In Austria the Alps rise up to towering heights without preamble. There’s a pretty valley dotted with alpine houses, a small rise barely tall enough to be called a hill, and then – whomp – a 13,000 foot mountain. Right there in the backyard. All granite and topped with snow.
It’s a stunning backdrop no matter where you look. And we’re lucky to have family who live right in the middle of this enchanted land.
Mike and Selina (and baby Mena) have been wonderful hosts, showing us all the sights. Today the seven of us not in a stroller visited Eisriesenwelt – Austria’s Ice Cave.
When I think of a cave tour, I picture the ones back home where you walk up to a hole in the ground that some farmer fell in and turned into tourist trap. Usually there’s lots of signs posted about how dark the cave is, how slippery the floor is, and warnings about a small staircase. They even count the steps to reach the bottom so that folks with a hip replacement have a chance to chicken out.
So thinking this was another hole in the ground, I was surprised at the steep road up to Eisriesenwelt. The car climbed and climbed, twisted and turned up around switchbacks and hairpins. If I’ve translated the German correctly, and I think I have, that road is also used as a practice track for the Austrian bobsled team.
We tumbled out of the car, a little queasy, into a small parking lot with a hefty climb to the ticket counter. I was all but winded when we passed through the turnstile gates. “Where’s the cave?” I asked. People pointed up.
We started up a gravel path. And kept climbing. Steeper and steeper. Huffing and puffing. We climbed forever. Day turned into night. The seasons changed. And still we were climbing higher.
At last we reached a small wooden hut. Ah, good, I thought, we’re here. “Oh, no,” Mike said, “This is just the cable car.”
But then the real climb began. We were above the tree line, above the clouds, and climbing what I estimate to be a 70% grade. On the side of the path vultures were picking at the bleached bones of tourists who didn’t make it. And still we climbed.
The guard rails were ankle high and the valley floor was too far below to see. My vision blurred and my knees stopped flexing. Everyone else was sprinting along, a good two miles ahead of me. At one point they realized someone was missing and turned around. The last hundred meters were scaled by hanging on to Tim’s belt with Mike pushing from behind.
Then we were at the cave entrance. But there was no time to catch my heaving breath because our tour was starting. The guide announced that we would be entering the side of the mountain and would reach the summit via a staircase with 750 steps. I felt a tear freeze to my cheek.
Up we went. Into the cold and dark, climbing a staircase with 750 steps. The cavern was filled with ice floes, but I barely noticed. Every step was a life or death struggle. Once in a while the guide would stop and announce something that I couldn’t quite hear for all the ringing in my ears.
We reached the summit at last and the guide paused long enough to light a tungsten fuse nailed into the ice so we could see the blue glacier. My legs would have been screaming but they’d gone numb ages ago. I’ve got one word of advice for the Austrians: benches. There was nowhere to sit down, and before I could even come to a full stop we were headed back down the 750 icy steps.
An hour later back in the parking lot when I could finally summon enough breath to speak I had a few choice words for Mike, which I will abbreviate here to simply, Love ya too.