazy amount.

I stumble over a stubborn tree root sticking up. With difficulty, I wring its rigid neck or else the next person might end up in the ravine. As if there’s been anyone in sight all day.

A cow has laid down her bottom at my feet and says, “What’s the fuss?”

Peculiar clouds loom up and an eagle is hovering low. By the tree line, the pines begin to wheeze and whistle. Bad weather can tarry for hours here, or it comes whooshing around a mountain corner in minutes.

During a precious break I’d like to settle and relish, but there are two more hours to go, and the wind is picking up strangely indeed.

Suddenly, after the long and utterly solitary day, two dogs and a young man with a shepherd’s crook pass by. Have I been intoxicated by the scents of this fairy-tale forest, or can a young shepherd appear out of the dark blue?

After our polite “Guten Tag,” I point to the clouds and say, “I’ll be alright for an hour or two?”

“You should be, but it’s hard to say. I’ve finished early.”

“As a shepherd?” I had to ask.

“Yes. My flock is in the shelter up there.”

This shepherd is not old, biblical, bearded, or contemplative. Still, he won’t be interested in random or vulnerable wanderers asking insipid questions.

“Goodbye,” he says, proceeding his light steps downhill.

I’m an average tourist now instead of a life-limit explorer. But the mini chat has restored some resolve and energy. At a reverent distance, I follow him, trying to keep a reasonable pace—to be on the safe side of who knows what. My muscles and soles are sore, and I decide not to watch the sky for a while; let’s just move securely and not trip over my own legs or a low branch.

The cliché-breaking man is long out of sight, but after some ten minutes, the idyllic woods open up and there’s a little road, like a mirage: a trick played on the tired mind and eyes?

It’s no illusion: further down, there’s a car among the undergrowth with the shepherd. He’s been taking his time to eat and read something, get the dogs, his crook, and rucksack in the car—he’s not waiting or stalling, is he?

I can’t see very well yet. I need my concentration to stay calm so I can steer my feet and thoughts. Should I ask him for a lift? Would the weather and my safety be a good enough excuse to overcome a sense of defeat and defy the shyness of us both?

Arriving on the road, which is unreal under my boots, I’m genuinely on the fence between boldness and reticence, but leaning toward the latter by nature. As I wave a hand and slow down only to find out where the nicely hidden footpath continues, the shepherd comes my way hesitantly. Is he also afraid to be obtrusive, or is he uncertain about making a rare exception to his rules and inclination?

With a hospitable gesture of the arm, he says, “If you want, you can ride along.”

“Thank you, that’s very kind and helpful. Are you heading for the village of Nauders?”

“Yes.”

I guess and hope it’s the nearest place this private road leads to, and not out of his way. The offer is too good to refuse, obviously, even if it’s a shame not to finish my hike today.

It’s a trifle overwhelming to sit close to a man who may prefer being on his own while we soar by the borderless and whimsical edges of precipices.

While I’m clasping a handle and my heart, mumbling a word or two of my best rusty German and telling myself that the modern shepherd must know this road like the back of his hand, he confirms that it’s extremely sticky weather, so my shortness of breath is not fully my fault.

Reaching the village, he says, “Where can I take you?”

“Oh thanks, this is perfect! I’m nearby at Waldhof. You’ve saved me hours of stress—or worse!” (Like slipping on pineapples, or wet rocks, or breaking a limb when lightning strikes—which happens here frequently, I’ve heard.)

Fifty-yards-on-foot later, it’s raining. Not very hard, nor a long time, but still I’m humbly counting my blessings, inspired for a brand-new day.

At 9:00 p.m., I don’t forget to pack the first-aid kit, phone, and camera—for evidence! The emergency number here is 144, but my ancient cell phone is as primitive as I am—no photography—and what reach would there be at the world’s end?

I go to bed early and tell myself, “There’s no shame if you won’t make it, you don’t need to prove anything, there’s no promise or agreement or wager.” So far it’s all been positive: no back injury, no bug bites or sunstroke, nor chapped lips and twisted limbs or migraines (from the heat and tension).

July 21. Mount Schartlkopf.

At five thirty, I’m up before the alarm. Outside during the six o’clock chimes, I put my boots on with extra care. Clouds are floating in the town. Let’s see who’ll be first to go up: them or me.

