The Ankogel Mountains

I sometimes feel engaged in a multi-year, rear-action battle. I look at my boys, I hear them talk about video games with longing. How incredibly boring the real world is, and how packed with secrets the new RoBlocks or Minecraft mod is…

If it were up to them, I think they’d sit forever in front of a screen. Will this be how I failed them? That I didn’t have the energy to fight it?

I try not to be swamped by my dislike for video games.

I was a fan once too. I spent most of my 18th year of life huddled in front of a Nintendo in a darkened Hollywood apartment playing Zelda and Metroid. I’d moved out to Los Angeles with friends to strike it rich as a rock star. But I’m dismayed when I think how many of those sunny days were wasted.

I’m happy I never had a Nintendo at home, just a continually obsolete Atari computer with a burping tape drive. Did I go further into the real world as a teenager because of my outstanding character, my above-average brain-power?

No f**king way.

It was because the computer was old, boring, not sexy and threw me back on my own resources.

That’s all.

Every time I hear that video games take another leap closer to “real life” I’m glad I’m too old to be impressed.

The Hohe Tauern National Park is beautiful. The mountains stretch to the horizon, so much terrain over 2000 meters, you feel like you could walk forever. I’d been there three times, each time to climb the Grossglockner, although I only succeeded once. Equipment, stamina and weather defeated the first attempt. The second was a breeze. The third time, avalanche danger after a night in the bivouac hut made us sorrowfully turn around. Each time I drove that road I thought “I’ve got to come back and simply hike here, screw all this summit business.”

For a year I’d reminded the kids we were going on an honest-to-God six day hike in the mountains together, so they better be prepared. I took them hiking as much as possible, and learned to ignore the groans. Curiously, Elijah seemed to enjoy these days after a while, but for Rowan it was like launching a rocket through thick atmosphere. Again and again the boys flip-flop in their strengths and weaknesses. For a long time, Elijah’s ability to stare into space and daydream was a detriment to him in school. But for hiking, this is a fantastic way to be: he simply zones out and walks quickly. Rowan knows and cares more deeply about what is expected of him. But this admirable trait makes slogging up a steep hill hard: he is a prisoner of his mind, which is screaming WHY?! So each second can be torture. He hates being hot and sweaty. At least once he accused Elijah of making his hands hot by sitting too close and looking at them. Rowan has had a tough year. In the fourth grade, he had so much more homework than Elijah, and had to sit there at home working while watching Elijah play with Legos. Eventually, Kris gave Elijah extra work to try to even out the asymmetry, but it appeared the damage was done: for the whole next year Rowan’s problems had one source: Elijah!

In that hilarious way that tragedy begets tragedy, Elijah began to play with this. He would often be found in the place that subtly justified Rowan’s idea that Elijah was at fault, wearing a mysterious smile. That’s how he dealt with the hurt feelings — winding Rowan up further.

The boys are just so involved in each other’s lives. They need each other. They love each other. But gosh, it must be exasperating for them too.

They irritated each other, but always ended up together again.

In typical “dad will fix it” mode, I offer a hard diet of uphill marches that will somehow get Rowan to think about other things, to let him feel proud about his hard work, and to learn the value of pushing through. At the same time, I know I’m a prisoner of my ideas about what those boys need! I’m as likely to be wrong about it as right.

It definitely helps me to remind myself of all of this. Then I can let Rowan be, for example, after having transported him somewhere to complete an uphill march. When I take my focus away from him, I’m always impressed when I turn back to look.

The first night, at the Arthur-von-Schmidt-Haus, there was a huge thunderstorm. The ground turned while with ice chunks. Rowan and I were fascinated by the storm…him by the lightning, and me by the delicious booming all around me of the thunder. We’d already by chided by the hut warden and some of the patrons for staying out in the boulders a bit too long before the storm, then chided again for standing on the porch too close to the lightning rod. Eventually we were limited to standing on the stone entryway hard in front of the closed door. It was a wonderful shared moment…comparing and contrasting our impressions of the storm. Elijah wouldn’t come out, no matter what I said — he was so happy inside making a new Dungeon in my notebook.

