Written by Konstantine-George Athanasios Karras.
On the whole, European vacations tend to be relaxing affairs, and ones taken in Austria are no exception. True, the small country abounds in rugged mountain ranges, but if one is clever, their magnificent peaks are conquered with the eye only and not by the exhaustive expedient of actually ascending them. Preferably this is done from the cozy and comfortable outdoor seating of one of the many cafes or bier halls that proliferate their foothills.
Anna & I made the mistake of deciding to ascend one of these lithic giants not only admire the views but to specifically visit a natural site that I had known about for some time. It was the famous Eisriesenwelt ice cave perched high on the side of the Hochkogel mountain just south of Salzburg.
Nothing in the numerous brochures or advertisements I read prior to visiting the place mentioned anything about the strenuous physical activity that would sinisterly accompany such a rash decision. Most did mention the two 20-minute “walks” up the face of the mountain on either side of a short but vertiginous cable car ride. But I figured my wife and I are in reasonably good shape. How bad can this possibly be?
The initial part of the journey (via our rented Peugeot motorcar along comfortable roadways) was a delight. The views from the car windows were of the Salzach Valley, with its picture-postcard villages nestled below, the magnificent wall of towering mountains reaching to the clouds above and occasional views of the dramatic Hohenwerfen castle perched on a steep and pine-covered spur jutting out into the river. Had we only known what was in store, we’d have sensibly stayed in the car.
Only when one is actually struggling to place one leg in front of the other along a steep, rocky path is one made truly aware of the effort involved. I am from Florida where the steepest incline I must navigate is my front driveway sloping down to the street. But at least amid the exhaustive effort we were constantly rewarded with views out over the alpine valley and we could delight in whooping in bucketfuls of the fresh mountain air.
Sucking in oxygen like a pair of Hoovers, we arrived at the lower cable car station. With a perverted sense of delight we noted other intrepid visitors were arriving as winded and as sweaty as us. They jammed groups of us into the small car and sent us up the almost vertical mountain slope for the three-minute ride. Once there, another twenty minute “jaunt” awaited us, a third of this under the protective cover of a man-made concrete awning that protected the hikers from falling rocks and debris. And above it all loomed the cave mouth, always looking impossibly far away.
We finally made it to the cave entrance where hordes of visitors were awaiting. Anna was handed an oil lamp by our guide and a group of about thirty of us entered. Once inside, the horrible realization took hold as the sight of our physically-fit guide, Johannes, should have warned us. It was a continuous flight of wooden steps with accompanied aluminum handrail all the way to the top. And it was only now, when one was inside and deep into the adventure that the guide in his thick Austrian accent informed us that we were about to embark on a 700-step climb up into the cave system. It was the equivalent effort of ascending a 40-story building! And this was to be accomplished at an altitude of more than 1,600 meters above sea-level. Lit only by the feeble oil lamps a few of us carried, I’m certain in the darkness, Johannes stated this with a malevolent gleam in his eye.
And so it began… the ascent. Never in my life had I experienced pain like this. I wasn’t aware that the human body could produce such agony much less endure it for the time I had to. The initial hundred steps or so were bad enough; but then there was the creeping sense of having made a huge mistake as those steps doubled, then trebled and still they ascended before me. But I couldn’t stop. I dared not. My wife—ahead of me—God bless her, was soldiering on. How could I ever face her again if I quit? Shame and shame alone forced me to fight through the pain and continue.
And then I noticed something else. The people behind me had fallen silent as well. The chattering and light laughter that had accompanied us to that point ceased to be. It was replaced with a dogged silence broken only by occasional grunts of effort. I know now what slave rowers on the bottom deck of an ancient Roman galley must have sounded like as the swift trireme full of murderous Cilician pirates was bearing down on them and they were forced to pull at their oars for their very lives.
Indeed, I wanted to scream out in my own rage at having gotten myself into this misery, but I could muster nothing more than a continuous and pathetic wheeze as the altitude and the exertion combined to turn my lungs into something resembling a pair of pink deflated birthday-party balloons. I couldn’t even whimper which was all I felt like doing. And still those evil steps continued.
By this time, midway through the ordeal, my legs had long since become absolute rubber—pasta cooked well beyond the al dente stage. I knew, or I guessed the Austrians must have had a word for it… anstrengend: strenuous, exhaustive, demanding. Why had they not used that word in their brochures about this place? Surely that would have deferred my decision to take this on. But I never read it anywhere in the literature and so we paid the price for my folly.
Suffice to say we completed the journey for there was a leveling off at the top of the cave system and that alone saved us. The ice formations were impressive and it was something I was glad to have seen. I think though I will simply remove my legs and stick them in a box in the back of the closet as I will have no further use for them.