Friday, August 31, 2012

Hiking in South Tyrol -- Day 8

Der Ortler is the mountain dwarfed by this big rock
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The radio announcer says, in the most delightfully full-of-spit South Tyrolean accent, that today and tomorrow will be the hottest days of the year. They will, in fact, turn out to be the hottest days in years. And we're headed to the tallest mountain in South Tyrol: Der Ortler. We're not going to climb this mountain, but it will be there watching us as we walk up the mountain next to it.

About 30 minutes into the drive I look down at the navigation screen. "You must have entered the wrong location, Goaty. We're not driving to Norway, are we?" The screen indicates that our destination is almost two hours away.

"It's correct."

Stone towers built by hikers
"Goodness," I say, entering Oslo for the fun of it. "We'll be driving today longer than we'll be hiking today. Is this place still in South Tyrol? Oh, look. If we keep driving, we'll be in Oslo by noon tomorrow."

"What do I want in Oslo?"

"I'm sure there are plenty of goat-breeding jobs there."

What's left of the glacier
We drive and drive. The radio announcers' "hottest day of the year" repeats every five or ten minutes. One announcer gives advice not to drink sugary drinks, one warns the elderly not to spend too much time outside. "Hottest day of the year! Hottest day of the year!" It's the theme of the day. Finally Andreas the mountain goat breeder says, "It's going to be hot today."

"Really? I hadn't heard," I say. Humor.

"Hottest day of the year," he says.

Over 100 people fit into this gondola.
When we finally park our car at the Talstation, it is in fact over 90 degrees. The station is very modern. The gondola lift is enormous. In fact, it turns out to be the largest gondola in the world with a capacity of more than 100 people. We never ride the gondola up the mountain, only down.

The path begins in the forest but soon climbs out and curves along the side of the mountain. In no time, we are on a broad, steep path in the searing sun. Yay. This place reminds me of the path up to the Stubai glacier in Austria. The higher you go, the grayer and rockier it gets. There are no trees here and only a few patches of grass where tiny flocks of sheep graze. I talk Sheep to them a bit and finally get them to talk. It is amazing the palette of Sheep voices here: everything from cute baby Sheep to deep, moaning grandpa Sheep. I baa baa at them for maybe three minutes, and they're all baa-baaing back. It's a Doctor Dolittle moment.

We make it up to the Bergstation in less than two hours (exactly the amount of time it took us to drive to this mountain) and eat our lunch. Most people ride the gondola up to this station, take off most of their clothes and lie in the sun. One remarkably tan man is walking around like a broiled peacock. I wish I could have taken a picture of him without getting beaten up.

This is not the end of our hike. There's another hut higher in the mountains. The only problem is that we'll have to walk back down from there. There's no gondola. We do it anyway--because I'm game. The walk is steep but not steep enough to keep hundreds of people away from it. It's Saturday, so there are a lot of Italian families on the trails. One family has even brought their CAT along on a leash. Poor cat.

It takes about an hour to reach the hut, which at first sight looks like a futuristic igloo, but turns out to be a cheesy palm garden bar for the winter ski season. The traditional hut is behind it.

"I'm going to continue up the mountain," Andy says, in true mountain goat breeder style, as I return with my reward: a glass of weissburgunder.

"I'm going to drink this glass of wine and enjoy the sun," I say.

"Suit yourself," he says, trudging off. "But I will be thinner and you won't."

Two sips in to my wine, I hear Andy's voice. "Ohhhh, that was exhausting!" He's back, beaten by the mountain. "It's really really steep and goes nowhere. Is the wine good?"

It's a beautiful day. Up here in the mountains it's nowhere near as warm as it is in the valley. There are so many people here at this hut--which is obviously meant for the winter skiing crowd--tucked into a mountain of gravel. At the star-shaped bar where we're sitting I can imagine hundreds of après-ski bunnies wearing sunglasses, sipping on hot drinks with rum and talking about heavy boots.

The walk back down is easier than I thought it would be. The gondola is packed to capacity. Back in the valley we visit the Messner Mountain Museum because we have free tickets. It's a tiny museum devoted to ICE. There are lots of mountain paintings and a few exhibits of mountain climbing gear. After 10 minutes, we want to leave, but we're embarrassed to do so. We walk around for another 10, feigning interest in the paintings, and then make our exit. I can't help thinking the Messner Mountain Museum would benefit from a gelato bar. There was one fun exhibit. What looks like a wooden door (and is in fact) on the wall is actually an interactive video of an avalanche. When you open the door--the guy at the front desk had to urge me to do so since I was wary about touching the art--the video of an avalanche wiping out a little hut begins. I opened the door eight or nine times and said "Cool" each time.

And now I must be off,



Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type.