“There is something I must tell you” Youseff says as he stands braving the cold at the open door of the minibus. The morning is dark without the brightness of moonlight and puddles of water and ice reflect and transform the city lights in a way that seems almost natural. Youseff is an odd little man, just five minutes before he turned into a hurried, panicky mess rushing us into the minibus. A bizarre transformation that made me think of him as a little frightened animal scurrying away from a powerful but disinterested predator. He averts his eyes, looking and no one in particular when he says “We will have to do a short hike to get to the top where the snowmobiles are kept. It is not hard, maybe it is 300 meters.” He mumbles something about the rain being bad for the snow before he looks right at me and says “Is this okay? Can you do this? You must tell me now or else we will give you a full refund.” A little flummoxed and insulted, I would soon come to regret my flippant response of “Well we’ll do it or we’ll die trying right?”
Arriving at the Lygen Alps, there is a sense of urgency as we change into snow suits and boots and I can only assume that the short hours of “daylight” is what motivates the speed at which zips are pulled and belts are buckled. It concerns me that our helmets are strapped on for the “300m hike” we’re about to undertake but I assume it is a standard safety rule here. I am handed a walking pole and told with no sense of ceremony “This will save your life, hang on to it”. Convincing myself that my now heightened fears are irrational, I push forward and we begin the hike. Starting the climb, the changing landscape and the sound of the ice and snow crunching under my boots are fascinating. Here and there brave spots of green poke through the stark whiteness, a small stream not yet frozen flows unhurriedly, meandering and seeming more concerned with the journey than it’s end point. I stop and take a look around wanting to fully immerse myself in the breath-taking beauty around me, knowing that before long we would have reached the end of our climb. The group of Chinese travellers on our tour playfully toss snowballs at each other while Youseff protects his face and we all laugh and enjoy the revelry.
It is about two steeps climbs later where the path is laced with ice so slick and impenetrable that no boots can find footing, that I find my setting taking my breath away in an entirely different fashion. “There, up ahead” says Husband pointing to the point at which the mountain seems to plateau, indicating that our journey was approaching it’s end. I tell myself to stop being silly and to enjoy the last steps but when I get to the top I find nothing but a small patch of level ground and a series of hills more menacing than the next. “Youseff, how much longer?” I say sweating and panting. A smile and an unconvincing “Oh, just a little bit longer” as I contemplate what it would feel like to lay down in the snow and stay there until I am rescued. Somehow, we push on and at the crest of the steepest incline, I arrive helmet in hand, hair slick with sweat and proclaim my victory to an unconcerned audience. Youseff, having witnessed my triumph, asks if Husband and I if we want a picture and of course I do, having just conquered the beast of the snow covered incline. I feel victorious, strangely unconcerned with the fact that we have still not arrived at our destination and I approach the next incline with a fool’s arrogance. Ha! You cannot defeat me! (It is even possible that I said this out loud) I stomped my way through, emphasizing the power in my steps until in one dramatic moment half of my right leg seemed to disappear beneath the snow. Wild victory turned into cold panic as I realised that there was a distinct possibility that I could be pulling my leg out of the snow having lost both my pride and my boot. But alas the boot remained steadily in place and luckily everyone else was too busy huffing and puffing their way up the hill to notice my madness.
When we are finally at the top, even the dichotomy of machine and nature, the snowmobiles an unnatural deep red and the snow bright and pure as if made of light itself, seems beautiful to me. A short lesson on how to operate the red machines and we were off. I have never seen the world in such monochromatic splendour before. Thin tall trees, almost black and entirely leafless punctuated the vast whiteness, telling stories not of a barren landscape but of stories latent with the promise of fertility and life. There is a sharp bend around a rock that breaks the surface of the snow and as we turn it seems that the peak we’re traveling on unravels all the way to the ocean. It is almost sad to see the snowmobile tracks curving between the trees and creating tracks across the expanse of otherwise untouched snow. It is as if we had entered a world so sacred that our mere presence sullied it. The last of the light was fading in the sky and the darkness approached in an engulfing manner, the lights of our snowmobiles seemed to carve a path of light that opened and then closed sharply behind us. It was time to head back, time to brave the treacherous slopes in a race to see whether the darkness would beat us to our final destination. Almost two kilometres and two successive and altogether uncoordinated falls later and we have arrived at the destination where we will spend the night.
The fatigue that I expected did not come and later that evening, staring up into the night sky I was not disheartened by only catching a glimpse of green in the sky for I had seen beauty that I never knew existed. Later, over a glass of wine and my first taste of a double stuffed Oreo, I laughed at Youseff’s beguiling description of the brevity of our hike. I suppose I have a lot to thank him for, so I can forgive him for playing so loosely with the truth. Perhaps without his little lie and he story that last week a 76 year old granny climbed up the mountain to go snowmobiling, I would have never gotten to marvel at the monochromatic splendour and peacefulness of the mountains. So thanks Youseff, you are an odd little man but you inspired an adventure I will not soon forget.