Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

July 1, 2006

Raining Adrenaline

Our 4-day pass/vacation was set, and our trip organized. The plan called for perfectly sunny skies and warm weather, much needed to accommodate our dreams of climbing another via ferrata and enjoying the mountain views of the Swiss and Austrian Alps. This time we were bringing our good friend Marty along for the ride, or perhaps a better explanation would be that he was willing to put up with us for the duration, and drive his car, since our van was in the shop with a busted radiator fan.

The day before we were supposed to leave, Rob checked and rechecked every one of his weather websites to make an educated guess about the reality of what we might face. Yet as he was doing so, the rain was streaking down our windows and it felt much too cold for shorts and a T-shirt. The forecasts all called for some sort of rain and cloudy weather, a few predicting a total washout for the entire weekend. We needed summer sun, and the clouds were obscuring our hopes.

We went over to Marty’s house the evening before our scheduled departure for an awesome and very spicy Thai supper he made of (name of dish unpronounceable and spelled in chicken scratch), and to consider our options for the weekend. We avoided the topic at first, concentrating instead on cooking, eating, and watching Shakespeare’s Othello. But then at about midnight, after a few dinner drinks and a dramatic and deadly ending to the movie, we finally got around to discussing our proposed trip.

The question quickly became, not IF we should go because of all the rain, but where we could go, where there would be no rain. A wild search then ensued on the RyanAir website, where we found few last-minute options that sounded affordable, except for a roundtrip flight to Milan, Italy for about 150 euros. The chances of the weather being better south of the Alps is always a strong likelihood, and from Milan, Venice was relatively nearby by rent-a-car, and something Marty had never seen in all of his travels. We were all just moments away from spontaneously pushing the buttons and purchasing the tickets, when Rob’s cool head at the last second stopped us all from going too crazy. We settled then for our original car trip heading to the Alps, with the added option of continuing farther south to chase the sunshine if necessary. And we could all get some much needed sleep that night, instead of staying up, trying to pack, and getting to the airport by 4am for a 6am flight to Milan.

By 8 o’clock the following morning, rested and much more clear-headed, we rolled out onto the autobahn in Marty’s speedy little VW-GTI, with Rob packed in the backseat next to the food box, and the camping gear stowed in the hatch. Our route southward from Germany cut across a corner of France and into a nasty rainstorm before arriving at Strasbourg. But with crossing the Rhein River and our re-entering back into Germany, the skies cleared a bit for a moment, before sporadic thunder-dumpers took their turns wetting our way, all the way into Switzerland.

The ever-changing cloud formations ended up making for quite a show, especially within the mountainous realm of Lake Lucern and above our first destination, the high alpine resort village of Engelberg, Switzerland. Suddenly, we found ourselves at the base of the towering granite cliff face of the Furenwand, and faced with the decision of whether we should try climbing it with the weather as it was. We had rented harness gear from a guy at a sports shop that looked a bit dubiously at the surrounding threatening skies, but felt that it would only take us a couple of hours to climb the via ferrata, and that we would maybe get lucky and not get rained on.

A few sprinkles hit us as we prepared for our climb in the parking lot, and we concluded that if we didn’t attempt the ascent right then, the weather may only get worse if we waited until the following day. I changed into long pants and put a long-sleeved polyester shirt on under my T-shirt, just in case we were to get soaked. Rob and Marty opted instead to wear quick drying shorts and shirts, so as to not be weighted down by wet clothes. And then after asking ourselves even several more times if we were crazy to think about doing a highly exposed climb in such weather, we sort of just shrugged our shoulders and decided to take the chance and do it anyway.

