Innsbruck Airport. It is a beautiful sunny day sat facing the mountains, sugar coated with a remainder of snow in the steep vertical gullies that snake down their sides. Lovely to look at, deadly to walk on. It is now Saturday and we are sat waiting for a delayed arrival, hopefully not departure, of our Estonian Airlines flight home they were late leaving the UK on the way here so not really impressed. The scary air hostess was less trolley dolley more former east European shot put champion and I found the leather gloves she wore slightly disconcerting. I was afraid she would begin slapping me round the face each time I nodded off. Ah well let’s hope it lands soon and we can set off home, I will finish this piece whilst up in the air, quite appropriate really..
This Thursday just gone I went on a really nice, hard walk up into the mountains opposite Ellmau, our base for the week, leaving behind the comfort of the Hotel Hochfilzer, highly recommended, and headed up into the Kaiserbilde mountains. I had a number of route options and it was a hot morning as my wife accompanied me through the valley through meadows and light woodland, incredibly picturesque and by ten am it was already around 25 degrees Celsius, then it started climbing as I did. The route up was on good tracks at first, then footpaths through pine forest, then out into the open and up some really steep inclines until I hit the upper path. By now I was sweating a lot and the Platypus hydration system proving its worth.
As I broke the tree line it was time for a rest, a banana and some decisions. It was a little after noon and the next section was very steep and at least 2 more hours of this to the top, I was not sure about the descent of the horse-shoe route I was going to take as it appeared to be almost vertical for large sections after the second top and I could not make out a path at all using the map and this was a concern. But I decided the best option was to try the next couple of sections that I had divided my route into and see from there. The only problem was that this could mean a significant effort climbing higher only to return frustrated if the route was not possible for any reason.
So after my little rest of less than ten minutes it was onward and upward, by now it was really hot and I was tempted to go straight under the waterfall I was heading for. The sign said thirty minutes and it looked much nearer but was really tough going. Once there I rested for a few minutes then headed up to my next reference point up a gulley before traversing around a little buttress and seeing the tops proper. Once again a tough climb and now patches of snow on the path, horrible wet stuff and not good underfoot. So the next point gained as evidenced by a handy yellow arrow pointing my route and a spot height of 1701m. The bit of a gulley I had to cross was full of snow all the way up and below me, no footprints going across and no markers visible. Not good.
So I sat and thought, looking at the path if there was snow here then the next 600m climb around the corner was likely to contain more, getting across was a hazard and there was no handrail. The way down looked like a giant slide that would not be fun to try. I thought it too risky, plus I calculated at least 1.5 hours to the top, the first one and a good 1 to 2 hours back down, a fair bit of which would be climbing and probably on unmarked rock. I was well booted, had a fleece and full waterproofs, hat, survival bag, good map, compass, Swiss Army Knife, whistles (2), some water and a couple of bananas as rations. My wife was expecting me back down at 5pm to 6pm ish, I calculated a stab at the top would mean I would be lucky to get back to the hotel for 7pm at the earliest. Well it was only an option to top out if the conditions were ideal and I could do it in a reasonable time, it was not stacking up that way, so it was a slow drop back down to the upper path including a head first fall in some snow, an omen? Well good job I had put my glasses in their case and in the rucksack before setting off down.
At the waterfall I saw the first two people since leaving the valley, two rock climbers resting, then dropping further down to the path back round the contours, roughly, where I met three more people, it was getting crowded up here. During our conversation they told me a man was airlifted off from where I was headed the day before and another fell to his death last week, They said my decision to turn back was good as the snow up above was unpredictable, the decent totally unmarked and very difficult. Vindicated I strode off on a 3.5 hour traverse and descent. Very nice but very hot and tiring. The thing is with this kind of walking is it gives you lots of time to think and whilst ambling along the upper path I thought about the analogy between my experience shortly before and certain self defence scenarios.
The obvious stuff is knowing where you are and what the rules are, mountains are unforgiving places and can claim the lives of the inexperienced and unwary all too easily. You need good map reading skills and the ability to interpret the signs on the ground too, to watch the weather with one eye and plan and track your movements with care, poor map reading is the easiest mistake to make and can be very costly in terms of time and effort. Having the appropriate skills, equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. How many times have people got into trouble through having all the right kit but not knowing how to use it? How many times have people got hurt or worse because they pushed on regardless of the changing nature of the circumstances around them? The analogies with good self defence skills are very obvious I hope. If not you are not doing it right.
