Serpent or Lifeline

At last, I reach the top of the 200-metre steep snowfield. Inserting my peg-hammer into the loop on my harness, I gaze up the remaining 400-metre sheer rock wall I still have to climb. Looking back down, the glare on that white surface is almost blinding me.

In Crossing the snowfield and resting while catching my breath, the entire mountain range was calm. For a few moments, everything down the valley was quiet too; I heard only the crackling of the melting ice shield covering the snow. As I Looked into the blue sky, I saw two majestic eagles. They were circling high above me, as I have seen them often in the Rocky Mountains, back home in British Columbia. I said to myself, majestic yes, but they are just looking for prey and I don’t intend to fall into their clutches.

Stepping toward the rock wall, only one thought keeps racing through my head: no time to lose! Then, as I am about to raise my arms to find a grip, I hear the familiar sound of yodeling. Not again, I mumble into my beard. The voice that came from above startles me. No doubt, this must be my friend Wolfgang, from the town of Schladming, we had left last night.

We both began our ascent here this morning at 5:00 a.m., before sunrise. Later at a 1500-metre altitude, we took separate climbing routes. Around 3:00 p.m., we are curious to see which one of us will be reach first the 2837-metre peak of Hohes Kreuz, in the Dachstein Alps of the province Styria, Austria.

Some people in Schladming and the surrounding towns have called us “The crazy Alpinists”. Nonetheless, this competition has been our tradition for ten years. By now, we have carried out this friendly contest five times, while taking alternate routes every time. Wolfgang is ahead with three wins in reaching the summit first, against two wins of mine. Therefore, to make this contest at least even, I would have to beat him today. But, according to this familiar tune, peculiar in the Alps, I just had heard, Wolfgang appears to be already above me. In any event, just to think about this likelihood makes me incredibly tense.

To be fair, in all this, he may have a slight advantage. The Dachstein Range is almost in his backyard. Until my late teens, it was mine too, except in the last fifteen years I had to come from Canada to climb these mountains. Before that, we were longtime school friends.

They call us “The crazy Alpinists” for two good reasons. One is, because we climb solo, and two, we make it competitive. A third reason I could easily add myself — we are not professionals, nor are we famous. However, we are still young or at least think so, and cherish the excitement. We had already competed in grade school, in gymnastics, skiing, tennis, cycling, but rarely in academic subjects.
Often we merely played practical jokes, which have carried over into my visits as this one.

Lately, those pranks have let up, although Wolfgang tries to hang on to this annoying old habit. He tricked me four years ago when we climbed the same path as today. Beyond the cliffs, he installed a loudspeaker, which he could activate from below through a wireless microphone. That way, he had me believe he was ahead in order to demoralize my efforts. Regardless, I kept climbing — and in spite of this trick, Wolfgang came in second. He certainly looked disappointed because for someone who went to all this trouble before my arrival, he had very little to show. Consequently, when the word got around, everyone thought it was funny. Climbers who meet him occasionally in the mountains still ask, “How many loudspeakers do we have again today, Wolfgang?”


At the moment, to hear him yodel from a similar place, it bothers me a lot because I feel that I should be ahead of him. Moreover, I am doubtful that he would use the same hoax twice, particularly since he failed the other time and became the laughing stock of this region for years. All the same, I cannot detect if the sound came from a loudspeaker or directly from him. With the echoes that bounce through the valleys, it is difficult to tell where the sound originates. I keep thinking, maybe he is ahead after all. Then again, if he were, he may not resort to this method. He was usually more creative than that. Whatever the facts, there is no time to consider and I vigorously begin to climb the almost vertical wall, restraining myself to reply with a yodel of my own. Why not let him guess my position?

At first, my climb feels as if it were child’s play. Then, as I reach approximately ten metres, I pull my weight a bit higher to grasp another protruding rock, which suddenly breaks off. I slip on my wet foothold, kick in a split second at the rock face, push myself away from the wall, and drop straight down onto the steep snowfield. Although I miss some rocks that stick out and land on my feet to prevent injury, my boots have no grip on the slanted ice field, I end up on my belly, unable to stop but continue to slide quickly down the slope, feet first.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. My mistake peers unforgiving into my eyes. To begin with, I should have looked for a runner in the rock, and since we had taken this route more than once, I should have hammered in a peg somewhere or looked for one we had used earlier. That way, I could have secured myself with a rope. Such are the rules. Nevertheless, I suppose my mind was more on Wolfgang’s climb than on my own. Blaming him for my mistake was useless at this point.

My immediate concern is to come to a halt and to stop the sliding. Yet, as much as I brace my legs to find a firm object, I can’t feel any resistance that would slow down my speed. Either I am in an awkward position or the snow surface, smooth like a frozen pond, prevents this effort. I know what awaits me at the end of this long slope. The 200-metre cliff took me one and a half hours this morning to climb, and I am quite certain that the way I’m sliding, it will take much less time to go down!

Frantically I pull out my peg-hammer, though it should be more like an icepick for this particular terrain. With the sharp edge, I pound into the surface that became a sheet of ice during the cold night. My peg-hammer runs along in the icy snow like a knife glides through butter. I just keep slithering down, my body squirming, while my climbing rope that should have been my lifeline, unwinds and tangles above me like a serpent.

I think, by God, there must be something else to a stop me besides the cliff and sheer drop that is awaiting me. Not knowing why, I am shouting, “Wolfgang, Wolfgang, where are you!” Of course, not much good that is going to do me. He is probably on his way to sweet victory or sitting somewhere having a snack.

