View of the summit we're climbing from just above the parking area.
It’s that damn alarm again. Tinking away for all it’s worth. Which isn’t much sad to say. It’s a runt in the world of alarm clocks. The other alarms probably picked on it in alarm school. Especially those obnoxious ones you hear in the movies or popular TV shows that are immediately followed by an excessively irate hand slamming down on top of. I hate those alarms.
Anyway. I seek out the little button that turns it off. At 7:30 and 10 seconds a.m., sweet silence takes over again. Eyes slink closed. Wait! I can’t do that. I’m going hiking today. I slide out from under the sheet. Yes, that’s right. Sheet. I don’t have blankets. Fortunately, Austria’s summer nights are warm. More or less. First order of business: breakfast. I grab the muesli, mix in some yogurt. I peel the banana, spread on some Nutella (Thanks, Yelena). Ok, that’s out of the way. Head to the bathroom to put my eyes in since I want to be able to see the scenery later. Dressed, packed, head downstairs. My Austrian adviser Gernot picks me up in front. Riding shotgun is a professor from SDSU, Piotr. This will be interesting.
Just above the parking area.
It’s about an hour drive to Drogna at the base of the mountains in Italy. We pass through Tarvisio on the way where I had a pizza last night with all my neighbors after we dropped Tommaso off at the train station (it’s only 20 minutes or so away – the first town over the border from Villach). From there, it’s another 80km up the mountain to park. And the road is twisty. Very twisty. And narrow. And steep. And cars are flying down it and dump trucks are hauling rock and asphalt up and down. But after an hour we reach the parking summit, located on a beautiful alpine meadow. Lush grass, dotted flowers, bordered by thick trees, mountains off in the distance. Outside, it’s a bit brisk. Both professors are wearing pants. I’m in shorts. Hmmm…. At least I wore two upper layers and have my rain jacket in the pack. I’ve survived worse. We head up.
There’s a level area 50 meters ahead with a large map and renditions of all the surrounding peaks and their names. Cool. Nice view. I look up to the peak were ascending. Damn. It’s 600 meters of vertical
Large fortification just above the timberline.
ascent. So let’s get started. We pass what appears to be a vacation Bed and Breakfast (it seems empty at the moment) on the way up and enter the treeline. It reminds me of Oregon. And New Zealand. A verdant mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees saturated with intermingled herbaceous cover. The quiet susurrus of leaves in the breeze fills my ears. The ground dappled with shade by the sunlight filtering first through the scattered clouds and then the converging canopies. The world is quiet, punctuated only by the occasional crunch of gravel beneath my feet. I feel like an intruder in this place.
I let the older gentlemen set the pace. It gives me time to let my eyes wander, taking everything in. After 45 minutes of gradual climbing, we arrive on a small promontory in the bend. The guys opt to stop for a breather. Piotr passes around chocolate. Cameras come out. Pictures are snapped and cameras repacked. The pace is resumes until we emerge from the timberline some minutes later. As we round the corner, the remnants of an old, stone, World War I fort come into view. This section of the Alps used to
belong to the Austrians in the war and old fortifications dot the mountainside. The Italians occupied the opposite side of the valley and the territory used to change hands often. We stop to wander and investigate. I climb on top of the old walls and perch on a corner support. The view is astounding.
Several minutes after departing the old fort, the real climbing starts. The trail is barely visible and the ascent becomes almost vertical through piles of scree and rocky detritus. It's all limestone, this region of the alps is known for it. The toughest mountain goat would have trouble climbing this, not that he’d have any reason to with all the alpine meadows below. My hands are coated in a thin white dust by the time we ascend the summit. There are more fortifications scattered about, a pair of plaques indicating monuments and a large cross with several pieces of multicolored cloth tied to it. Gernot informs us that the Austrian soldiers lived up here year round and that they measure the snow in meters. I can only imagine the misery of winter. You can see three different Italian towns including Travisio and Drogna nestled in
Drogna is way off in the distance.
the valley below. I don’t remember the third. The cross country skiing through these valleys is amazing in winter I hear. On a peak across another valley is a monastery. I’m not sure what kind.
We opt for a different route of descent along a gradually sloping ridgeline that circles around. A few hundred meters ahead, Gernot and I pause to wait for Piotr. There’s an old tunnel carved deep into the mountain. Setting my pack down, I tell Gernot I’m going to investigate. It’s tall enough for me to walk, if I hunch at the waist. Maybe a little over a meter. It was likely carved out for WWI and likely has a shooting hole carved in the back side. I never found out though. The tunnel curved to the right 10 meters in and blackness became inky and absolute. I stopped at the very edge of the sunlight and looked down. The tunnel floor was littered with yellowed bones. Picked clean, but unbleached by the sun. Human. I can see ribs, vertebrae, the pelvis, the ulna, humerus. They’re small, probably indicating that they used to comprise a young Austrian in the army. Or maybe an Italian prisoner
A Look Behind the Summit
We just ascended from down there. Notice you can't see the last few hundred meters.
of war. Somebody they wouldn’t have carried down the mountain for a proper burial. Did he die of exposure? Disease? Famine? War wounds? I suppose it shall remain a mystery. I leave the bones to their rest and exit the tunnel. Piotr has caught up and we resume our descent.
The ridges circles back around and deposits us at the first, large fortification right above the timberline. The going is quick and we press on down the mountain. Near the end, I notice a strange sensation. My fingers feel thick and tight. Like I’ve just spent an entire practice hitting volleyballs. Making a fist is difficult. I wonder at its cause. The sudden decrease in elevation? An effect of gravity, or pressure? The trip down was much faster than the trip up, as is the usual case. Total elapsed time: three hours. Not a bad romp through the mountains. It’s 1:30 and I’m starving. We’re all starving. It seems we’ll be stopping for lunch in Tarvisio. I was just here for dinner last night. At least we’re entering a different restaurant. I peruse the menu (listed in both German and Italian) which is getting much easier to decipher. I
Viewed from the summit. Yes, I'm looking down on snow.
can pick out 95% of the ingredients in the pizzas now. Last night I had Pizza Carbonara. Bacon (Austrian, not American), mushrooms, basil and a fried egg, over easy in the middle. Delicious, if a bit soggy from the egg. Today I opt for the Calzone. Folded in half, it’s stuffed with ham, mushrooms and ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Also delicious. Piotr orders a liter of wine for the two of us. It looks like I’ll be taking a nap when I get home….
Word of the Blog: Schinken
It refers to cold cut ham. Like deli slices.
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