Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Return From the Czech Lands

After the drudgery of a 38 hour return flight (I'm pretty sure it was that long,) and a harrowing final descent through lightning streaked rain clouds (an adventure far too exciting to relate in full here),




Back for a week now, actually, jet lag is long gone, low-key culture shock still lingering. Confronted by the anonymously striped lawns of Clear Lake Suburbia and No Place To Call Our Own we are attempting to settle into a waiting-out-the-clock lifestyle. The clock in this case referring to our apartment move-in date of July 7th. The point is: We Are Wrecked.

David (Courtney's dad) has been nice enough to let us stay at his house and eat his food, so we will do that until we need a change of venue, and then my mother has also offered the same. Bouncing back and forth between beds and other people's houses is a little jarring but it is good, really good (I can't stress this enough) to see our family again.

Quick list: Other Things That Are Good:

- English is good. Although I thought it would be a lot nicer to overhear English conversations at grocery stores/restaurants etc than it is. Funny thing is: it turns out that people just aren't talking about anything interesting most of the time.

- Hamburgers. Specifically the super-greasy double meat cheeseburger at Tookie's, aka The Best Burger In The Whole Damned World (and I'm happy to engage in an extended, overly-emotional e-mail flame war with anyone who thinks otherwise). I'm never prouder to be an American then when a lump of rare cooked beef is oozing between my clenched teeth.

-Bathtub. Not only did our apartment not have one, the shower was so small I couldn't stand in it without touching two walls at all times. My first night back I slipped into David's oversized tub, filled to the brim with scalding water and soaked for three hours, and it felt goooooooooood to be back.

My original intention was to close this Journal down once we were back from Prague, but it turns out my narcissism knows no bounds. I've gotten rather attached to the old girl. I don't know if anyone is still reading this (well, I know a couple of people are,) but for now I will continue to update on a sporadic basis until I'm pretty well sick of it. A reevaluation of purpose will be necessary if I do indeed decide to keep it up (I'm thinking a change from "travelogue" to "herbal viagra testimonials") so I'll have to mull things over.

observant readers will have taken note of a new feature on RFB, the comment box. I don't exactly know what it does, but maybe you can use it to... comment? Or vote me off the island?
Or something... Try it out.

Maybe it'll be fun!

Or maybe it will suck.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Report From Slovenia: Danger!

We have returned from our trip to Slovenia, battered, bruised, stiff legged, with a healthy respect/fear for the whims of Mother Nature, and a newfound distrust of guides. It was a misadventure, nearly blundering into disaster, and Thank-God-It’s-Over.

There were intimations of trouble before we even left; the weather had been horrible all week in Prague, 15 Celsius and raining; Zach had been lobbying for not going at all, and we would have been happy to have a relaxing weekend in Prague ourselves, but Martina had been looking forward to the trip for some time. Besides, we had already paid. As far as the weather was concerned, well, any guide worthy of the name would cancel the trip if the conditions were less than favorable, right?

So, we borrowed some sleeping bags, packed up, and one dark 12-hour bus ride later we found ourselves at the base of the Slovenian Alps at 8 in the morning.

As we got out of the bus, we took our first look at the mountains. They were incredibly beautiful, fulfilling our every expectation of what the Alps should look like, sheer and jutting like broken fangs, snow covered and cloud fringed.
Unfortunately, the constant chilly rain dampened our enthusiasm.

We all stood beside the bus getting ready, some twenty hikers and three guides. The guides were having a conference, having just spoken to an official at the trailhead and receiving (as we later found out) a warning about the conditions. Finally they reached a decision.

“We will provide you with some climbing gear,” one of the guides told us in his accented, somewhat awkward English, “we will not be using this until maybe tomorrow, but for safety you should have it today.” They began to pass out the gear: crampons, picks, helmets and rope harnesses.

Courtney looked at me and said, “I’m not ready for this.”

Neither was I.

I asked the guide, “We aren’t going to use this until the second day, right?”

“Yes, today we bring it just to the cottage so we have it tomorrow.”

“If it looks rough today, can we maybe stay at the cottage tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes, this is fine. Don’t think about tomorrow yet.” He answered.

“So we’ll do that,” I said to Courtney. “ This equipment is just for safety. If it looks bad tomorrow we’ll stay at the cottage and read our books.” Reluctantly, she agreed.

And so we suited up, tied picks firmly in place, packed away crampons, dangled the helmets from our packs. Truthfully, I was kind of excited. I envisioned a strenuous but safe hike, within our abilities, with perhaps one area where we would be using the equipment, up near the summit of Mt.Triglav, scrambling over a few of the granite boulders on our triumphant way to the top.

With such foolish optimism, we set off.

It was still raining, miserable, cold and wet. The guides led us perhaps 1/4 mile in and then suddenly we were lost. Apparently a storm had washed away the trail that they were used to, so we all stood halfway up a lovely forested canyon wall and waited as they ran back and forth, desperately looking for some sign of direction. In retrospect, it was a very pleasant part of the hike, and now I wish we could have stayed there for the weekend, relatively warm and only moderately wet, and never even touching those damn crampons. Unfortunately, after about an hour we started up again. We made a tough, snowy ascent, then a descent through switchbacks, then up again. Not so bad, we were all enjoying ourselves, getting our exercise. Courtney in particular was getting into it, outdistancing all of us.