The Arthur-von-Schmid-Hütte.

These Dungeons proved to be great fun. The boys and I watched a TV show where kids in the 1980s were playing Dungeons & Dragons, and one of them was the Dungeon-master, in charge of keeping gameplay exciting, meting out death, destruction and the occasional boon when required. I thought that if we used my notebook and a couple of dice in the huts in the evening, we could draw a dungeon, then play it like that game. It worked perfectly. They boys battled several interesting monsters in the first dungeon, and then Elijah drew two more. The job of Dungeon-master requires creativity. You have to describe rooms and monsters with some whimsy to keep it interesting. We had an elaborate flow diagram to describe the kabuki theater involved in a battle. A really fun thing was that if you roll a 1 first, then the monster runs away. We burst out laughing a few times when a formidable pair of monsters came running up, only to both run away moments later!

Elijah, Rowan, our Dungeon, and a beer for Dad.

One evening, thing got pretty funny. Rowan and Elijah, as adventurers named Toaster and Max, entered a frightening dungeon. In a lower chamber they discovered a portal to an alternate dimension. Despite several unhealed wounds they took it, only to emerge into a room of a dozen killer bats. Rather than strategically retreat, they kept fighting. First Max lost an arm, then bled out on the floor while Toaster gamely continued (after prudently collecting the loot from Max’s body). The dice rolls went poorly and Toaster died as well. As ‘Master, I offered a few chances, but they always chose the most reckless option and finally ended up dead. Through an alarming series of twists and turns in the afterlife, 70 years later Toaster reincarnated as a new adventurer named Umbrella, while Max’s spirit remained in a kind of limbo. Umbrella entered the same cave and felt an eerie familiarity with the surroundings. The long-sealed inter-dimensional cave contained the spidery skeletal remains of bats and two human skeletons, one missing an arm! By a fortuitous dice roll, Max was able to come back to life, and the two adventurers continued, later dying from a batch of poisoned mushrooms.

Once, I got offended that someone said “Madam” when I was sitting under my pink umbrella :D. A few more people said it, and eventually I realized it must be a greeting. Since we were near Slovenia, I thought it must be Slovenian. I asked a few times at huts, but nobody seemed to know. Finally, sigh, I came back home and old friend Google told me that “good day” in Slovenian is “Dober dan.” Ahh.

Hiking over enormous blocks to the Mallnitzer Scharte (2673 m)

Something great (and terrible) about hiking is that the hours stretch on and on. The boys don’t have my legs and speed, so I had to slow down. We made many long-running jokes. One of the best came from the Lord of the Rings. Since the country we traveled through was so reminiscent of Mordor, with endless stairs of rock, we thought about the scenes where Frodo, Sam and Gollum climbed the stairs above the dread city of Minas Morgal. During this multi-day journey up stairs, Gollum convinced Frodo to think Sam had eaten all the precious Lembas cakes. This would make it easier for Shelob the spider to capture Frodo later. We remembered Samwise descending the stairs, teary-eyed and discovering that Gollum had thrown the Lembas cakes over a cliff, returning full of resolute anger.

Well, our joke was that Sam really did eat the Lembas cakes. And that we, fellow travelers on similar stairs could simply corroborate what Gollum said. Not that we were friends with Gollum or anything. But that Sam guy just wasn’t cool. So yeah…Gollum was right, we were forced to tell an ashen-faced Frodo. Sorry, dude. But one of us went to school with Samwise, and he used to cheat all the time. Yeah. Totally sucks. “He loves Lembas cakes,” we’d tell Frodo, shaking our heads in disbelief, but with a “what-are-you-going-to-do” resigned attitude about the whole thing.

