Free Spirit

(Excerpted from Free Spirit: A Climber's Life)

I remembered the stories we had heard from Father, who had stood on all the summits that we could see. Perhaps it was then that my desire to climb all these spires was born.

At last, the day came when we were allowed to go too. At five o’clock in the morning we were wakened up. I crawled out of the warm hay, pushed back the heavy barn door, saw the stars still in the sky, and with teeth chattering pulled on my clothes. I was not excited but I was full of expectation.

Half an hour later we set off up the meadow to the edge of the forest. Hoarfrost hung on the yellowed grass, and the pine trees rose up like black monsters against the bright cirque. A red splash indicated the beginning of the path that led down to the Munkelweg at the northern foot of the Geislerspitze, along from Bogles to Saint Zenon. Now the sun had risen and was caressing the North Face of the Furchetta. This gave the impression that up above was a touch of warmth in that unreachable world—as if the Geislerspitze were a gigantic curtain, a wall separating two worlds. The air was clear, coldly transparent. It carried every sound far and wide, so that we whispered instinctively.

At Weissbrunn Father filled the water bottle. The path led through a wood of dwarf pines, then in zigzags through the last patches of grass and past weather-beaten pines. The ascent of the cirque to the Mittagsscharte seemed endless to me. In the morning light the Geislerspitze seemed to surpass all concept of height. And beyond I sensed innumerable and still undisturbed secrets.

At the last tree, a crooked pine, which had grown to scarcely the height of two men, we rested. Father stuck his cigarette tin in a hollow stump, laid a flat stone on top, and said it was time to get going.
The climbing in the cirque was more strenuous than I had pictured to myself from my parents’ stories. The higher we went, the finer became the scree, the more I slipped backward at each step. Thus I soon learned that in climbing one uses the whole boot sole and preferably uses large boulders as footholds. “You must climb slowly and steadily if you want to reach your goal,” said Father wisely.

The first snow lay on the Mittagsscharte. And beyond a sea of peaks! On the other side we ran down the cirque as far as the mouth of the third ravine. We always picked the gullies with the finest scree and leaped downhill effortlessly, digging in our heels, so that the stones spurted.

“That’s the beginning of the climb,” cried Father. We stopped. A delicate splashing penetrated the silence: now and then a stone fell. “The sun is melting the ice that has formed during the night,” said Father, pulling the hemp rope out of his rucksack. My heart began to pound: the climbing was about to start!

We were standing at the beginning of a steep rock couloir. The walls to left and right were yellow, in places overhanging. My self-confidence failed me as I gazed upward. Jammed blocks the size of a house barred the couloir above me, and all the shadowy places glistened with ice.

Mother led, with Father close behind Helmut and me. Yet he did not rope us up. The climbing was far simpler than I had expected. There always was a ledge, a way to slip through. We were able to do without the rope until just below the top. No single pitch was anything like as difficult to overcome as the stone wall at home. Besides, a wire cable was fixed on the steepest bits.

I was tired and after each rise of rock my eyes searched for the summit. I was looking out for the ridge or a big cairn. To this day I don’t know what gave the climb so much suspense that I, a five-year-old, kept going. I could have sat down but I didn’t.

Then suddenly we saw it: “Yes, that’s the top,” confirmed Father. An airy ridge still separated us from it. To the right the face fell steeply to the Wassertal, to the left it was so exposed that I had not the confidence to look down. There was a man descending. “Very exposed,” he said, giving me a hand. I heard that word for the first time, understood it too. On the summit sat several climbers who had come up the east ridge. They shook us by the hand as if it were a proper party and we joined in the high spirits. I was infinitely tired. Around us only sun and wind, and beneath us, 1000 meters below, the Gschmagenhartalm, to which we must return that same day.

The Sass Rigais was a day out for the grown-ups; for me it was the beginning of a lifelong passion.

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