On either side of me, small, broken tree-stumps, roots, dwarf pines and rocks pass by. In the attempt to hook on to any of these objects with my peg-hammer, I have it eventually ripped out of my hand.

Looking down, I see the edge of the cliff coming closer, and I recall Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, where an ocean whirlpool draws in the narrator’s boat like a magnet. I also recall tales about men in capsized boats, who go down the Niagara River and face the edge of the mighty, roaring falls.

Appalled, I look back up, watching my useless rope, still dangling above me, reminding me of past images. Memories flash by, where extension cords or hoses became my tormentors: my power drill cord that would tangle around me and stop me in my tracks. Or, in summer, when watering flowers and vegetables, dragging the garden hose behind me — nine times out of ten it would wind itself around a pulley that should guide only — giving me a jolt to bring me to an undesired stop. The same scenario when mowing the grass with my electric lawnmower, pulling a 20-metre cord behind me, passing a few minor plants, bushes, twigs, table legs, lawn chairs and again pulleys. I remember, there was almost no time when a cord would not hang on, loop around or get wedged in, at just about any of these items, and jerk me in more than one way. In such annoying moments, how often have I said sarcastically to my tormentors, ‘Go on, and keep doing it, as long as you play the same game when it will actually serve me—one day, perhaps somewhere up in the Rocky Mountains!’

Today, right now, is a great opportunity. Maybe those tangled lines did not just serve to pester me. Could my rope now help, not hinder, and become what this tool is supposed to be — my lifeline?!

Instead of catching on to passing objects bringing me to a stop, this rope, fastened to my harness, is dangling above me like a serpent that will steer me into a deadly void. That’s it for me, I think, as I watch the cliff edge approaching. Perhaps, after all, I truly will become a welcome victim for the eagles high above.

Suddenly I hear a loud voice yelling, “Paul, watch out! Turn around, quick!”

‘Watch out!’ at this crucial moment is an understatement. I roll around and see in a split second a rope stretched over my body. I raise my arms and catch the rope. With great relief I feel for a moment resistance, but my weight and momentum unravels the rope at one end. Holding on tight, I continue to slide down, praying the other end fastened to a short pine tree may hold…

It takes me only a few seconds to find a foothold and finally come to a stop; hanging on another lifeline. ‘You lucky devil’, I mumble into my beard!

There is a moment of utmost silence. Only a few patches of icy snow trickle down. I hesitate to follow its path, but looking up, I cannot believe my eyes. Wolfgang stands at the cliff’s edge, bracing himself by holding my apparently useless “lifeline” in his hands. He is nodding his head, shouting, “I’ve got you. Don’t worry! Are you OK, Paul?”

I wave my hand, which is about all I can muster at this moment.

“Hold on tight”, he hollers and pulls firmly on the rope attached to my harness, as I slowly seek support and grips to climb up to his level.

“That was a close one, Paul” he says and gives me a big hug.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I yell at him. At once I sense it didn’t come out the right way, because I am surely very thankful that he is here. Regardless, I let him have it just the same: “Wolfgang, have you used your stupid loudspeakers again? You promised…”

“Calm down, Paul, it’s not like that at all!” He put his arm around my shoulder.

“Come and sit down,” I hear him say in a gentle voice.

Without a doubt, my scraped and bruised body needs some time to relax. Then Wolfgang explains that he actually never tried to compete today. It was also true that he didn’t resort to a loudspeaker. The yodeler I heard came from one of his friends he employed for that task who had climbed ahead of us earlier. I knew it, Wolfgang just couldn’t give his trickeries a rest. Still, I was lucky that he had stationed himself at this place while watching all my moves with his binoculars. Of course, no one can know with certainty that if Wolfgang were not there, everything would have happened just in the same way.

After a rest, we decide to take the easiest path up and over to the Glacier Restaurant at 2700 metres. Along the way, we meet Wolfgang’s yodeling friend, who observed the whole disaster and waited for us.

“Sorry about that”, he says and I nod while he joins in our ascent.

It was still a good stretch to the restaurant, but a walk in the park compared with our climb. Once we quench our thirst, we take the cable car that goes down the south face of the Dachstein. Looking through the windows, high and safe above this grandiose rocky mountain, I feel somewhat cheated in my result. Just the same, I am more than ready to stop for the day.

When we arrive at the valley stationhouse, Wolfgang calls his girlfriend to pick us up within the hour. “Now, we need another drink,” Wolfgang says, pushing us into the Gasthaus pub. Minutes later, we are sitting in front of a bottle of plum brandy, which is the last thing that I will remember of this day.
Seven years have since passed. Both Wolfgang and I got married. His wedding photo hangs in my studio, showing him and his wife wearing over their formal wear their climbing gear with rope. I’ve never tried to figure out the exact symbolism of this picture, if anything it appears surreal, but certainly confirms that he is a fanatic mountaineer. However, from other sources I have heard, he gave up climbing. Maybe Wolfgang must have realized that there is more to life than dangerous obsession. I can relate to that as well.

As for myself, I am trying to pass on to the young what one is not supposed to do, although they will strive and find out for themselves how vulnerable their lifeline may become. Otherwise, I still think occasionally of my Alpine adventures and whistle the Styrian hymn that begins with the words:
“On Dachstein’s heights, where eagles soar . . . “

The End