Hiking is a hobby and supposed to be good for your health, not something you should risk your life for. So I’m grateful to have walking companions with cool heads.
The six of us are sitting on a comfortable patch of grass, somewhere over 2000 metres, in the Karwendel region above Innsbruck. We have a week’s route planned out and accommodation booked in mountain huts (thanks for organising all that, Kees). But we’re still shaking slightly from the twenty metre track section we’ve just crossed.
The path is covered with treacherously loose scree, on a steep slope above an abyss. We could probably walk that little section without falling nine times out of ten. Maybe the odds are even better than that – we’d get it right nineteen times out of twenty, say. But the one slip doesn’t bear thinking about.
Some of us have legs and nerves of steel. Others, self included, have legs which turn to rubber on such tracks and nerves with the consistency of thin yoghurt. Fortunately the steely-legged people never call us chickens.
Still, we have a problem. Dare we turn back over the section we’ve just passed, watching our feet and willing ourselves not to look further down? Or do we press on, hoping things will get better, but fearing that around each bend there may be an even more dangerous stretch, and knowing that the further we go, the harder it will be to bail out?
If we can’t get across the range today, we’ll need to plan a whole new itinerary. The rule in any hiking manual is, “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it.”
We’ve already tried to cross the range by other routes that morning, and seen that not everyone is as nervous as we are. At a col that we quickly rated impassable (the first one pictured in this post) we watched an older Austrian gentleman with a younger woman, possibly his daughter, take the chance. She had crampons on her boots, he didn’t. They roped themselves together with a flimsy bit of cord and set off down the steep, snow-covered slope.
We didn’t see how they fared, but we couldn’t help noticing the three plaques stuck on rocks, memorials to Michael (41), Toni and Ernst (both 18), who no doubt also thought things would be fine.
As we sit hesitating, an adventure runner hops nimbly past us and bounces down the track below, disappearing round a bend.
He’s very confident and sure-footed. I’d bet he could safely make that descent, ooh, nearly ninety-nine times out of a hundred. He looks as if he’s done it before, maybe ninety-eight times.
After a few minutes’ rest, we muster enough courage to go back. The footing is a little better climbing than descending, and we make it across those treacherous 20 metres without disaster.
Now we face a long hard afternoon, with a five-hour descent into the valley. First we’ll stop at the nearest mountain hut for coffee and apple strudel, pull out the maps and plan a new route for the week.
The Karwendel is spectacular, and we want to live to see more of it.
STOP PRESS: After writing this post, and reading the shocking news of five climbers dying in the Swiss Alps this week, I did a little research on the number of people killed in the Alps each year.
The average number is 300 in Austria alone, most of the deaths occurring in summer. 90% of the victims are men, 30% are hikers. In the Swiss Alps in 2011, there were 219 deaths, with walkers being the biggest group of victims.
Far too many. Be careful, be very careful!