Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mountain guide's daughter struggles with vertigo

Bizzi and I on the summit. (Photo by Beat Matti)
I am happy to report that I survived yesterday's seven-hour hike that included a climb up the Giferhorn. At 10:45, we parked the car on a road past the Wasserngrat cable car base station and started our ascent through cow fields. For the next two hours, we walked at an easy pace, chatting, and stopping often to take pictures. As we passed the Giferhorn refuge hut, the path narrowed and grew noticeably steeper, and as it did so, the ground to my right disappeared. I stole a glance at the rock cliff below and felt my calves shake. So this is what tight-rope walking must feel like. I dared not look that way again, for fear that the abyss would pull me down. Then, I remembered the words of American writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, as he described the vertigo he felt as he climbed the Devil's Thumb in Alaska. Although, there is no comparison between our two ascents, I find his account in "Into the Wild" to be fitting:

"Below was thirty-seven hundred feet of air; and I was balanced on a house of cards. The sour taste of panic rose in my throat. My eyesight blurred, I began to hyperventilate, my calves started to shake."

I thought of my children and how irresponsible I was to be doing this. I thought of my friend up ahead who had successfully climbed this mountain with his father when he was six years old. I thought of my late father, and how I had not inherited his mountaineering genes. I worried about Bizzie, our little schnauzer-mix, who had run ahead. Krakauer's words came back to me, reminding me that what I was experiencing was normal:
"The accumulated clutter of day-to-day existence--the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes--all of it is temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by an overpowering clarity of purpose and by the seriousness of the task at hand."

I told myself to stop worrying about the dog, to trust my legs, to look ahead, and to keep going. It wasn't a pretty sight. I was glad my friend had disappeared behind a ledge and that no one could witness my nearly-crawling posture, butt sticking out, and hands clutching the side of the mountain. Luckily, the path widened again, and I could resume my earlier pace.

As we reached the summit at around 2 p.m., Bizzie waited for us, looking no different than if he had sauntered around the block. "A true mountaineering dog," we exclaimed, as we patted him standing at 2,542 meters, as per the inscription on the iron cross. It was a perfect day for hiking. Not a cloud to be seen, and a light westerly breeze could be felt. A hiker, whom we had just crossed near the top, had  left us a miniature snowman that quickly melted before our eyes. I found a guest-book in an iron box beneath the cross and wrote a short paragraph, joking about the cost of a helicopter descent.

I was glad we didn't retrace our steps. My friend Vreni had told us that we could return via the Lauenenhorn (2477 meters) and the Turnels Valley. We decided to take the chance. I prayed for no more precipices. I got my wish. The rest of the hike was easy, and the views breathtakingly beautiful. As we descended into the Turnels Valley, we spotted two herds of Chamoix galloping across the stone tundra. I was glad my sweatshirt was orange, in the event hunters were nearby.

I would recommend the Giferhorn hike to those of you who are not afraid of heights. Don't go, if there is any threat of fog, ice, snow, or rain.

Benjamin Franklin once said, "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." Thanks, Ben. Does this mean, I will not be forgotten?

3 comments:

  1. Excellent use of quotations; I'm glad you made use of the Ben Franklin one. The Gifferhorn has always been my favorite…to look at!
    The writing flows, and no, there's no way you'll be forgotten. xoxox Mom

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  2. wow- thank you for taking me along! I love to hike, and will do so in New Hampshire this coming weekend. Not as high & majestic as your Swiss Alps, but a wonderful experience nonetheless!~Kim

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