Breathtaking. Mind-boggling. I am reading about Alex Honnold’s free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite but my mind cannot gain a firm foothold on what Alex does and how he ticks. However, reading the story of his El Cap climb rekindled memories of my first experience dipping my toes into the dimensions of what he does. Welcome to a story set among the magnificent beauty and outdoor spirited, playful people of the Tirol, Austria. I first saw images of Innsbruck on television from the 1976 Winter Olympic Games. Thus, was planted the seed of passion.
While spending a few summers in Innsbruck, I was fortunate to become buddies with some of my professors there. Through them, I was introduced to some joyful, young, local climbers. (As well as being introduced to far too much local schnapps!) I then got to do my best to keep from peeing my pants when these climbers took me along on a few “hikes”/ climbs. These are called “klettersteig” in Austria. It means they are not necessarily vertical climbs but are also horizontal along ledges (4 inches or 3 feet wide) with, in many places, metal cables drilled into the mountain side for you to clamp your climbing belt onto for safety. They took me to t beautiful, fantastic, scenic views amid wondrous areas. I am forever grateful that they tolerated me as the silly newbie. I was extremely keen. This must have helped. Or it provided them plenty of laughs.
We took cable cars up halfway and then had to do plenty of climbing and scrambling up and up along steep crags usually with wide footholds. We inched our way along the mini-ledges.
One day is particularly memorable…. We had climbed up and up there in the Karwendel Range above Innsbruck. We paused to enjoy great views down to the city 7,000 feet below. Then we went up and over a crag to the side away from the city to where nothing but deep valleys and mighty snowcapped mountains stood before us as far as one could see. At this point we proceeded along a narrow ledge. The drop down to the valley below was steep, not vertical but about 75 degrees. It was about 6,000 feet to the valley bottom. My stomach was sick. My brain screamed at me and I froze. But I had asked these dudes to take me along and they had grown to tolerate me from earlier slightly less exposed and frightening climbs so they said yes, come along. I forced myself to stare into the cliff face, not look down! I glanced only at the place to put my boot in the next moment as we slid along this ledge. We were roped in together. I was in the middle of 4 experienced climbers to whom this was a walk in the park. They had no fear of the exposure and height.
As jovial Tiroleans they were joking around as they proceeded but they were also speaking to each other in serious, technical terms. They were encouraging me and telling me that I was roped in with them and entirely safe. On numerous occasions, despite trying not to look down, of course I would look down by accident as I glanced down between my feet and then saw the vertical drop! My bowels wanted to empty. I wanted to not move ever again.
We stopped every couple of minutes to stare at the wonderful panorama. After we had been edging along for about 20 minutes the guy in front of me, let’s call him Anton, suddenly became alarmed as he looked back at me – he told me “stop, don’t move !” He inched back along the edge closer to me and fiddled with my climbing belt. Then he said, “Oh my, your climbing belt was unhooked from our safety line somehow and so you had no safety if you slipped.” Argh. This precipitated a huge moment of enlightenment as I then instinctively took a good look at the precipitous drop of 6,000 feet down and imagined having slipped and how I would have been thinking, in the first instant, that I was perfectly safe and attached to those guys…. And then my confused mind would have briefly realized I was hurtling off the side looking up at them above just before meeting some jutting rocks. The next reaction was to then feel a surge of far less fear! This was due to the knowledge that I now realized how supremely safe it felt to be firmly attached. Despite numerous panic attacks for the next hours I made it all the way with these guys. What choice did I have? No retreating on my own. They were patient with me during my frozen moments of “meditation” to calm down.
At the end I was exultant! There was an overwhelming, deep sense of a truly significant life moment – a breakthrough. A humbling new perspective on self, world, life.
Alex Honnold speaks of feeling only peace and tranquility as he chills his way vertically upward without safety devices. For this more vertigo prone athlete, peace and tranquility arrived back at the bottom, at Innsbruck, in a chair at a café’ next to the glorious, rushing Inn River whilst filled with gratitude to my fun, tolerant Tyrolean guides.