Monday, August 9, 2010
Pelican Brief at Meiringen Switzerland
This tale is about the over sized pelican (I hope it is a Pelican) that stays in my house. It is also about an off the edge adventure but above all a sweet little story from life. The pelican is funny and it sits in my drawing room, making every visitor laugh and scaring a few. This is the story of how this bird found her way from the Bernese Alpine meadows of Switzerland into my house.
We would have to go back in time and give the credit of this to the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his story ‘The Final Problem,’ Conan Doyle decided to eliminate his detective and Holmes’ arch rival Professor Moriarty in a deadly duel where they finally meet atop the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland and while engaged in hand to hand combat both slip from a ledge and hurtle to their death. This, as Doyle had decided, would be Sherlock Holmes’ last story. But public outcry from all over the world forced him to resurrect Holmes from the dead soon. But while doing so, the sleepy locale of Reichenbach Falls; the little township of Meiringen in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland became an overnight hunting ground for all Sherlock Holmes fans.
I am or used to be a die-hard Sherlock fan. I could actually recite lines from all of his 56 short stories and four novels though could not remember any of my subjects in school. Well, I can’t do that anymore and I don’t delve in Sherlock memorabilia now but I do still read the master detective’s exploits. Therefore, on my first self-financed trip to Switzerland when I wrote down my wish list of things to do; a trip to Meiringen was high on priority. Visiting the place seemed easy since it involved only a slight detour to reach my top favourite part of Switzerland; the Aletsch Glacier that is home to such mountains like Monch, Jungfrau and the dreaded Eiger.
From Bern I took a train to Interlaken and after a day of walking along the shores of Lake Thunersee, which so often gets overshadowed by other Swiss lakes, boarded the tiny train running on narrow gauge between Interlaken and Meiringen. It’s pointless trying to capture the passing scenery as every aspect of nature in Switzerland is a delight to experience. Soon enough I get off at Meiringen station and feel excited to be in the proximity to the place where Sherlock Holmes fell to his death (almost). Spectacular scenery and rising mountains in the background is sure to raise your pulses in Meiringen but then I have seen such vista many times; Sherlock Holmes made all the difference.
From the station I take a lift to the town centre. Meiringen is a small sleepy township of nearly 4000 people engaged mostly in farming or tourism industry. It has large tracts of open ground outside the housing complexes with the backdrop of a fabulous mountain massif and located amidst a quiet verdant valley. Though not strongly on regular Swiss tourist circuits, the town gets many visitors from the continent and neighbouring countries of France and Germany, not to mention Sherlock fans from all over the world. The sloped roof houses, typical of Swiss design are spotless and picture perfect and so are the lush forests and streams running everywhere. The town’s other claim to fame being the place where Meringue was invented. Though debatable, I find the thought comforting. Of all its variants and applications, Baked Alaska is my top favourite.
Finding the Holmes museum is easy as there are large conspicuous sign boards and markers right from the station urging the visitor to reach the place. I reach the Conan Doyle square and stand outside the old deconsecrated church that now holds the museum in its basement. The great sleuth in a statue form sits atop a platform on the garden outside puffing his famous pipe and looking thought full as ever. I feel his presence though I know he never existed in mortal flesh; such is the power of Doyle’s writing and collective belief in cult following. The museum holds the usual Holmes memorabilia of hats and pipes, books, magnifying glass, life sized figures, etc similar to the ones in the London museum at 221 B Baker Street. I soon leave the museum and follow the signs towards the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls.
I cross the magnificent River Aare, which at Meiringen enters a spectacular gorge and winds its way further north. Reichenbach Falls water too joins this river. I take a customary toe-dip into the river and gulp its ice cold water for the record.
