Mountain Guiding: How To Lose Friends And Terrify People

MikeachimThe Everyday18 Comments

Kreuzspitze

We’re on the summit of the 29th highest mountain in Austria, and we’re going to need to call for a helicopter.

So believes a member of my walking party, anyway. A good portion of the last hundred yards of the Kreuzspitze has been a near-vertical scramble, and it’s given everyone the willies. When you’re past 10,000 ft up and there’s bare mountainside behind and below you, an increasing sheer way forward is the last thing your strung-out nerves need. Clambering your way over huge boulders that look ready to pop out the mountainside and bounce you to your doom? Also not terribly reassuring.

Our mountain guide is oblivious. Some people have a flair for leading people, an innate Spideysense of when spirits are flagging and how hard to push people for their own good. They soften and warm their voice when someone needs reassurance that everything will be ok. They crack finely-judged off-colour jokes when things get too serious. They watch and they listen, and they never, ever disappear into themselves. This guy, while being amiable, knowledgeable and having a leathery, crevassed face that spoke of extensive mountaineering experience, didn’t understand other people. Leading us off one mountain, he broke into a bounding lollop that took him a quarter of a mile ahead of us, then looked surprised that we hadn’t aped his terrifying method of descent. He admitted at the dinner table that he hardly knew the South Tyrol area at all. He hung out with the same very small number of people in the group, day after day. Fail, fail, fail, on and on.

And here he was, leading us onto a cliff face. That’s what it felt like, even if later photos expose the lie of that feeling. A vertical ascent, right to the point we tumbled backwards into oblivion. Warning: death.

So, one girl started freaking out.

“There’s no way I can get up there! NO WAY! OH GOD!”

I was surprised. If there was anyone I was expecting to wig out, it was the schoolteacher. Early in the holiday I’d tried to engage him in small talk – a thing I found painfully difficult as a self-conscious 21 year old on his first solo jaunt away from England. I was here to meet people, wasn’t I? And the hot girl with the brown hair was more interested in someone else? (I knew this because she turned up at my hotel room carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses – having got the wrong room. I redirected her, then went out and got drunk). So why not chat with the schoolteacher? He’d at least be interesting! Ten minutes into breaking the ice, I learned a valuable lesson about intelligence – it doesn’t stop people from sounding like idiots. This guy was smart all right. But as we all discovered the day we summited a ridge on the Austro-Italian border and he threw his arms back and started screaming this, he was also a complete tool.

Kreuzspitze 2

Somehow, we’d coaxed freaking-out lady up to the summit of Kreuzspitze. She sits clutching her knees, her face pinched white with fright.

“You’re going to have to call for a helicopter. I’ll have to be lifted off. I won’t go down that way again. I just….I just can’t“.

At the same time we’re comforting her, our guide is poking around the base of the enormous cross that gives the mountain its name. There’s a metal box, and he opens it, attracting the attention of other members of the party. One asks him what’s in it.

“A notebook, filled with names,” he replies absently.

“Why?”

And in a voice that carried from one end of the summit to the other: “Probably a list of people who have died up here!” *

As I said – some people aren’t cut out to be mountain guides.

* It was probably one of these.

Images: keichwa and fabianmohr.
  • Mike, this is brilliant. Love the details, esp. the brown haired girl with the wine glasses, and general hilarity of this story. And of course, the last several lines, which almost had me on the floor.

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Phil. :)

      I’m ashamed to say it’s all true. Even the wine glasses thing. Firmly into the category of “oh, you can’t make it up”.

      But it’s not so tragic. Her and the bloke she was chatting up, it appeared to fizzle. And I took enormous, mean-spirited delight at seeing it happen. Yes, I was miserable, but hey, so was everyone! That’s a win in my book. And very British, somehow.

  • sharon miro

    You made this all up, right? No one can be that damn dumb. I mean the girl with the wine glasses. She obviously went the wrong direction.

    • Jimbo

      The wine glass thing could’ve been worse. She might have wanted to get drunk with you because she’d just been dumped and saw you as a ‘friend’. This leads to either a) an honourable and deeply tedious evening or b) utter caddism.

      On a lighter note, you missed a chance to stick a pin in your map. Tut Tut

      • Mikeachim

        I live my life somewhere nearer (b) than (a).

        Or at least I aspire to.

    • Jimbo

      You realise Mike looks like Makka Pakka?
      http://www.inthenightgarden.co.uk/en/visit-makkapakka.asp

      • sharon miro

        Jimbo: the fact that you know Mike looks like Makka Pakka means that you have far too much time on your hands.

        On a lighter note, I bought one.

      • Rich P

        Mike has more in common than just the looks. This from the website:

        “Makka Pakka also enjoys collecting and washing small stones”

      • Mikeachim

        I can’t deny.

        That said, I’M COMING FOR YOU.

        But yes.

    • Mikeachim

      I wish I was making it up. But alas. I have her expression snapshotted in my memory, complete with the bottle in one hand and wine glasses in the other. Right up to the point the door closed again, I found it utterly hilarious. Then the closed door metaphorically conveyed the situation to me in a way I couldn’t ignore. Drinking followed.

  • I’ve had experiences where I needed a calm voice – I think I would have gone off on the guide!

    • Mikeachim

      I’m still amazed he didn’t end up crucified, literally.

  • Lisa

    That guide is certainly not fit to lead anyone. I would have panicked, too. (but then, I don’t like heights)

  • that is AWESOME! great telling of the story… I think I would be a great guide!

  • Daveth

    Nicely written – enjoyed that….

    Did you collect any small rocks to polish whilst you were up there…..
    I reckon it was the Og-Pog that put her off Mike….

    mmmmmakka pakka….

  • hahaha. I had a skydive instructor once who told me before we did my first tandem dive that it was his 50th birthday, he was feeling depressed, and then he waited to pull the ripcord until the last minute….most thrilling experience of my life. Great writing man, great blog. Thanks.

    ~vago

  • Nice story. Very interesting!! The capped surrounded by the snow. Nice guiding. Keep it up!

  • Lan

    great read but i found the guide’s response to be utterly hilarious.