Of French Vipers & The Disappearing Path [European Delights]

Posted by Christian DeBenedetti in Books + Media, Close Calls, European Delights, Hotel Hell, Human Sacrifice, La France, Mountain Madness, Off The Map, Survival, When Animals Attack | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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Reaching the top of Sanetsch Pass, long used for trade and warfare, it became impossible to find the Via Alpina until we dropped into a dairy farm for directions and found a sympathetic ear. The farmer, dressed in her white cap, matching clogs and a lab-like cheese-making outfit, even stepped outside in the pouring rain to point us toward the disappearing path.

“I have told them several times the path is not well marked,” she warned. “If I were you, I would not walk it today in this weather. Besides the rain and fog, you have to pass steep = crevasses. One bad step and you can break a leg. Plus, you will need to cross some sections using fixed ladders and ropes.”

“We have no choice but to continue. We can’t spend another night at Mr. Moustache’s.”

“Is it that bad?” Our pained looks left no doubt. She shook her head and asked, “Do you have a…” She searched for the word. “A compass?”

“Oh, yes,” I assured her, though it was nearly useless on trails that meander every hundred meters in different directions.

Even though she stared at us as if we were out of our minds, we’d continue.

The path immediately wound along a stream and into a valley. Then it continued over the hills and wet rocks, a giant’s jigsaw puzzle spilled over a carpet of meadow. Each chasm was just large enough to snap an ankle if you stepped slightly wrong. That was bad enough. Then came the bouldering. Slowed by my cumbersome pack and, by then, worn-slick boot soles, I inched across a huge, slippery rock, stretching spread-eagle to wedge my hands into crevasses to yank my body up. It’s not easy being born with less than orangutan-length arms, but eventually I made it to the top. Cheryl wasn’t so lucky. She was stuck halfway, four-meters up, unable to pull up or slide back down. I had to scoot back toward her, pass her the end of my Nordic pole, and virtually pull her to safety. That earned me a grateful kiss.

For hours, we continued in the rain and mud and slick rocks over the pass and down the other side. A distant dam and village eventually rose in the mist. Just when we thought we’d survived the worst, the trail turned treacherous with a sudden straight vertical drop of about 1000-meters.

I can admit it now. I was worried. Scared shitless.

Today, of all days, in the rain. This makes our toughest climb in Slovenia look like a school outing. How’re we going to pull this one off?

Sometimes, it’s best not to just stand there debating the challenge. It only allows time for the seeds of doubt to grow in your mind. You have to act. You can’t go back. You can’t see what’s ahead. You can only move on.

And as the German philosopher Nietzsche once said, “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Something told me that neither of us liked what we saw.

We grabbed a secured rope with pruned, half-frozen fingers. Then we eased and slid our way down the slippery slate trail. Think of it as “controlled falling.” With ponchos wildly flapping in the wind, we slowly descended two metal ladders—only to continue snatching more nylon swimming pool-type frayed blue ropes, as we traced a precipitous trail along the mountain’s craggy face. We hung on for dear life. Each step promised to be our last. At one point, I grabbed a rope to gently lower myself down the cliff—only to find it unfastened at the base. All of a sudden, I swung Tarzan-like above the chasm below!

“I didn’t come all this way to die on this trail!” Cheryl shrieked in terror.

“Focus!” I called back, trying to calm her, but I secretly felt the same. That path, especially in foul weather, was a tough if not deadly challenge for long-distance hikers who aren’t by nature expert climbers (or sky-divers). There had to be a better way to go between those stages.

Steeling ourselves for the final 100-meters down, we scrambled to a dry ledge. Then we slid down the mountain face on switchbacks through wet scree and mud with the rain our relentless nemesis. Several times, I heard Cheryl cry out in pain as her knees were constantly pummeled.

Maybe, I thought, we should make contingency plans to head back down into the valleys if this weather continues. It’s a possibility. But this isn’t Austria with handy radwegs connecting villages. How far will we have to go out of our way to circle a mountain rather than climbing it?

Even though the slope was torture, hours later we made it down to the village of Godey in one piece. For that, I will always remain truly grateful. As we shared our story over dinner with the couple who ran the cozy guesthouse where we landed, they claimed to be amazed at our accomplishment, or dumb luck, in that weather. Their dog was less fortunate. Seeing him limp around the dining room, we assumed he’d broken his leg.

Non,” the lady explained, “he was bitten by a viper!”

“A poisonous snake? Here?”

Mais, oui.”

The most terrifying thing we’d seen all day (other than the monstrous mountain) was a black Alpine salamander, a pumped-up Michelin amphibian on steroids. Maybe there are worse things than falling off mountains, after all. —Brandon Wilson

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Excerpt from Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, by the Lowell Thomas Gold Award-winning author Brandon Wilson, published by Pilgrim’s Tales in October 2010. It’s the first trans-Via Alpina travel narrative book published in English, with 53 photos, maps and custom illustrations by Ken Plumb. Preview it at www.pilgrimstales.com and here on YouTube.

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