Reichenbachfall-Bahn funicular railway (cable railway) takes visitors up to the platform high up along the waterfall from where they can see the exact spot from where the pair had allegedly fallen. I avoid the railway and opt to walk up the steps next to it all the way to the top. As I emerge out at the top of the cable track, I find a Sherlock Holmes cut-out (with the face left missing for visitor’s to place their heads and take pictures) near the ledge along the thundering waterfall. From my vantage point I am awestruck by the five distinct cascades of the waterfall as it drops through nearly 250 m and is mainly divided into the upper and lower waterfalls. The upper falls with a continuous drop of 100 m is among the highest in the Alps and the sound of the impact with the bottom is deafening. The air is filled with atomized water spray. The actual ledge from where they supposedly fell is on the other side of the falls; and I climb the path carefully to the top of the falls, crossing the bridge above and follow the trail down the hill to the point where the ledge ends. A plaque marks the ledge and I read the English inscription: At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty on 4 May 1891.
And then, out of nowhere, the quiet noon turns into a nightmare and a game of life and death; a game I am acutely familiar with.
As I take out my camera to get a shot of the plaque, a shrill cry of help in German and English tears the still beauty of the place. Though I can discern the languages I can’t make out what is exactly being said, other than ‘help, please help.’ The voice comes from my right and little below. I find a narrow path leading away from the ledge into the woods below me. I trot down the slippery path and soon take a turn and come across a scene straight out of a Hollywood thriller, only exception being that this is in real. I find a woman and a young boy, totally distraught, looking down over the steep drop from the narrow path and shouting for help. They are crying their hearts out. Seeing me appear out of nowhere, the lady rushes to meet me. She drags me by my hand while saying something totally incoherent, and brings me to the spot where the young boy is looking down with tear laden fearful eyes. I go to the edge and look down and what I see sends a shiver up my spine.
Narrow ledges, straight walls, vertical drops and death are all my friends and part of my vertical world. They don’t scare me or deter me from doing what I love doing; which is to often hang out from such places by choice with my similarly inclined friends or alone. But what I see here is something I wish I never had to see. A little girl, no more than five or six, is clinging or rather hanging from a tiny little ledge and a branch of a tree, between which she has got stuck, around 30 feet from where I stand. She is badly injured; bleeds from her head and seems unconscious. She is wearing full sleeve jumpers so I can’t see any other body injuries. The slope from the edge of the path where we are, down to the girl is nearly devoid of any holds and is more than 70 degree incline, and it becomes totally rocky and smooth and vertical just below the place where she is stuck. There is a drop of several 100 feet below her. It’s a miracle that she got stuck between the ledge and the tiny branch and they both could give way any moment.
To attempt reaching her unaided and free one had to be either a suicidal fool (since it’s certain to kill the person and the girl) or the finest rock climber in the world; and I am neither, far from it. I don’t have a rope or my rock climbing shoes (even with them I wouldn’t attempt such a steep and exposed face) or any of the self-anchor or arrest gear. There’s no way am I capable of down-climbing the slope to reach the girl and get her back all the way up. One slip and I would hurtle to my death. The girl is severely injured and might die of exposure and blood loss shortly and we have no time to lose but to attempt to rescue her with my limited resources and climbing skills for such terrains seemed out of question.
My brain takes less than a minute to run through and weigh all possible options and rules out each one as impossible. The girl is doomed and so is anyone who tries to save her. I have never felt this helpless before. The mother and her brother look at me as their only hope and I look up to God for a miracle. I am not scared of death but this is futile, even if I do make an attempt I will not survive. And I realize I am not ready to die, not here, not today, not while doing something so futile and I feel for the first time my inadequacy to climb like Spiderman on sheer rock faces. Precious minutes evaporate and the girl seems destine to die either way. The mother too has now realized that I would not be able to save her daughter and she collapses on the ground, filling up the forest with her anguished cry. I feel worthless. Barely few minutes have passed since I arrive on the scene.
