The AllureThe Apennines is a region that has the most wonderful, lung-filling air. Liquid Oxygen. Come for a breath and gasp at the scenery.
Okay, excuse there is no bike in the scenes, though I rode many of the extreme roads in the region. The mountains have that inescapable allure - ridges and pointed summits that call, and you just have go. Many a time I got myself into sticky, well, icy situations. Pretty much on the edge, and I came out unscathed. Looking back, I wonder how. Put it down to raw skill and nerve. Though I certainly became nervous up there when I was cornered, my ankles trembling and regretting that I'd got myself into trouble as I tackled an icy traverse or some steep gully. When I couldn't or daren't push a way through, I backed my way out. But only to return again, until I made it. It was breathless. Phew!
So I set off. Just me again. This an account blended together from the many times I ventured up - many, no, more than that, much more. Hundreds. The other guys headed for the beach to relax and booze. Every weekend I would do the same. Had to make the most of it during my work assignment in this wonderful region. What's it going to take to get them to understand. Huh, I got them out twice. Only one of them loved it.
The flank of the mountain rises above me as my thoughts stir. Bands of swirling mist and cloud sweep across the mountain - at one moment hemming me in, another, giving me fleeting glimpses of the ridge at which I'm aiming. But it's hard out here. Woes creep in. It's one heck of way to go - five hours maybe. Six thousand feet. Gees, that's a lot. Conditions marginal and the mountain ever steepening. But maybe it will clear. That's it, move up. Maybe it'll be alright.
Step, step - each tread scrunching into the surface like breaking biscuit. Okay without crampons. Never use them. Never owned them. But there's going to be ice up there. Gremlins attack my thoughts as the misty bands again envelope the mountain. I, sealed in the mountain's cloak, like a cloak of fear. I pause, wondering what the heck I'm up to. A sip of liquid, a bite on some candy - tough and half-frozen, like putty in my mouth. And then move on again. Each step bringing me closer to whether I'll make it or not. Even die. No, can't allow that. Too scared to learn what's beyond - maybe oblivion. Keep it safe, I say to myself once more, as I huff steaming breaths into the breeze that picks up. You're mad! Though I was never more sane. Hah! Above the melee of the competitive world of ego on which I look down - suits and evening parading, Ferraris. Sure I would like them, but my motives, entirely different. No, I've got it right.
Hours pass, each one, each minute a succession of steps and sometimes awkward moves amidst the mental chatter that spikes me. Yet it's where I have to be. There's something so intense about being next to yourself, though I learnt the meaning of "being beside himself" - the point at which your primitive wants to bale out because it's more scared that it can take. You get to realise that that part can take over. It's why I'm here - to be master of myself. The freedom-loving part. No, can't be ruled by something inside that's trying to dictate. Though I realise it's in the interest of self-preservation. But heck, if we didn't push the envelope we'd still be living in caves.
But then the mist creeps back in and I'm real high and isolated. I begin to choke because the tricky sections lie ahead. That gully, snake-shaped - a slippery serpent ready to spit, and then spit you out and down. So I ease around a corner and bypass it today. Up and over snow mushroom domes as big as trucks. And in my mind the unavoidable traverse which is the key to unlock the way to the summit ridge. Several times there I've stood on glistening ice, moving out, but then stepping back in frustration for all the effort it has taken to get that far.
I work a passage through the mist and reach the traverse, now glistening in melt-ice. Too slippery to stand on. Above me, a ledge runs parallel, yet it's only 8 inches wide. But I have to go for it.
Teetering, my axe dongs against the wall, resonating a dull ringing tone like the toll of a church bell across a graveyard. Gees, that was creepy. Luck deals me a good hand which leads me to a steep chute plastered in thick, soft snow. I punch and kick in. And I break out.
Panting with both effort and nervous tension I sit marooned because safe time has expired. A gift of now pristine weather with a sparkling summit ridge ahead. But I can't take it. It's 4-o'clock - way too late as the sun nears the horizon and my shadow begins to overtake me. Darn... damn, damn, damn. Really, I was shattered and scared as I nearly wet myself. Oh boy, I got to get down. But even here in such precious moments, I felt empowered.
The descent, I take an escape line out onto the open mountainside, the safe way, though it gives me displeasure. Five hours of sheer graft and enough tension to break a steel cable. No, soon I'll be back, as I trudge down shattered and exhausted. It's going to be a full bowl of spaghetti and a whole bottle of red wine tonight.
Where Eagles Dare
I venture up again. Bouts of mist and clear air taunt me, but too much effort gone into it all now. I begin push past the fear because I know it'll maybe be too hard to face it all again without summiting.
The traverse now in melt, and I kick in and reach the flank and the summit ridge. But heck it's creepy - a Dickensian scene where the jailbird steps out from behind a tombstone and gags me with his chains. I'm trembling again, so I slake it with a sugary biscuit and some liquid, huffing again.
The ridgeline half obscured, but I know the line from the summer as I meld into the step and cross billowing snow. The last to come as the wind picks up on the ridge and the summit nears and I reach the point where I know I'm going to make it because I won't turn back. It's marvellous.
A gaunt steel structure diffuses ahead of me - the giant cross telling me I'm there and I kick in before I slither down the face and into oblivion.
Elation hits me as the endorphins and dopamine flood my circulation, and where only fools rush in and eagles dare to tread. And now I sit in wonder at both the effort, the risk and the isolation. Yet I am whole here. My feet begin to freeze, though I sit it out absorbing the place and everything that it took to get me here, and I am rewarded by the incredible sight of a griffin eagle that soars in and hovers just above, circling, as he knows I am here. No, I didn't conquer a mountain. Only my fear. There were no words to describe it.