This is where the smash ‘em and bash ‘em brigade cause lots of problems. Self defence does not start on a mat or in a dojo and certainly not with fight training, if that was your starting point you left out a lot of all important prep work that will save you a whole lot of trouble and grief if you go back and cover it. That is like sticking on your boots and heading for the hills with no map or compass let alone any other necessary kit or knowledge. Just head out there and do it, it is only a walk after all and we can all put one foot before another can we not?
Good self defence skills include all those subtle people reading skills Marc MacYoung and Rory Miller write about, plus that indispensable knowledge base from which to make sound judgements in a wide variety of situations. It is not about having the right kit and/or the right training, both help for sure, but it about applying the right skills to solve problems that could not be for-seen and prevented. Good planning, prior knowledge and an ability to read the signs keeps us out of most bad situations, adaptability, skill and perseverance can dig us out of most others. Understanding the complexity of social interactions and recognising patterns and breaks in them are key self defence skills, knowing the rules is good too, what is ok for a stroll down the street may need rethinking if the street is a thinly recognisable track 2000m above sea level four miles tough walking from the nearest village. In everyday life we assume we know all the rules and we generally operate on a kind of autopilot, best not try this up in the mountains though as this is not our everyday domain.
Thinking of walking it is easy to see how this is done and I have seen good people make bad mistakes or take risks that they were failing to calculate properly, going beyond their existing skill set and ability. I have led completely lost and directionally disorientated people off white outed mountain tops before. Having read ‘Touching the Void’ does not make you a mountaineer after all less still a survivor when things go bad. Respecting the scale of these mountains is essential if most of your experience is in the British hills, here time and distance equations need careful consideration. This is the most fantastic place to come walking to lose yourself in the great outdoors but should not be ventured into lightly, there are well marked valley walks a plenty for the less experienced. There is no point courting danger for the sake of it, that said risk is ever present and if managed to your own acceptable standards it is fine. I had said to my wife that two days earlier on another mountain walk I was climbing through a beautiful pine forest with virtually no other soul around. It was again hard work and I thought if I were to have a heart attack here that would be it really, but what a beautiful place to check out if it came to that. Not that I am planning to though, I think my wife understood.
Just that the thought of being so alone in the wild does bring with it both pleasure and a reality check that after a few hours trek we are soon far away from most of societies safeguards and certainties. Up here contact with others, at this time of year, is infrequent and to be fair, not desired. I come up here to escape the masses of humanity for a little while, to breathe clean air and refresh my mind and body. The physical exertion necessary to get here and wander around, to explore is great, that is part of the fun and the sense of achievement. If it was easy it would be crowded up here and it is not. That for me is like life itself and I know it is an oft used analogy, that nothing worth having is easy, here it could not be truer. Walking in the valleys is fantastic, walking in the mountains is beyond mere words. You find yourself when you push yourself out of the comfort zone, going up high brings both excellent views of the valleys below and excellent views of your sense of self. It does not matter if nobody knows what you go through, you know, that matters, you know that you pushed yourself when it could have been so much easier, the reward is equal to the difficulty of the task in this case.
Well all good walks come to an end and after a thoroughly pleasant, if long descent without seeing another person, I reached the bottom and then made my way back to the hotel. Back for 5.30pm so the time estimates that informed my decision were confirmed and after a damn good 8 hours on my feet I was more than ready for the steam room, Jacuzzi and sauna. I made full use of these you can be sure. Come 7pm I was also more than ready for the farmer’s buffet and a couple of cool Austrian beers, Grosse of course. My wife had had a lovely day relaxing and reading as the hills are not her cup of tea. Me, I had enjoyed a fantastic day, 11 hard miles nailed with some seriously steep climbs and descents within that, not bad for an old dog. The whole walk had been thoroughly enjoyable and incredibly rewarding. The next day would see a 7 mile stroll through the valley with my wife as a rest day with more sauna, steam room etc at the end, plus the cool beers. Not a bad way to spend your days. You see I find the barriers between work, play and training are getting more and more porous and pushing myself physically and mentally permeates all three. Enjoyable as escape, as being in contact with nature, as being in contact with oneself, for sheer effort and pride in having got off my bum and done it, the rewards go on and on. The world is my gym, the outdoors the equipment.
Saturday finds me finishing this as we come over the coast of England which I can see between the clouds, I hear it is raining in Birmingham and at home. Fingers crossed it is not too bad tomorrow as I will be digging out the mountain bike and heading off out into the hills around where I live for a nice ride and circuit training session, Monday too as it is a Bank Holiday. Lucky old me 😉