Out of desperation I up turn my rucksack and rummage through whatever I have and discover one 12 inch stitched sling and my Swiss knife. I am not carrying anything else at all that could be used as a rope or for anchor. My mind conjures up all the impossible climbs I have done or seen all my life and all the possible uses of these two pieces of equipment I now have and what I have done with them earlier, running all possible scenarios, trying to find a way that could save the girl and I, since by now I had made up my mind that come what may, if I didn’t attempt to rescue the girl, her face is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.
I have always wanted to die buried deep inside some high Himalayan Glacier where no one would ever find my body; if I died here, my heart said, my body would at least be within the vicinity of glaciers. And then I remembered that there’s a trekking trail that passes by the top of the falls, that was around 150 ft above us, which is frequented by serious trekkers and they are sure to carry ropes. Now if I could reach the girl by some means and then anchor myself to the tiny ledge with the sling and hold on till a trekker came along with a rope then we both would survive. While if a trekker did not arrive then we both die; as simple as that. But where we are is totally hidden from the trekking trail and no one would come by; well no one has since I have arrived, so the young boy had to go up to the trail, find someone with a rope and return before we fall. I explain my plan to the young boy, who nods his head and runs off and soon disappears into the jungle.
I lie on my stomach and stare down the smooth face of rock and mud and feel my heart thumping against my ribs and my stomach coiling inside my abdomen. My head swims in a tizzy. Proximity to death, especially when it is planned and out of one’s own choice, clears your sensory perceptions and vision like never before. I can now distinguish every fissure and undulation on the slope and see that there’s barely any large enough to put the very tip of my toe. There are large patches without any hold where I would simply have to use my full body friction to reduce gravitational pull to minimum and no way can I allow my body to slide out of control; if that happens then I won’t be able to arrest my fall and I would plunge to death for certain.
I coil the thin arrester rope of my Swiss knife around my right wrist and grip the blade straight like an ice axe. As the mother silently watches me, now in an incomprehensible manner (her mind must have stopped working), I lower myself over the edge, inch by inch right above the girl. I look down and place my right toe on a tiny rocky knob. There’s no place for my left toe and it hangs in empty air. There’s a root right on the edge that I grip for my life and lower the full extent of my body down and over the edge. I can feel the vast gaping emptiness beneath me as gravity begins to pull me down. I am glad that I am five kilos underweight and in peak physical condition. I plunge the knife at right angles into a fissure like a piton and finally let go of the root with my left.
I find a thin runnel and insert my left hand fingers to make a fist jam and the sharp edges immediately cut my skin like razor. Now I am safely anchored on three points. I lower my body looking down, trying not to look beyond the girl, and find a foot placement for my left toe and let go of my right hand. It is amazing how human body and mind work once you accept that death is inevitable and take the thought of your demise completely out of your constitution. Mind calms down, heartbeat normalizes and your stomach feels less squishy.
I know I will die within the next few minutes if not sooner and there’s no way I can reach back up to safety and I actually begin to enjoy my last few moments on earth. I down climb mechanically, using the moves that are ingrained in my genes through years of routine and practice, purely by reflex even as the strain makes my knee shiver uncontrollably and both my hands bleed profusely. I am covered from head to toe in mud, rock dust and grime, my mouth is dry and throat completely parched and I don’t hear even my mind. The few minutes seem like a lifetime and I find myself with the girl. I rest my weary legs on the tiny ledge and check her pulse. Though faint, she is breathing and alive. There’s an ugly crack on her forehead and the blood is dripping still though some of it has now clotted, reducing the flow. I tie my handkerchief around the cut as tight as I can.
I gingerly put my full weight on the ledge and feel it move, so does the branch that is sprouting out of the sheer wall. I anchor my left arm with the sling to the branch and perch myself as lightly as I can on the ledge and wait for something to happen. There is nothing more that I can do now.
Minutes tick by and I feel the ledge move millimetre by millimetre, emerging out of the wall, due to the combined weight of the girl and I. I have no idea how long would it stay. I hear no sound from above; perhaps the mother has fainted, the brother has not found any trekker; and at worst he might himself have fainted or injured himself somewhere up there and no one was going to arrive for us anyway, now or ever.