Our favorite jokes were around the feeling of being bereft. Of falling in for herculean tasks of effort just at the moment you thought the work was done. “Oh, Dad, you left the car keys on that mountain top. I didn’t say anything because I thought you meant to leave them there.” Then great laughter on contemplating that “Dad” will have to walk for days to retrieve said car keys. Or, “how long have we been walking?” and the answer is “22 minutes,” when actually we’ve been walking over 4 hours through rain. Poor Frodo, lonely but ready to have his spirits lifted on running into fellow white-bread travelers, is left twice-bereft with this sad news about the poor quality of Sam’s character.

Always something to laugh about.

These rueful jokes traveled with us through the miles…a philosophy-of-the-road that kept us ready to laugh when the hut was farther than expected. And this happened all the damn time.

I learned to interpret the expected travel times between huts very very pessimistically. It’s not that the boys were slow. They were always walking…but maybe the legs are shorter to a degree that really matters. If the expected time was 3 hours, it would be 5 for us. If it was 4 hours then, well, it would be an all day slog for us. Boulder fields were especially hard. Rowan had a very secure style in these, he’d carefully climb up and down each boulder. But the right technique is to hop, hop, hop. Plan out a sequence of hops and stick to it. On day two we had the first big field. Half-finished, but it was starting to rain and I wanted to get through as much of the rest of the field as possible before the rock became really slick and wet. I taught Rowan to look in the middle-distance, not only at his next step. That did the trick — he got a lot faster! I probably became annoying, issuing a “hop — hop — hop!” mantra, but dang it did seem to help! Elijah was untroubled by this need for security. Here, I felt great sympathy for Rowan because my instincts run on the same line as his, and I, like him, had to really work to overcome them.

Drinking from a waterfall near the Hanover Haus.

Nonetheless, travel times were long. The one exception was in descent on a good trail, which we had only on the last day. Here, the boys can even exceed posted times. By the end of the trip, my pride at their accomplishment was unbounded. Especially the feeling that Rowan had come through a big struggle…it was so hard for him, but he kept a smile on his face and always found a way to joke about it.

We had one very stressful hour. Our route let over the Lassacher Winkelscharte, a high pass disturbingly close to a glacier. The guidebook described the steep, cable-protected descent from the pass as “nicht ohne,” which is apparently German for irresponsibly difficult. It was truly a via ferrata, one of those special routes where you are supposed to wear a helmet and a harness to carefully traverse. Adding to this, we’d been traveling in a steady cold rain. All of us ended up with soaking wet gloves and feet. I told the boys we needed to simply keep moving down. Elijah said he wished he was at home. “Me too,” said Rowan, his voice breaking a little bit. I seemed to get tunnel vision at this point, doubling down on continuing…full of the sense that we were completely alone and that safety was beneath us. Thinking back, this is probably the right moment to have a chocolate break, and huddle under an umbrella and tell jokes.

Finally we finished the cables. On the last section, which involved vertical ladders on big cliffs, I’d ferried up and down to accompany each boy one at a time. Then we had to descend about 80 meters of steep, hard snow. My nerves rather shot, I yelled at Rowan when he slipped once, just a little bit. And so this part of our day was the polar opposite of fun. After action report: Dad lost perspective.

Rowan hikes below the steep and snowy Lassacher Winkelscharte.

But finally we were done with the hard snow. We came to a little mountain rescue hut, and went inside to warm up. They had gas so we could boil some tea, and finally eat our lunch. Now we could smile and laugh a bit about the difficult descent. But I think it’ll always be the story of “the time we almost died,” and even though I think that’s hyperbole, I can’t gainsay it because I really felt that it was quite serious.

A long walk in gradually improving weather followed, several more hours to reach the Celler Hütte. The boys had been excited about this hut for days, knowing that we’d have it to ourselves and have to cook our own Ramen noodles. They’d dutifully carried these noodles for three days. As clouds burned off the granite slabs, and after we crossed countless glacier-fed streams, we slowly approached the hut. On arrival, we saw a party of Czech climbers were using the hut to dry their wet gear. Since they didn’t want to pay to stay in the hut, they politely cleared out their things and repaired to tents outside. They were a really nice bunch though.

