An officer and a gentleman
Early morning, on the dot, 06.00 AM., a loud voice throws us out of our bunks.
“T A G W A C H E ! ” ….Robotic like, we stumble to our feet, daily routine, our limbs sore from strenuous exercise.
Tuck your bed, grab your rations, gear, equipment, all ready for the longest march leading us to some of the highest Alpine regions within the Eastern parts of Austria.
High mountainous region of the Wechsel, training grounds for the Austrian Army
07.30 precisely our trucks begin to roll.
The drive takes about 2 hours, and we reach our destination, Mariensee.
Captain Walter Lukesch gives instructions to his junior charges and we set off.
Right from the start we climb in zig-zag pattern, a steep, breath taking mountain trail, cutting through dense forests of firs.
We continue in a sharp pace, one after another, zig – zagging along the mountaineers trail.
Extreme physical efforts
Within half an hour we all feel the tremendous efforts it takes to carry near 20 kg of Alpine gear, rifle, helmet, and personal supplies up a steep trail.
The Hauptmann is a powerhouse and drives the company along and up the steep trail, outpacing all of us.
He carries the heavy radio equipment on his shoulders but has no Alpine backpack like the rest of us.
Our panting becomes unbearable, the speed of the ascent is almost barbaric.
Well into 2 hours after commencing, our first victim of exhaustion collapses on the steep trail.
The company grinds to a complete halt.
We take cover left and right of the trail like in real wartime situations.
We are on a military exercise after all.
Surrounded by nature
Here, in the alpine wilderness, no sound can be heard except the occasional song of a cuckoo, and the mountain buzzard.
Whilst we welcome the unscheduled rest, we are concerned about our colleague who collapsed because of exhaustion.
More climbing ahead
And we know the worst is still ahead of us.
Our captain shoulders our colleague’s backpack onto his chest and off we move to yet higher grounds.
Hoch Wechsel range
Sheer endless climbing ahead
Up and up we climb, with the lower areas hardly visible because of dense forest.
Within minutes, Capt. Lukesch ( our commander ) has outpaced us again.
We find it hard to keep up with him.
Double the weight without a hint of exhaustion
With double weight to carry he shows no sign of the slightest exhaustion.
His stamina is unequivocal.
When we finally reach the top, the trail leads on a lesser slope.
Just then we are instructed to wear our chemical masks.
Chemical warfare training
We nearly suffocate under the rubber mask, sweat runs down our faces.
Nobody has time to think about the other’s misery, we all are tired and worn out.
Finally the command to remove the masks is given.
Physically exhausted, frustration sets in
At the time we were angry, frustrated and saw a beast in our Hauptmann.
But we knew, he was doing his part to turn us into real Soldiers, nothing less.
The meaning of endurance
In those days we knew what hard exercise meant, and it felt good at the end.
Without pushing your body to the limit you will never understand how much it can give.
Mountain slopes with pastures
The ‘ High Wechsel ‘ mountain range
Long after, well into the afternoon we reach our summit, the highest point in the massive glacier, the ‘High Wechsel‘
When we pass the first heaps of snow, the Captain forbids us to drink the ice cold water that emerges from under the ice bed.
Danger lurks under the snow
The risk of contracting pneumonia was not a welcoming thought, and as such we observed his instructions, even though everyone longed for the icecold water.
The first stop is after the peak, we are taking a break of 30 minutes.
From here the trail now it goes downhill, through a harsh landscape, still at an altitude above 2000 meters. Alpine meadows harbor cattle in summer, but stand empty now in early spring.
Forests and blue skies
Border county of Styria and Lower Austria
The “Feistritz Sattel“, crossover pass between two mountains comes into our view, still far away. We know there are still hours till we finally reach our target.
After reaching the town of Trattenbach, the trail steepens again and we take a final onslaught to our day’s destination, unknown to us.
The mountain ranges around us, the view towards the glacier we have climbed, we notice how far we have come.
History lessons on WWII
All around us beautiful nature, unspoiled, untouched by humans. Towards 18.00 PM finally we come to a standstill.
The Hauptmann giving us lessons about the final days of World War II when Storm troopers of the Nazis defended this last stronghold against Russians invading from Hungary.
Artillery and railtracks
Railtracks were laid, up here in the mountains, carrying ammunition to the heavy Artillery positioned up here.
The once well-built command post did nothing to stop the Russian Army to finally conquer this last held territory of Nazi Germany.
A calm night follows
We assemble to take instructions for the night camp, preparing our tents, logging fires and start the night watch.
We camp amid fir trees, above a mountain stream where we fetch our water.
Finally, we take over the night watch in turns of 2 hours, and relax on the forest ground, separated only by a thin sheet of plastic from the wet undergrowth.
THIS WILL BE CONTINUED
( END OF PART 1 )
Below: Austrian traditional Accordion player recorded in Graz, Styria
Episode to follow
In the next part we shall elaborate on the final onslaught taking us to an old inn on the peak surrounding the area of Trattenbach.
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