Tuesday, 6 June 2017

CLAWING BACK MY YOUTH?

"Quite impossible!", you may say, and I may be forced to agree with you, looking at the two pictures above. Whereas a group of eleven year olds had, once upon a time, been frolicking up this mountain top like sprightly chamois, I barely made it, and only on all fours, lest I lose balance and tumble down into the abyss.

You are witnessing here a re-run of an event from way back in 1955. Pupils of a renowned high-school, the venerable BEA Graz Liebenau, had rounded up their first year of studies with an excursion to Teichalm (Austria). The mountain top they had ascended was Hochlantsch. Their older selves decided this year to have their 55th anniversay-of-graduation meeting at the same place.

Speaking of our Alma Mater, this was no ordinary school, so permit me to tell you its engaging story. It started out as a Cadet School, founded by Emperor Franz Josef in 1854. After the Great War, when a smaller Austria emerged from the Empire's ashes, fumbling for its raison-d'être, the state decided to restart the school as an elite gymnasium and boarding school, especially targeted at gifted pupils from modest backgrounds or from remote regions without access to such education. 
  
BEA Graz Liebenau. Main school (former Cadet School) building.
Photographer: Wolfgang H. Wögerer, Wien

After a short (and sad) interregnum, when the Nazi regime put its own imprint on the institution, the reconstituted Republic of Austria decided to restore the school to its former glory in 1947. It regained its status as elite gymnasium with universal teaching and kept it until the end of the 'seventies, when it was integrated into a reformed system of federal boarding schools.

In its heydays, the BEA's (there were more than one) contacted, each year, the elementary school teachers in Austria, asking them to single out, among their fourth-grade pupils, the most gifted and send them to the Länder capitals (e.g. Graz in Styria) for entrance tests. Out of them, some 90 boys were enlisted for an eight years' elite high-school education in Graz Liebenau. I happened to be one of those admitted to the cohort of 1954. This thanks to Frau Pieber, my first teacher, who had prepared me for the tests with special tutoring, during the afternoons when ordinary pupils could enjoy their free time. 

The education in our school was not only utterly comprehensive, encompassing both humanities and natural sciences – not to speak of art, music and sports – but also utterly demanding. Three classes of thirty students in the beginning were trimmed down to one class of some twenty in the end, and, out of those four students had joined the class years later. There are tight bonds between us, the few – the precious few, who made it; thus we are meeting every five years to celebrate our good fortune of having passed the "needle's eye".

Most of the few – the precious few, who made it!
Photo: Herman Farnleitner

Now on to this year's excursion, celebrating the 55th year of our graduation. As usual, it started with an inspection tour of our old school grounds, where the above picture was taken. Thereafter, we had lunch in our former students' mess, and – you may be surprised – even with two of our teachers present, Professors Jungwirth and Gugerbauer. Like most of our instructors, they had been in their twenties in our school days, due to the state's ambition, no doubt, to deliver us from any bad spirits that may have lingered from the totalitarian regime that had been terminated only a decade earlier. 

After lunch, off we went to Teichalm, following in the footsteps of our younger selves from 1955. There festivities began, with many a pleasant chat over dinner, to relive our eventful days of yore. Amidst the general ruckus, Herman Becke, the most hardy hiker among us, rose and challenged us all to climb the prominent mountain in the area, the Hochlantsch, the following morning. 

Sure enough, a small group of five assembled in front of the hotel at 9 am sharp next morning, eager to make the climb. The track started just behind our hotel, the Teichwirt and was quite pleasant to tread at the outset, inviting us to keep a lively conversation going along the way.

Here I am in lively conversation with school friend Volkmar Lauber
Photographer: Herman Becke

But soon enough, the path lost itself in the forest and changed into a steep incline, reminding us of the fact that we had an altitude gain of some 600 meters ahead of us, along a track that went straight upwards and into the clouds. No more chatting for me, thank you! Step after step, I stumbled upwards, rather stoically, keeping the eyes on the stony ground ahead of me, and this for almost two hours!

