It was all going wrong. I had deviated off the white path just far enough to plunge my boots into icy water. The gale force wind I had battled to get here now seemed the least of my worries. Floundering in the soft snow, I wriggled out of my pack to get a grip on myself. The whole world had suddenly turned threatening.  What had seemed a bit of a lark in the planning stage now conjured up dark clouds in my brain. If my socks were soaked I would never make it.

If I could have had Dorothy’s wish at that moment, I would have abandoned my companions. I would have clicked my boots together and disappeared back to Kansas, my real birthplace. Back to someplace warm and dry. friendly and safe. After a summer in North America, winter down under was proving much too real.

In the Alpine region of Australia, in the Great Dividing Range, the first week of August is mid winter.  There can be some serious snow. And it gets cold. Not frostbite cold, but cold enough to kick you out of your comfort zone and make you think twice about thermals.

I had gone winter camping exactly once before. It was in Spring in the Sierra Mountains of California. The weather was above freezing and I don’t remember feeling even mildly uncomfortable. It was part of a Sierra Club course.  To get us in the mood, a sardonic physician showed us slide after slide of bodies he had helped recover from the mountains,  narrating the grisly show with the facts leading to each disaster. It was a litany of despair.

A number of the victims had made simple mistakes in preparation or judgment which cascaded into errors that cost them their lives. These were not candidates for Darwin Awards; simply ordinary young people. His mission was to jar us out of our feelings of invincibility and especially out of blue jeans.  Wet cotton is worse than death.  It can leach warmth out of a body quicker than melting icicles.

It was the rapelling (abseilling in Australian) that terrified me. The girl who fed me rope as I lowered myself off the face of a cliff told me later she had never seen such sheer fear outside of a horror movie. I was older than most of the others, old enough to realize that I could actually die. Walking backwards off the edge of a precipice seemed like the height of folly.

What was I doing now floundering waist deep in snow, hapless as a newborn seal.  Hadn’t I learned over the  years? I remember being captivated by Alan’s snow camping Polaroids.  He had passed them across the table like dirty pictures, his secret life.  We knew one another from cycling.

He was getting me hooked.  Winter is not something you get a good sense of here in Australian cities.  It gets chilly and it rains but it never snows.  The days grow shorter and the nights longer.  People hunker down as if it were something to be endured.

But I have lived in cold climes.  I love cross country skiing and the prospect of seeing winter in Oz had irresistible appeal. And Alan was very experienced. He’d been doing it for thirty years. He wouldn’t let me die. Would he?

This is the first part of a few posts on my recent adventure in the Alps. Stay tuned.

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