Getting lost in the traditional way

July 19, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

It was a group of 15 tough, experienced, highly trained alpine hikers. And me, so that makes 16 total.

I sign up for one of these treks when I need to drop 10 pounds. It's more entertaining than the treadmill, so for me it's sort of like Sir Edmund Hillary meets Jenny Craig.

Our mission was to traverse the Italian Alps, also known as the Dolomites, which are a mighty collection of toothy rock spires that dominate the skyline as far as the eye can see.

Even for experienced hikers, it's hard to find your way among these stately massifs - and personally, I have a better chance of reading the Dead Sea Scrolls in original Hebrew than a map, but hey, that's why you hire a guide.


Or so I thought.

Our guide - I'll call him Hans - was an affable Austrian with years of trekking under his belt. He had a keen interest in the mountains and an even keener interest in something called "grappa," which, as it was explained to me, is a high-octane beverage wrung from the dregs of the wine vats - sort of the grain alcohol of the Alps.

Hans announced that it was "traditional" for an alpine guide to march into the hut where we were to spend the night and order a shot of grappa to celebrate the conclusion of a successful day's hike.

From one tradition to another

Had he indulged in just one tradition we might have stood it, but in Hans' case, one tradition had a tendency to lead to another, and then the grappa tradition would give way to the beer tradition and then to the wine-with-dinner tradition until he had waded his way along a liquid heritage trail the width of the Hapsburg Empire itself.

Inevitably, we learned that Hans' abilities as a guide were more or less directly proportional to the amount of tradition he had exposed himself to the night previous.

On the third day, for example, we were struggling up the side of a cliff on a path that resembled a bare scratch in the thousand-foot rock face.

It is magnificent and dramatic, but the beauty has to be earned. Certainly, the Dolomites are God's own art gallery for scenery, but the meteorological soundtrack is composed by Satan himself. Perhaps 10 miles distant, we could see a squall charging down the valley toward us, complete with an arsenal of rain, snow, thunder, lightning and hail.

Its wrath would pass in 10 minutes, leaving us in bright sunshine for a while, until a different storm assaulted us from a different valley. Occasionally, these disparate storms would collide, the warring banks of clouds gushing skyward to the heavens like Yellowstone geysers before swirling angrily back down amongst the crags to the backdrop of lightning bolts and claps of thunder.

Since we were perched on an exposed cliff, hanging onto electricity-conducting wire cables at the time, we tended to view the progress of these storms with considerable interest. Needless to say, they left us soggy and fatigued and not in need of an additional three or four extra miles at the end of the day.

Which was exactly what Hans helpfully provided us with on this hike, since he led us down off a high alpine plateau, way below the point where we all knew the hut must have been - elevation that we sensed we would soon have to reclaim.

Wrong valley

Finally, at some point, the grappa must have triggered the right mechanism and Hans reached the conclusion that "I tink vee are in tee wronk valley."

The wrong valley? Wrong valley? I mean, wrong trail, we could understand. Wrong compass point? It happens. But the wrong valley?

That humbled Hans for an evening and he wasn't quite as traditional that night. But a day later, he was back at it, confidently leading us in the opposite direction from where we knew the trail must be.

More and more of us just stopped and watched as he led on around the rim of a glacial lake. Eventually, the inevitable happened - on the far side of the lake, we could see a huddle, much map-consulting and finally, an about-face.

When we got back to the starting point, we found a fellow trekker sitting on a rock outside the hut. An expert map reader, he just shrugged and said, "I knew you'd be back."

But to his credit, Hans rallied and led us to a successful conclusion to a magnificent hike, punctuated on the last day by a ride on a soaring ski chairlift.

We enjoyed the ride all the more because for once, we were sure that Hans couldn't get lost. Fairly sure.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

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