We filled up our camelbacks and took along some snacks, and then walked the mile up to the start of the climb. About 1/3 of the way there, I realized that I had forgotten to bring any sort of first aid gear that usually goes with me everywhere, especially on the side of a mountain. And after stupidly deciding that it wasn’t worth running back to the car for it, I mentally tried to imagine what we did have that I could use in case of emergency, and I couldn’t come up with many ideas. I didn’t say anything about that though, as Rob and Marty seemed enthralled and confident with the adventure at hand, and I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

A sign at the bottom of the climb warned us in four languages that climbing in wet weather should not be attempted and would be dangerous to do. So we asked ourselves several more times if we were indeed crazy to think about doing a vertical climb up wet rock, and we concluded that we were. The first few sections of the climb had a new type of T-bar that we hadn’t seen before, to both grab with our hands and later step on with our feet, as our karabiners slid along the safety cable. We proceeded even more cautiously with precise stepping and sure hand grips, after we found a couple of loose ones. And then we continued on slowly up, next using a series of offered cold metal staples and iron rungs drilled into the rock

To one side of us, a tall waterfall roared, and then others came into view across the valley as runoff from glaciers high atop the mountain peaks. The chiming bells of grazing Swiss cows on the steep opposing slopes also added to the music of the moment. Rising swirls of mist and fog occasionally engulfed our perspective, and there were instances that we were lost in a sea of gray, and I was unable to see anything, even Marty climbing above me, and Rob below. Then seconds later, it would clear again, and the distant vistas down on the town way below were spectacular. We were alone up on that rock face; apparently no one else was dumb enough to follow in our footsteps. But, the awesome natural setting and the climb itself, all made for the most interesting climb we’d done yet. And, it all made for a thrilling and solemn connection to the truly unique experience that we’d dared, and very grateful were we, that the rain had held off so far.

The middle section of the climb turned into more of a scramble up a steep and muddy grassy outcrop, but the immense rock face still looming over our heads told us there was more rock climbing yet to come before we’d reach the top. The rains of earlier in the day had formed a small waterfall that sprayed over our route back onto the rock, and on to our heads as we started (what we hoped was) the last section. We crept sideways on skinny metal supports on a sheer, flat wall high above the abyss while hanging on to the cable for dear life. A few light raindrops suddenly began hitting my helmet, and the clouds above seemed to be thickening and darkening. We took the obvious hint, and figured it best if we started to climb as fast as we could without being dangerous about it. But we’d now obviously now reached the most difficult part of the climb, and trying to speed up wasn’t much of an option.

Looking up soon meant steady stinging cold raindrops in the face and in our ears, while icy breezes began to kick up and freeze our hands and fingers. At one point, I looked up through the saturating rain sheet that was now covering us, and literally shouted in amazement at my first sight of a very long and tall vertical ladder Marty was beginning to climb. It was an amazing ladder, not at all attached to the rock, but dangling and suspended from an overhang high above in the mist. We one by one slowly climbed up the slippery rungs as the entire ladder swayed in the wind and from our movements. It was an exact vertical climb, with nothing but a lot of straight down below us into a gaping, dark crevasse. Our fingers were wet and cold, and it was simply straight up to the lip of the overhang miles above us. The 50 or 60 or 70 rungs of the ladder, turned into a thousand by the time we finished. And trying to use our frozen and cramped fingers to move our safety cords along on our way up, was a maddening process.

By the top of the ladder, it was really raining, but the climb wasn’t quite over yet. Rob had to stop a minute and put away his badly splattered glasses in his backpack, because there was still a demand for exacting foot and hand placement, and clear vision to see a must. Especially, because the last wall we had to climb, was a massive cascade of hundreds of mini waterfalls spilling by us. But at last, the tough part was over, and the rest of the way up was via a steep zigzagging trail that was very muddy and very slippery.

The rain let up by the time we reached a restaurant/hotel, and a cable car station at the top, but we were all shivering and thoroughly soaked. We were happy to have a seat out of the elements in the small cable car that eventually arrived, and stunned when a ray of sunlight suddenly blinded our eyes. The clouds had offered us a momentary truce, and gave us an amazing sight over the valley far, far below. A family of four crammed in with us just before the cable car doors closed, and the dangling box then inched its way down almost two and a half thousand feet to our parked car. The parents of the two young boys gave us pitying “you guys were climbing in this weather?” looks, and even with a language barrier, we could tell they thought we were completely nuts. The ride down descended past all that we’d just been so intimate with, and we scared ourselves all over again, goggling at what we’d somehow just climbed up. When we reached the bottom, we saw that the time was 5:25pm. Turned out, that the last cable car of the day going up left at 5:30pm, and the one that we were on, was the last of the day coming down.

