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.
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.
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.