Then the trouble started.

The last half of the trail was a long, steep ascent, covered in frozen, snowy patches that turned the quite reasonable switchback trail into catwalks between treacherous, slushy, 70 degree inclines ending in sheer hundred foot drops onto broken rock. Snow is not easy to walk on under any circumstances and our hike slowed down considerably with much slipping and sliding. The guides told us to break out the crampons and showed us how to use them. We strapped them on and were glad for the extra traction they provided.

It was all kind of fun until Courtney fell.

My stomach gets queasy when I think about this, especially when I think about how close she came to tumbling over the ledge. She had made it about half way across one of the snowy inclines, one that I had noted as being particularly precipitous and dramatic. I was behind her, casually watching, when suddenly her foot slipped on a loose patch of snow. She fought for balance, gained it briefly, her other foot slipped, and then she was falling, tumbling through the snow, faster and faster.

She says she had two thoughts that she can remember as she fell, the first was “Oh shit.” The second was a surprisingly rational and cold voice that simply said “So this is how I’m going to die.”

Thank God she did not. Miraculously she caught herself on a mound of earth that stuck out of the snow and stopped herself just in time, about fifty feet below the trail and ten from the ledge. A few feet to the right or the left.... It’s best not to think about that.

I was horrified, needless to say. I shed my pack and tried to find my way down to her, unsure of what I would do, but needing to do something. One of the guides, Ivos, called out to me to stop, he would take care of it. This was certainly a better idea as the guides, though perhaps prone to errors in judgment, were sure-footed and experienced climbers. He slowly made his way down to her, cutting steps into the snow, and then led her back up. She was unhurt, but extremely shaken.

We should have turned around then.

“No, no,” Ivos said, “We are close to the cottage, we will help you cross the snow.” And so, somewhat reluctantly, we continued.

The other guide, Tereza, stayed with Courtney for the rest of the journey. When we crossed the snowfields (of which there were many more,) Courtney was harnessed and attached to her. It may not have made much difference if one of them had fallen, but it did help Courtney’s confidence. At any rate, it seemed the worst was over, nobody else fell, and we slowly made our way to the end point.

Then we broke out the harnesses.

We had rounded a corner, and there, sloping over the path, was the steepest snow incline yet, perhaps 80 degrees with nothing below to stop a climber from falling over the cliff and breaking their body on the jagged rocks far below. The guides had decided that none of us could take the crossing unaided, and so, working slowly for perhaps half an hour, they cut a long groove into the snow where the path should have been, and attached a rope line to the rocks to steady us.

It was too late to turn back, the guides assured us; besides, the cottage was just around the corner.

With a deep breath we lined up, had our harnesses inspected and were given instructions. Even Zach was worried by this point; it was obvious that if somebody really fell the safety line would do little to help them. Of course, no one mentioned this, but everyone was thinking it. One by one we watched our fellow hikers cross, sideways, facing a wall of snow, feet shuffling across the narrow indentation, every one of them slow and careful, every one sneaking a mistaken glance down to the drop below.

Finally, it was our turn. Courtney went first, I held my breath. She was slow and cautious, safe, but it was torture to watch her. Finally she stepped down onto the other side. I breathed, then stepped up onto the groove.

As I latched my harness to the rope, I was surprised at how happy I was to have it there. The nagging thought that it wouldn’t hold me faded into the background, it was a securtiy blanket that I was glad to use. I drove my pick into the snow and shuffled to the right, stopped, pulled out the pick and drove it in a little farther on, then shuffled over a few more steps. Half way through I paused for a moment.

Don’t look down, I thought.

I looked down. It was sickening, and I quickly looked back up. For the rest of the crossing I stared straight ahead at the snow wall. And then, I had made it. I carefully unlatched my harness and stepped down onto the granite path.

We waited for the others, and then with relief we rounded the corner knowing that we were almost done, that the worst of it was behind us.

Legs aching, packs wearing down our shoulders, muscles cramping, we made our way up a long, steep, snow covered hill, two steps forward, one step back, our resolve bolstered by the first sight of the cottage, a small peaked roof still far away and much higher than us, but visible. We were going to make it.

Evening came on, and we reached a small plateau just before the last snowy ascent, the cottage close. We rested and chatted; the guides went aside and conferred.

And conferred, and conferred. There were gesticulations, seemingly an argument. Finally they came back and told us the news.

The bad news.

The last ascent was too steep, the snow unstable. So many of us climbing would cause an avalanche, it was unsafe. It was too late to turn back, we couldn’t take those cliffs in the dark. “Put on all the warm clothes you have,” the guide said, “we will have to stay the night here.”

