Saturday, December 17, 2011

The day my hair froze...

Friends, I cannot move. Every single muscle in my leg is already cramping with soreness. Oh, but was it worth it.
So, as most of you may know, my boyfriend is quite the adventurer and outdoors junkie. That's not to say that I am not, but he is usually the one that initiates things and I come along for the fun! From ice-climbing and mountain biking in Peru to zip lining in WV, we've had many adventures already. So, when he approached me with the idea of going snow-shoeing in Austria, I said, sure! As I always am, I was a bit wary at first and always question my current stamina and conditioning for the activities he picks out, but I am so glad I went!!!
We booked a day trip with Yannick, who runs this one-man trekking business based out of Vienna called Trekking Austria. Anyone looking for an experienced and fun guide, I highly recommend him!!! (I also think this would be a great activity for Fulbrighters in the spring...if we can waltz, we can hike, right? Anyone interested??). Oh, and have I mentioned Yannick is a former French marine?!
So at 7 am of this dark, cold, rainy morning, Greg and I got picked up at the Westbahnhof by Yannick. It turns out that because of the weather, we were the only ones signed up for the trip--he kindly still ran it and even still gave us the group rate. We piled into his little car and headed to Steiermark (Styria) to a region named Semmering. Yannick explained to us we would be hiking a loop up to the summit of Stuhleck, which reaches 5846 ft. at its summit. With regret he warned us that we wouldn't be able to see any of the mountain ranges surrounding Stuhleck, since the weather was so awful. The entire climb to the summit was predicted to last 4 hrs. and then another 2.5 hrs. to reach the bottom again (we took a more direct route headed down).
We set off right after 8 am and in no time I was working up a sweat as we veered off the normal hiking trail onto rougher terrain. For anyone who hasn't ever walked in snowshoes... they are awkward at first and you have to walk a little wider than normal, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. We walked through the woods, climbed up rolling cow pasture hills, climbed over logs and through barbed wire fences, hopped across babbling brooks, admired evergreens dusted with snow and enjoyed the peaceful presence of nature.
Until, that is, we reached the summit.
Yannick had warned us right before we reached the plateau that we would have to walk more quickly, that we should add on all layers we have, and that the wind would be particularly brutal. Oh, was he ever right!

Friends, I love nature. I really do. But when we hit the plateau and moved beyond the protection of the nice, tall evergreens, nature seemed to release its full aggression on us! I have never physically been out in a blizzard before, but after today, I think I can say that I have. The further we climbed along the plateau, the stronger the winds got, blasting cold air and snow onto us relentlessly--it felt like tiny little pins on my face. Soon I was doing everything I could to keep my head down, turned slightly to the left, trying to tuck as much as I could behind my hood. Visibility at this point was about 10-15 ft. ahead--Yannick tried to point out the hut we would be taking a break at on the way up, but I squinted as hard as I could and still couldn't see it until we were literally standing directly below it. It was everything I could do to just keep putting one snowshoe in front of the other. I kept channeling warm, happy thoughts about our upcoming vacation in Florida over Christmas break...
When we finally reached the hut, I was so incredibly happy to see it--walking those last 200 meters reminded me of what it felt like the first time I ran a half-marathon. Relieved, happy, proud,... and utterly exhausted!

And then I realized that my hair had completely frozen over. I no longer had hair. It was a huge chunk of ice attached to my head! The picture is on Facebook, along with others from the trek.

Luckily the hut was nice, warm and cozy so it thawed relatively quickly--we had hot tea and soup to warm up our bodies, while our coats, gloves and hats hung over the enormous stove heater in the middle of the hut. Places like these are really common on ski slopes and trekking mountains in Austria. They are tiny little restaurants nestled on the summit of a mountain, and normally provide several rooms to stay the night for people on longer treks, as well. I asked Yannick how these places stay stocked over the winter and he said normally the business owners stay there all winter and some even have supplies flown in by helicopters. Getting "snowed in" takes on a whole new meaning after hearing that...
And Yannick was right about the lack of visibility--all the pretty mountains were hiding behind a thick, grey cloud (the same one that was responsible for the blizzard-like conditions...).
After we refueled, we made our way back down. Walking down in snowshoes is a bit more challenging than going up. You sort of have to sit back on the shoes and use your poles more to make sure you don't slide down the incline. (And, in case you are wondering, going back down the plateau was just as crazy as it was going up it--at one point I almost got blown over, couldn't see a thing because of the ice pellets and had to extend my mitten-clad hand in the general direction of Greg, while helplessly and pitifully shouting out his name...Being the patient and considerate man that he is, he came back and held my hand the rest of the way down--and remained close behind me for the rest of the trip down!).
Once we reached the safety of the forest's edge though (we kept joking about how we felt like we were in Narnia or Lord of the Rings), the weather condition improved a LOT! We wandered into the woods with fresh powder snow about 2 ft. deep and Yannick showed us how you can literally run down the hill in your snowshoes. It was a lot of fun! These forests had evergreens with branches so heavy with snow I thought they'd snap off at any moment. But it remained completely serene and beautiful. Snow was falling softly all around us, as if nature was trying to make amends for its bad behavior on top of the mountain. It was amazing to see how many weather conditions we actually walked through in the course of the day.
The rest of the walk down was pretty uneventful. We used a trail that--get this--a lot of people use back-country skis on to ski UP the hill. Crazy, I know. They do a 2 hr. hike UP to the summit in their skis and then ski back down. I mean, talk about outdoor commitment. I had never seen back-country skis until today and they have special adjustments and also special boots that allow you to be able to glide upwards in them. Sort of like a fusion between cross-country and downhill skis.
So, if you ever get the chance, go snowshoeing! And as bizarre as this sounds, the weather up top made it feel even more like an adventure and a true accomplishment to reach the summit. Plus, now I know what the Romantics were talking about in their poetry--its indeed a humbling experience to witness nature in a fury.

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