Weathering Heights | Jesse Duthrie

Swiss Alps

Walking through the hostel’s short hallway, I passed a few private bedrooms and two large dorm rooms. The petite Swiss woman, who had been reading behind the front desk before I showed up, showed me into the male dorm room; empty bunk beds lined the walls. Dirty sheets and crumpled maps provided evidence of those who’d stayed here before me. I joined two bunk beds together next to the window. Out the window stood tall mountains in all their grandeur, illuminated against a clear sky. Their grey faces blended into white tops. There there was not one building; not a sign of civilization.

I acclimated quickly.

Each morning I rose to the sunrise poking its head through the mountains. In that kind of environment, the pace of living slows down. The first day I went fishing, it took me fifteen minutes to reach the stream in the valley below. The next day, it took me thirty. I sat beside the river, casting a rod with finesse and elegance. I didn’t need to send the line far. Pleasure came from fishing itself: tying the knots, selecting and attaching the lures, sending out the casts, reeling back in. One day, I caught a perch. Another day, I didn’t catch anything. Both days were successful adventures.

A few days later, a new backpack sat alongside a bunk on the other side of the room. Patches covered the majority of the pack, and its beat-down straps and aged cloth gave it an air of expertise. The owner of this pack had used it to its fullest extent. The newest, nicest packs represent an inexperienced, naive traveler. The old, beaten packs always showcased the worldly – almost deity-like – status of their owners.

The man who owned the pack was a middle-aged German. I met him after a long day of hiking and fishing in a stream a few miles from the hostel. He greeted me in the lobby and we quickly started up a conversation. His English skills were strong and he’d been to this very hostel a number of times.

I talked about fishing, catching the perch, and the small hikes I’d made around the town. He smiled as he listened, although it seemed each time I talked he was waiting his turn to tell me another tale. One adventure, in particular, caught my attention.

“Ziz very mountain. I hike it vonce a year. Man, it iz a very tough climb! Zere are switchbacks. And zere are times when you zee down ze face of ze mountain and you are like ‘Oh my God!’ It iz very tough!” He relished himself in his memories.

I couldn’t focus on my beer. I leaned across the table anxiously awaiting each word. That night in bed, I decided to make the trek myself. The next morning I woke before the sunrise and packed my gear: a box of cereal, a whistle, two large canteens of water, granola bars, my sleeping bag, and my tent.

The beginning of the hike was smooth. Long winding roads curved alongside the mountain for the first few hours. Often I would stop and take pictures, or just sit on my pack and reflect merrily in thought. I saw wild horses running along a field next to one another, undisturbed by my passing. I smiled devilishly as I wondered how my friends were doing in their first semesters of college.

Cruising through the long winding trails nonchalantly, I wondered how the German could be so wrong. Just when I was thinking the hike to be the easiest and most beautiful I’d taken part in, I suddenly noticed where the trail was taking me. A half-mile in the distance, there appeared a nearly vertical face: switchbacks outlined themselves with safety ropes. When I got closer, I discovered this face went up a long way. I hiked slowly, as to not tire myself. After the fifth switchback, sweat poured from my face. The elevation of the mountain, the rough gravel terrain, and the narrow paths that left no lateral movement caused me to envy myself an hour before, when I’d been walking beside the horses.

The switchbacks came to an end after an hour. One. Grueling. Hour. I sat on an open dirt path, devouring granola bars and inhaling water, air, water, air. From there, the rocky terrain I continued on only had a slight incline. My feet stomped proudly and my pace increased. I thought I had conquered the worse.

I was wrong.

The moderate vertical terrain flattened out, and before me stood the peak of the mountain. From a distance, it appeared like a grey pyramid: something the Egyptians had built on holiday from Cairo. My pace slowed down. For every twenty paces up this irregular pyramid, I needed to take my pack off, throw it over the next rock, and climb myself up. Each rock felt like the peak of a miniature mountain that I would have to cross in order to reach the summit.

Arms and legs burning, I tackled the last of these, and all that stood between me and the summit was a twenty-foot pathway. Hardly two feet wide, each side lined itself with rubber railings. The sides of the pathway jutted straight down. Below one side stood the rock face I had just climbed. On the other side, a vertical drop fell so low I couldn’t see where it ended. The moment I began crossing, a hard wind slammed against my body. I ducked for cover and grabbed the railing with all the force I could muster. The wind attacked the mountain and me. I looked down at the face of the mountain and saw an infinite abyss. As my hair blew wildly in the wind, I tightened the straps on my backpack and stayed ducked down for cover.

To this day, I have always been surprised by my fearless reaction. I’ve always lived with a fear of heights. It startles me out of dreams and paralyzes my body when I get close to an edge. Yet, I stood defiant that day. The adventure needed to be completed. I could not let my mind overpower my will.

The wind died down. I stood back up and traversed the path slowly until I reached the summit and, once there, sat on my pack for over an hour. For a while I agonized over the pain in my body, but eventually my thoughts faded away and all that was left was the view of mountains below me. There was only my pack and me. I found peace in the solitude of my adventure.

The German man wished me goodbye as I departed the hostel two days later. I had my pack on, now close to seventy pounds with all my gear. Its shiny red material didn’t look new anymore; there were spots of dirt all over it. There were a couple of small rips, too, from the fishing gear. Proudly, I possessed a beat-up backpack. It looked like his, except not as tarnished, but I still had plenty of time to catch up.

We shook hands, and he gave me an English goodbye full of z’s. He grinned his big smile, and – infectiously – I shared one of my own with him. I was off to find my next adventure, off to destroy my pack.

Jesse Duthrie is a freelance writer from Connecticut. He graduated from Central Connecticut State University in 2012 with a B.A. in English. Outside of writing, he enjoys reading, snowboarding, and traveling. His work has been published in The Indian River Review, CT Explored Magazine, and The Helix Magazine

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