At the Sella Pass in Val Gherdëina, South Tyrol, Italy, The BB and I are pushed into the telephone box cable cars by the attendants. Two passengers to a booth – standing room only. The agility of those scrambling aboard determines how far towards the precipitous drop the attendants must run in order to stuff them in and snap the door handle shut. There is much hilarity amongst those in the queue.
Then follows a long, gently swaying ride. At the other end, the attendants gesture (increasingly frantically) for passengers to face opposite the direction of travel. They yank the door open, grab the arms of the front occupant and extract them before hastening after the second. To softly and suddenly become a still point is surprising. (The numerous cable cars I have ridden have all had side exits. This is a different sensation.)
It takes only a short walk to leave the Refugio Toni Demetz beneath us. Harnesses on. Up the rock. Along a gravelly slope with a path 20cm wide at its narrowest. It looks treacherous from below and technically is since, in places, a foot placed outside the path could result in a fall to the ground tens of metres below. But such action would, in reality, require effort.
We wind around the rock, scale an exposed arête…
…and find ourselves in the secrets of the mountains.
One cannot reach here except by climbing. These places are hidden – like treasure.
We linger at the top, savouring the views and the emotions.
The descent involves many abseils and some scrambling.
The refugio grows gradually bigger, threatening us with life on the horizontal.
As I walk the final path down the scree, normal life draws and repels me like a mad magnet. It is compellingly ‘other’ up there. I am aware of the landscape and the ‘me’ I leave behind whilst knowing that what I have experienced will subtly affect me forever. I am lucky.
Next to the cable car station I stand at the map which labels the panorama spread before me. An old Italian man strikes up conversation. I recognise very few words but I understand that he is telling me about his special spot – a grassy hill much lower down, encircled by peaks, including the one on which we stand. It is a gift from one mountain visitor to another.
As he chats, a group of ageing nuns exits the cable cars, grinning.
In the hut, abuzz with warmth, literal and figurative, we eat next to a guide and his two clients whom we met on the peaks. Other customers are hikers (there is a path through the narrow pass) or simply riders of the cable car.
The mountains are a privilege even as they are the backdrop to normal life. I am always aware of my great fortune in being in them. Sometimes it seems almost an honour.