Elijah re-enacts finding the creepy spider (see below).

The noodles were absolutely delicious — I understood why the boys were looking so forward to them! We went to bed just a bit hungry, and I promised we’d really pig out the next night at the Hanover Haus. A solar panel at the hut allowed me to charge my phone and gave me light to read by as the sun set. There really is something special about a “self-service” hut. I believe the cost was 20 euros, 10 for me and 5 each for the boys.

In the morning, we had blue sky and warm sun. We slept in. I dreamt of entering an old apartment with Rowan that we had known before. With a smile he went to take a shower, and I went downstairs to admire a row of my old computers from the 1990s. I had a long talk with an electrician duly maintaining them.

The cozy Celler Hütte at sunset, clearing weather.

A long day stretched before us…our only job, to walk west, gently up and down high above the valley floor. The Hanover Haus, a wooden speck in the distance…gradually came near. We continued our jokes…sometimes together, sometimes spread apart. Once I left my phone on a rock and had to go back to get it. I was happy that I “needed” to check it for text messages only a few minutes later. After three days without service, the return of the internet briefly drew me back into the city and my life there. I was able to transmit a few photos and assurances that the boys were doing great.

The Hanover Haus was nice, but seemed to suffer from it’s proximity to a ski lift. Huts that are too close to civilization seem to suffer for it. Maybe the people who work there don’t understand multi-day hikers…they seem exasperated by these dirty and cheap patrons. After all, they are civilized and take the last lift down at night to clean beds. I was reminded of the time I was studiously ignored at a Dolomiti pass restaurant in favor of motorcyclists, who received fawning attention. And it struck me as rather undemocratic that a new hut wouldn’t offer a “lager” or cheaper common room to sleep in…instead it was set up like a hotel, and we paid double for the lodging. Why? If that’s progress…then I don’t want it. Of course it was just built, gleaming, polished wood, etc. Meh.

Rowan came down for a while that night and we shared a hot chocolate though, that was fantastic.

Food stocks were getting low. We had three more Ramen packets for the last night, a few nuts, and some crumbling German bread. Once away from the ugly ski area terrain, we were in some of the best scenery of the trip. We crossed an old Roman road. We bouldered on beautiful granite in the afternoon, and Elijah discovered a really frightening spider that blended in perfectly with the lichen-covered rock. Eww.

We reached the Mindener Hütte and found a couple of guys had already opened it up and were napping inside. I found a guitar in the hut and took it out into a sunny meadow to play and look around. The boys were sleepy, and repaired to the auxiliary bedroom of the hut to nap. I decided to climb the Gamskarlspitze behind the house. This was fantastic. Contouring up and around lakes on boulders, then gaining a narrow pass, and finally steep climbing on the ridge. I could see north to Badgastein and beyond. The five of us prepared dinner together, drinking tea and chatting about plans. The two men were making their way west to the Grossglockner. We got a fire going in the wood stove which was wonderful.

Last full meal, mustard and German bread, maybe an apple.

On the last day, we got up early, ate our last candy bars as a cold breakfast, and started hiking fast. The boys were keen to achieve civilization again. I was not, always finding it bittersweet to leave the high country. And so I stayed behind, watching them as they moved with great speed. I had to laugh! But it was sad too. There will be a time, as a parent, when they will disappear around a bend to new vistas, and I will not follow.

High above Mallnitz.

Well…to say I enjoyed myself doesn’t do justice to our 6 days out there. Really, it was a wonderful surprise to see how resilient the boys are. To see how beautifully we travel together…relaxed and always finding something to laugh about. I see how little difference there is between me, the “Dad” and Rowan and Elijah. We are all just doing our best with the responsibilities we’ve been given.

I am so privileged to know these boys and to be able to influence their lives. Walking alongside them, it’s clear to me they will grow into good and necessary men.

Time to hitch a ride to our car.