Back in the car, with the heat cranked as high as it could go on our way to a nearby campground, we could barely uncurl our fingers enough to fasten our seatbelts, …. seatbelts? We just escaped near death on the side of a mountain, what was the point of seatbelts?! We slowly thawed enough to eventually be able to set up our tents in a break between more drizzling rain. And then we ran straight for the showers, and spent quality time trying very hard to use up all of the hot water in the pipes.

The campground had a small indoor kitchen area that was available to anyone wanting to use it. But we were the only ones in there, and thrilled to soon be sipping coffee, hot chocolate, and apple cider we heated up on the stove. A large bowl of Ramen noodles followed, along with a side snack of olives (w/pits) straight from the jar. We were warm, dry, fed, and alive, and marveled at our feat of stupidity, and the fact that we had flirted with major bodily harm if not death, on the plumb side of that awesome mountain. After dinner, we returned to our tents and played a few games of cards, and then fell asleep to the sound of falling rain, and a nearby rushing river.

Surprise, surprise, it was still raining in the morning when we woke up. Marty was a bit grumpy because his sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough, and didn’t want to hear about the fact that we had slept like angels in our cozy bags. But we brewed him a few strong cups of coffee in the kitchen, and fed him a couple of fresh brotchens, and then he was all smiles again. Especially when the cloud layer lifted a bit and exposed a beautiful fresh dusting of snow atop all of the surrounding mountain peaks, and was an explanation for his freezing night’s sleep.

Our goal for the day, was a well-known walk along a cliff overlooking Lake Lucern. And for the following day, other high country hikes in the Swiss Alps. But it was raining, and gloomy, and quite chilly for August, even for in the Alps. Well, we easily and quickly ditched those ideas, and were much more happy with the thought of just sitting in a warm car. But where could we drive to? How about somewhere warmer and maybe a bit less rainy! So, we headed south.

The idea to perhaps still get to Venice slowly began taking shape, and alas, when we reached the other side of the Alps and Lake Como by early afternoon, the skies had partially cleared and it was much warmer outside. So warm in fact, we took the chance to dry out our tents and to go for a heavenly fresh water swim. It started sprinkling again after our fun, but as we drove off, we continued on with our quest for farer weather. We passed by Milan’s northern outskirts and started east under sunny skies on flat roads towards Venice, and arrived at a campground on the fringe of the mainland at around 6pm. We set up our tents along the water, and Marty and I had pizza and beer and played more cards, while enjoying a rain-free evening and looking across the water at the skyline of Venice. Rob though, couldn’t wait ‘till the morning when we’d all planned to finally get to Venice proper, and took a city bus over the bridge to the sinking city to spend his evening.

Attracted by the photogenic appeal of Venice’s charm, Rob wove along the maze of canals that Venice is famous for, and searched far and wide for photo ops. Unfortunately, he ventured a bit too far down a series of steps that disappeared into a canal, and slipped and fell. Similar to Robert Shaw in the movie “Jaws” trying to avoid entering the shark’s mouth when it jumped up on the back of the boat, Rob kicked with all his might to keep from falling completely into the canal. He succeeded, but ended up with wet legs and shoes, and a soaked butt. Luckily, no one was witness to his misfortune, and Rob just continued on his explorations as if nothing had happened. But he and only he, knew that he’d been baptized a Venetian.