After last night’s rain, the first parts entail capers avoiding too much wetness—in vain, the shoes and socks are soaked. I’ll keep photo moments brief. Don’t stop for the crystal drops on twigs and cloudlets at eye height. Do dodge the sizeable slugs in wet and slanting spots. The path itself is often like a sliding brook. When did I last check the sole profiles of my boots?

It takes a detour on capricious grounds to pass a long line of cows on the sparse path. The acceleration makes my upper legs turn acid, but they’ll come round, and this light headache will be over too.

At nine-thirty and 2,120 meters, half-a-liter of orange juice is a divine drink in the very last shade behind a boulder. These breaks are also kept short, as to not let my muscles cool off. And I won’t leave my glasses, cap, or camera behind. Nor will I hit the electric cattle fence by the dicey stream crossing.

After ages, the brook and cattle say goodbye. It’s dead quiet now, I can only hear my heart and soul. A chamois is running and jumping too fast for my camera. The mood of these mountains is difficult to capture anyway: as rough as lovely, sovereign in soft-green sidelight, still sprinkled with flowers.

As the trail is often gone, this hike becomes a search with vague and weathered marks few and far between. I lose the way several times, which is uncomfortable for a solitary walker. Drifting means losing energy and time, and it’s a big scare to stray far. I should never proceed until the next mark is in sight, and it takes patient, anticipating eyes, and improvising to find my own way sometimes.

When the left foot gets caught behind the right leg, it’s time for a breather.

When the camera batteries are dead, I cry, “No, wait!” But it’s closed down implacably. Soon a sheep climbs the ridge in baffling beauty, outlined in the full sky blue. Why do the sheep come up this high?

The last parts are waywardly hard. Suddenly here’s a tiny lake hidden in a corner, a sight for sore feet and lungs. My entire body screams, “Now you’re there, you’ve got to be there now!” But the track goes on ruthlessly, and on toward the roof of this world.

At twelve thirty, my numb legs reach the three-hundred-sixty degrees of three countries. At first. I’m too tired and dazed to be very pleased. It’s eerie—so much ravishing space and peace for one person. No living soul can be seen far or near in any direction. I would have liked a summit photo of my rucksack and boots or lunch. I’d ask someone to take a snapshot and email it to me. Never mind, I’m here, cold and hot at the same time and a tad feverish from awe and gratefulness.

A metal box holds the signature book with the names of my daughter, her husband, and their words: “Next up, it’s Arno.”

Now I’ll sit and rejoice, drink and eat. Mm, the wholemeal bread and nut bars are extra delicious in this elevated vastness. Me and Schartlkopf are mates for life. Will my grandchildren scramble up and sign the book some day?

The descent starts on a defiant ledge, and after that I could do with some euphoria, but a mental blow pushes my limits all over—more climbing up to Valdafour brings me close to fierce tears. How many steps of stairs would 1,500 mountain meters be at home? Oh doctor, can we skip the treadmill test now please?

Then comes the true and full reward, the profound joy of the Ebene: a prairie-like area between 2,800 and 2,400 with sheep on patches of snow, the grass waving along in the quietness. I’m floating, and even the wind is a delight as well.

Finally after large and stony steepness down in the brutal sun’s force, my legs are shaking and there are spots before my eyes. High time for a break under an immense pine tree in the woods that return here at 2,200 meters. Why won’t my boots and socks come off? Because my feet are swollen?

At four o’clock, after a snack and gulp and lie down in dense mixed greens, it’s weird to find my feet again. My knees and upper legs don’t cooperate, my ankles are wrenching, but the mesmerizing landscape becomes a balsam, and my heart is cradling along.

Eventually we’re back in the land of benches and friendly fields, busy farmers, a young and nimble deer stopping to stare at me—why? A pause and support food remain essential against dizziness and slipping feet, especially after the sign that reads, Out of bounds due to falling mortar.

Returning “home” at a 5:45 p.m., after twelve clambering hours, a lot of things can’t wait: letting people know that I’m in one piece, having a shower without end, having the best coffee ever, checking the photos, and putting my feet up.

What is the saying? “See Rome and die.”

Nah, give me a mountain to roam.

Arno Bohlmeijer is a poet and novelist, writing in English and Dutch, winner of a PEN America Grant 2021, published in five countries (US: Houghton Mifflin) and in Universal Oneness: an Anthology of Magnum Opus Poems from around the World, 2019.

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