At the Ice Cave
If I were observing Father's day in Germany, I would be looking for a small wagon to fill with all kinds of German fare and significant amounts of alcohol. Then I would be rounding up a group of men and heading out for a hike with wagon in tow sans wife and kids. If I was a successful celebration, by all accounts I would be staggering home drunk and would likely arrange to have the following day off work. Fortunately for my family, we are no longer in Germany and besides that Germans celebrate this man's day on Ascension Day; which is already long past. We are celebrating Father's Day in Austria, although we are following the Canadian calendar; all the Austrian dads had their special day last week.
I was awoken from my slumber by the delicious smell of Hannah's home-baked scones wafting in from the kitchen. It was the beginning of a great day. My kids both had bought me chocolate and Abby supplied me with a small bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream (I am not sure how she sourced that--but I am not asking) and Hannah provided me with a small pill box whose top is emblazoned with the image of Ataturk; something to help me remember our trip to Turkey and remind me of all the back pills I popped when I was there. I am not sure if Hannah was intimating that she was concerned that I might not even remember I was in Turkey because of all the medication I took during my stay.
The weather forecast was for a real scorcher of nearly 30 degrees in the shade. It seemed like excellent planning that we were going to contrast such fiery weather with a visit to the world's largest ice cave a half hour drive away in Wefren. After finding a place in the parking lot we proceeded on a twenty minute hike which included walking through a 250 meter long tunnel to a small cable car that propelled us another 600 meters in altitude up the mountain. From here we hiked another fifteen minutes to the mouth of the ice cave itself.
Since the temperature in the cave itself is at the freezing level, it is strongly recommended to bring warm clothing and heavy walking shoes and anyone with health problems is advised to take a pass on the adventure. Partly because of these warnings and partly because of straight defiance of this advice, posted in several languages, the assortment of people on the trail was a spectacle to behold. We saw a Korean family whose kids were in ski jackets, toques, and gloves and a very large Indian family similarly arrayed. Considering it was already 25 degrees outside and they still had 15 minutes of steep walking it seemed unlikely they would live long enough to see the cave entrance. There were others just in flip flops and shorts without even a sign of any sort of bag that might be holding additional clothing. In addition to these stark contrasts there was the totally unexpected. There were several women in burkas and other is expensive saris and at least half a dozen men carrying kids between the ages of six months and one year of age. While I was busy imagining how this menagerie was going to navigate a couple of kilometers of stairways for 75 minutes at freezing temperatures I was further astounded to see an overweight elderly man leaning on two walking poles with an oxygen pack on his back. I was really beginning to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
At the entrance to the cave we quickly donned our fleeces, jackets and hats. The approach to lighting on the tour was decidedly low tech. A number of people were given open flame miner's lanterns to carry into the cave. The cave entrance was sealed with a wall and a barnlike door so when the door was opened the cold air rushed out with such force that half of the lanterns were extinguished upon entry to the cave. Our tour guide then lighted a magnesium wire to illuminate our area and proceeded to relight the lanterns. They don't use any electric lighting in the caves and any large scale illumination is done by the guide lighting magnesium wire. It is a little off putting when he is standing several meters above you and pieces of burning magnesium keep sloughing off his wire coil and drift down towards us poor saps below.
The cave system extends for at least 40 kilometers. Fortunately we only were walking in for one kilometer. Walking is not really an appropriate description. We were climbing an indoor river of ice which was mostly waterfall. In some sections the cave was over 40 meters high and at least 20 meters wide. Seldom did the cave get much lower than a few meters in height and several meters in width. It was difficult to believe that almost a 150 years ago someone had dared scale the 40 meter wall of ice that is located a couple of hundred meters from the entrance to cave. A few hundred meters further into the cave and at least 50 meters higher is a memorial and urn containing the ashes of the cave's most noted explorer who died during the Great War. Those first explorers and ice climbers must have been a crazy lot to have taken such risks.
Walk down from the Ice Cave
No photography was permitted in the cave, which was a bit disappointing but in hindsight there would have been little hope in documenting the grandeur and beauty by a few snapshots. The inside of the cave is a living ice sculpture. Every year shapes change. Inside the cave are ice columns a meter across that extend from the floor to the ceiling, there are also huge ice formations that look like elephants and pipe organs. These fantastical structures are not numerous; most of the cave that we saw consisted of rivers of ice and walls of ice. The ice walls read like a book recording the amount of snowfall and ice melt each year. Perhaps the most spectacular section we walked through was a descending staircase that went on for a couple of hundred meters through a tunnel of ice. It looked like we were descending down the esophagus of some colossal ice giant. It really is quite impossible to paint a picture of what we saw with words. We all left the cave saying it was unlike anything we had ever seen or experienced before.
We were greeted by a fiery furnace we call the sun when we emerged from the cave. We couldn't get rid of all our layers soon enough. We briefly explored a trail that branched off from near the entrance of the cave. The cave itself is two thirds of the way up a mountain face and the main approach is a path that has been blasted into the side of the mountain with a concrete roof to protect walkers from falling debris and a sturdy railing to stop anyone from falling the countless meters to the ground below. The branch path was a mere ledge with a steel cable attached to the cliff face that you can hold onto for dear life if there were any hint of a breeze that might upset your balance. It was definitely mountain hiking Austrian style, no place for anyone in a burka or carrying an oxygen tank.
Flirting with death helped us work up an appetite. We headed back to the cable car station which also happened to have a patio and Austrian style chalet nearby which served up local fare. The view from the patio was world class. We ordered schnitzel, rouladen, beef soup with cheese dupplings and an Austrian version of mac and cheese. I of course also had a wonderful glass of refreshing beer. As our German server would soon ask, Ist gut? I could honestly say ist very gut indeed.
After lunch we headed down to the parking lot, but not via the cable car. We decided to get a one way ticket up and hike down for a bit of an adventure (the savings also helped pay for half of our lunch--I guess my Dutch heritage is showing). The descent was on a trail that was a marvel of engineering in itself. It was a very tightly switch-backed path that offered mostly unobstructed vistas of the valley below and the mountains opposite. It took an hour to get down, we couldn't imagine how long it would have taken to get up. Twice we had to traverse a very steep slope of scree that looked more like the remnants of an avalanche. The view was great but the stability of the slope we crossed looked extremely questionable.
At home I took the time honored Father's Day nap and spent a great evening with the family having more classic Austrian/German food. This I washed down with another new drink, lemonade beer. It is a low alcohol beer beverage consisting of 60 percent lemonade and 40 percent beer. By the amount of shelf space dedicated to this kind of beverage and other citrus fruit combinations in stores it must be a popular summer drink in these parts. I am surprised I liked it and even Abby seems to have developed a taste for it.
It was a Father's day I will never forget. Dar gut!