In the middle of the night, a short time after Rob returned a little after 11pm, a blowing lightning and rolling thunderstorm passed over the area. It was still raining a bit in the morning when we awoke, and we decided to just leave our tents set up while we took a ferry from nearby the campground over to Venice for the day. A strong wind kicked up spray, and the skies were gray, but as we crossed the water and landed at the dock, it was already looking more hopeful to the north. We wandered around Venice for hours, getting lost in dead-end alleyways, drinking cappuccinos, licking tasty gelato (ice cream) cones, and snapping pictures galore. The sun came out early on and lit up the city’s colorful crumbling buildings and stately cracked statues. The canal waters shimmered and sparkled under a beautiful deep baby blue sky, and everyone visiting Venice and moving around on foot and aboard boats, seemed more than happy to be in such a magical place.

We also stopped in the main square, where a bunch of pigeons felt compelled to sit on our heads and outstretched arms. And then at one point, we turned a corner and came upon an even stranger sight. We’d apparently found a part of town that was a bit more sunken than the rest. Water was lapping up from a canal over a sidewalk where outdoor seating for a restaurant was located. It was a novelty I guess, to sit in chairs at tables partially submerged in water as many folks were. They all simply just slipped off their shoes and carried on with their dining experience, and watched gondolas float by. Rob and I made Marty take his shoes off and pose for a picture, and with the water looked so inviting on such a warm day (disregarding all the rumors of it being part of the city’s sewage system), I rolled up my pants and waded in with my sandals on.

After drying off and getting lost a couple more times, we made our way back to the ferry landing to catch a ride back to the campground. But during our lazy scenic boat-top return, during which I think we all caught a quick nap, clouds had returned and again filled the sky. Our tents had perfectly dried during the day, and we packed them up quickly, as rain soon again looked threatening. And it did rain shortly thereafter (of course), as we drove northeast back into the Alps of northern Italy and into Austria. In fact, for a while there, the downpours were of biblical proportions. We were lucky though, that amidst the episodes of saturation, there were breaks in the deluge that offered many moments of splendid mountain scenery.

After nightfall, we arrived in the Austrian mountain town of Landeck, just west of Innsbruck, where we snuck into a closed, gated campground at about 10 p.m., woke the owners, paid for a night, and then set up our tents on wet grass and cooked rice for dinner on our camp stove. Sleeping was peaceful and next to a babbling brook, but it rained lightly in the morning to wake us up, which gave us a perfect record of getting rained on every night in our tents, and during every car journey so far. But the rain stopped and the sky cleared soon afterwards, finally allowing us opportunity to see where we actually were.

Landeck was a within a very peaceful setting surrounded by high, forested ridges. And it was also home to a place called Sport Camp Tirol, an outfit specializing in white-water rafting adventures. So, by 9am, we were stuffing ourselves into wetsuits, booties, lifejackets, and helmets on our way to the Otztaler Gorge, home of the Imst River.

We got into a large raft with our guide and four other German thrill seeking enthusiasts, and then paddled straight into the current and churning rapids. The water was very COLD, but we jumped in the river anyway during the milder portions of the trip to swim alongside the raft for fun. And of course, we got thoroughly splashed going over the rapids. But the sun was out in full force and we never felt too chilled or uncomfortable. In fact, the experience was very enjoyable, and the fresh, snowfall-capped mountains we passed all along our route, were really beautiful.

But, as had been the theme for our entire trip, just when our rafting escapade had completed, clouds rolled in, and rain soon followed. And during our drive back into Germany and almost during all of our way home, it rained on and off, sometimes really, really hard. But we’d seen sun and felt warmth when we mostly needed it most, and the entire trip turned out to be a fulfilling whirlwind exercise in taking chances and challenging luck.

Since it was contemplating raining when we climbed up the Via Ferrata, and did in fact pour on us, we were justified in leaving our camera safely in the car. Which means that we don't have pictures of our rainy trip up the side of the mountain.  However, you can find a whole bunch of Via Ferrata photos on the Switzerland page, so go ahead and skip there if you need a shot of photo adrenaline.  Otherwise, these pics are mostly of Venice, which is where we headed when the rain in Switzerland got on our nerves.  And, as you can see below, to our great luck, the rain did not follow us down to Italy.

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