Balancing myself like a badly askew trapeze artist on top of the ledge with emptiness below I wait for the inevitable to happen and end the agony for once and all. Funnily enough, as I can recall now, more than the thought of death, what I found more upsetting at the moment was the manner of my death, which by then was a certainty. My death would be treated like that of an ordinary foolish sightseeing tourist who had no knowledge or experience of mountain climbing and to me that was unacceptable.
As I watche the breathtaking valley far below and silently speak to the setting sun, suddenly I hear a lashing sound and something hit me like hammer on my head. My head seems to have cracked open and I feel angry that on top of my present woes now even rock fall wouldn’t spare me for that’s what I thought had hit me. Then something hit my face from the side and I knew that no rock falling vertically from top is capable of such a manoeuvre and I realize through my frozen mind that it is a length of rope dangling next to my face. I don’t think even the sight of any of my girlfriends had ever given me that much of joy and pleasure as that piece of twine. I look up and find two men staring down at me, holding a rope apiece.
The second rope lowers a harness that I quickly strap on to the unconscious girl and clip her safely to the rope and soon she is raised from top. Few minutes later I collapse on top too into the arms of my rescuer. The other fellow and the mother along with the brother have already started off for the road on top. We follow, while my companion tells me that they were hiking towards the waterfall when they met the brother. They have a car at the park 2 km away and they would take us to the Meiringen hospital. Thereafter it becomes a mad rush to get the girl to the hospital, through the twisting mountain road, without killing us all in the process.
I tend to the girl with the first aid kit the two hikers have with them. One is an aspiring Swiss Alpine guide; hence the first aid kit is very well stocked. Had the hospital been far I would have had to stitch up the girl, but now I apply pressure pads and icepack to arrest the flow and clean the gash as much as I can. Miraculously she hasn’t suffered any other major injuries anywhere else on her body. The mother and her brother were hugging each other in a corner silently. Our rescuers had already radioed the hospital and the emergency ward was standing by.
The girl is admitted in the hospital for the night and I am discharged after cleaning of my superficial wounds. The two fellows offer me refuge at their lodge for the night, which I take with utmost relief. We speak of our climbs and treks and guzzle gallons of wine and fill up our stomachs under the alpine sky, listening to the rush of a nearby stream, sitting around a fire and I feel completely at home.
Next morning when I arrive at the hospital, I find the little girl fully awake and having a wholesome breakfast. She looks frail and exhausted for sure but has the brightest smile possible. Her mother gives me a tight hug and refuses to let me go and the hospital staff treats me as a hero and my ears turn red in embarrassment. They had no idea that they are actually hailing a fool and not someone courageous at all. The girl doesn’t speak any English, but she knows who I am and she kisses me on my cheeks and hands me over the pelican as a parting gift. That’s her favourite toy and she never gives it to anyone, the mother explains, please take it and never throw it away. Pass it to your child when you have one.
It’s difficult to tear myself away from the girl, she is angelic and I feel a deep connect to her. For a certain period of time I and she were joined for life and death. Then it’s time for me to catch the bus that would drop me at the top of the mountain. Everyone hugs me and I kiss back the girl and finally leave with a heavy heart. I am sad but I am happy. Life is full of adventures and unexpected happiness. One gets over for another to begin and I had a trail awaiting my steps. The bus drops me at the beginning of the well marked trail that runs through Reichenbachtal Valley and through Grosse Sheidegg would eventually take me to my final destination, Grindelwald where my friends are waiting for me at the youth hostel.
I take a final look at Meiringen, now far below my feet and think of the little girl who would eventually grow up to be a bright young woman soon and I smile at the Pelican now poking its head out of the top flap of my sack. I punch her nose and she seems to say, ‘Ok mate it’s time for us to hit the road again.’