We would have to spend the night there, in the snow field, surrounded by granite walls on one side, sheer drop offs on another and the danger of avalanche before us. With no tents, no shelter, no means to make a fire.
There was shock all around, disbelief. The cottage was right there! Some of the hikers argued, but most of us preferred to not risk the avalanche and just complained as we set about getting ready for a cold night. In the middle of the field there was a rocky outcropping free of snow, we all headed to it and made our meager preparations to last till morning. Martina, Zach, Courtney and I were all afraid. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to freeze to death, exposed on a snowy mountain peak; all it would take was a sudden plunge in temperature, a freak snowstorm and we’d be front page news in the Slovenian papers.

“I just don’t want to freeze to death in June,” Zach said, “That’s too ridiculous.”

We started to put on our clothes.

“Oh shit, all our socks are wet,” Courtney said.

“All the socks on this fucking rock are wet!” the guide shouted back.

The hours of rain had taken their toll. Not just socks, but every article of clothing that we owned was at least damp if not sopping. But we put them on anyway.

We curled up into our sleeping bags, backs propped up on the larger, smoother boulders, trying to find just the right spot to snuggle up to the sharp cornered rocks. It was impossible to lie down, and we knew none of us would sleep that night.

The guide Tereza came and spoke to us for a few minutes before dark, giving us advice on how to stay warm. In the course of the conversation she told us something I still find upsetting:

“Yes, the old woman at the trail head said that this trail would be impassible, but we said ‘we will see.’”

“And now we see,” I grumbled. She left, and we spoke amongst ourselves, incensed that the guides had withheld this vital piece of knowledge. If they had told us that their only information about conditions on the trail said that it was ‘impassible’ we would have never come, and wouldn’t be risking our lives right now.

We talked for a little while as darkness fell, then as it became colder we retreated into our mummy bags. So far so good. Then the wind came, and the rain. I found myself curled up in a fetal position at the very bottom of my bag, all night I had to hold the opening shut with my hands to prevent the water from flooding in, exchanging right for left as they became too cold. Regardless, the water gradually seeped in. At least it’s not freezing yet, I thought.

A few hours later the rain cleared away and the wind died down. I took a peek out; the sky had grown crystal clear in a matter of minutes. It was beautiful.

And then all the heat escaped. My fingers and toes started to tingle; I wiggled them constantly to keep the blood circulating.

We passed the rest of the night curled up and shivering, every twenty minutes or so someone would ask “Is everyone okay?” their voice muffled by layers of sleeping bag. Each time the rest would answer back in the affirmative.

Finally the sky began to lighten, and hiker faces began emerging from their mummy bags.

Everyone was cold, wet, miserable, sleep deprived, in pain, but essentially okay. Zach had a touch of frostbite on his middle finger, but that was the worst of it. Not too surprisingly, everyone had had enough, no one was interested in the planned hike to the peak of Mt. Triglav, and we started our descent almost immediately. We took a direct route down to the valley floor, on the wrong side of the mountain from our bus, but much safer with a minimal amount of cliff and snow field crossings. We did have to go on the ropes again, and we did revisit some of the more dangerous crossings, but we made it relatively incident free to the valley floor.

Except, of course, for my own fall.

It was like this. I was shuffling my way behind Courtney and Tereza, thinking about how we were almost through and soon I would not have to worry about risking my life every half hour for any reason, when my left foot slipped. I tried to dig myself in with the pick but the snow gave way and before I knew it I was sliding down on my belly toward the bottom. I think I would have been okay if weren’t for those damn crampons. The thing about crampons is that they are very useful for preventing a fall, but worse then useless for recovering from one. Instinctively I tried to dig in with them, to put on the brakes as it were, but the effect was to flip me over into the air, adding to my momentum and completely disorienting me to boot.

Fortunately, there was a stand of scrubby juniper trees between me and the drop off.

Unfortunately, there were some massive granite boulders between me and the juniper trees. I’m happy to report that I received no permanent damage, no broken bones or anything. Just an enormous raspberry bruise on my right hip and a complete inability to sleep on my right side. Tereza trudged down and helped me back up.

And that was it. We made it down to the valley floor, walked a few more miles through the Slovenian countryside (absolutely beautiful) and collapsed by the river to sleep until the bus came at seven that night. We’ve spent the last two days in Prague asleep, recovering from our various exertions and quite happy to not have to think about clawing our way across ice-covered cliffs on our way to the grocery store, or weighing the risk of avalanche against the risk of freezing to death to decide where we’ll sleep tonight.

Oh, and the name of the tour company is "Adventura." Avoid!

Slovenian Pictures

Here are a few shots from our death defying adventures. The camera battery was failing, so we didn't take too many. A few notes:

The picture of the crowd of hikers watching the man with the rope shows the guide having just completed a slow crossing of a nearly 80 degree snowy incline. The rope he is holding is the one that we all had to harness ourselves to as we crossed.

The very last picture is of the cottage where we were going to stay the night. The rather grim effect was achieved via failing battery, but pretty accurately sums up our mood when we heard we would have to stay the night on the snowfield below.

That's all.