A short break for the Hardy Five.
From the left: Volkmar Lauber, Emil Ems, Helmut Kroiss, Hermans Becke
and Herman Farnleitner
Photo: Herman Becke




























At long last, and to my great relief, a marvellous vista opened up, showing the top of an immense glistering limestone cap, as if rising to the occasion of our memorial efforts. If you put your eyes on the cross, in the picture below, and let them slide towards the right from there, you are looking at a rather narrow ridge which we would have to clamber up on our way to the top. The last bit of this access proved embarrassingly difficult for me, since it implied balancing on narrow and slippery lime stone, always with the risk of sliding down into the abyss.

For a moment I considered to give up and back down the way I had come, but the prospect of reuniting underneath the summit cross gave me the necessary impetus to keep going. My friends, who seemed to maintain more vigour and balance in their steps, watched with amusement my manner of  proceeding on all fours.

A narrow ridge to reach the "Top of the world"!
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner

The reward came, when our small team assembled around the cross for a triumphant group portrait, emulating the title picture taken so many years ago!

The Hardy Five on "Top of the world", el. 1720 m
Photo: Herman Becke

From then on, it could only go downhill. However, as foretold by Herman Becke, who had been here many times before, the first part of the descent, down the back of the mountain (to the left of the title cross), would be quite intense. But, in fact, a new path had been forged out of the lime stone and we had no major problems getting us through those stony traps. Furthermore, after a good hour's labouring downhill, a welcoming vista could be discerned, even if still far below our feet. 

This was a well placed – and visited – restaurant, situated halfway down into the valley, just perfect for having a leisurely lunch before returning back to Teichwirt. We were quite exhausted by then and spent a whole two hours there eating, drinking and gossiping.

Like a mirage: the welcoming tavern "Steirischer Jockl"
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner


























Not quite two hours, though! Well before that, Herman Becke, our indefatigable leader, urged us on, or rather down an innumerable number of steep steps hoed out from the sheer limestone cliff below the tavern. This turned out to be the sidetrack to Schüsserlbrunn, one of the holy springs found at many a place in Austria.

It is a peculiarity of the Alpine regions, especially limestone mountains, where springs are rare, that natural wells are being venerated as blessed by Virgin Mary and considered curing all kinds of disease for those taking a sip or two. So it came to be, for this humble crack in the cliff, within which water is appearing drop by drop, that it was adorned with a small cross and chapel, as seen in the picture below. But not only that, a quite substantial church was added, like plastered to the cliff, welcoming pilgrims all through the year, but especially on 15 August, when it is difficult to find even a place to stand for those worshipping Godmother and her holy spring.

Schüsserlbrunn, a humble well, blessed by Virgin Mary
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner

Whilst admiring this simple but venerable crack in the wall, it occured to me that my water bottle needed filling. So I approached the crack with reverence, hoping for sustenance, if not healing for my ailing body. But getting into the hole proved quite impossible for this well fed senior citizen, with a stiff back to boot. Herman Becke to the rescue. He had filled his bottle there many a time before and knew how to spiral himself into the crack. It took some time to get the bottle filled, drop by drop, but eventually I had it back in my hand and could take a healthy gulp.

Herman helping me out with his flexible demeanour
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner



Thus refreshed the hike back to Teichwirt worked like a charm. There was just one bit of experience missing from the schedule. Early on, Herman Becke had promised us the experience of watching a rare animal, the Alpine Ibex. I was astounded to hear it, having thought this long-horned goat to be long extinct in our mountains. 

True enough, the last specimen was shot in the beginning of the 19th century. Not all, really, since the King of Italy, an avid hunter, wanted to keep a herd for his private shooting pleasure, and declared a small area in the Italian Alps, in the Gran Paradiso region, to be his Royal Hunting Preserve. Nowadays it is a national park. From there, the Ibices, or Steinbocks, have been replanted in several Alpine mountains, among them the Hochlantsch. 

Apparently, not having been hunted for almost a century, and much admired by visiting hikers, they are no longer as shy as they used to be and rather fond of us humans. Unfortunately, they had other plans for the day, so we did not get hold of a single bock. But a young lady we met in the tavern, a friend of Herman's, had indeed seen a flock and lent us her picture so that we have something to show for in this blog. 



This about ends this interesting outing of us veterans. But let me just round up the exposé with a little music, to vent the artistic aspect of our schooling. It is a melody that inspired us greatly, when we were young, and got us to start our own small band, in the upper classes. 

The picture below shows our ensemble performing at an outing in eighth grade, just months before graduation. We were then visiting our sister school (there were BEA's for girls too, in those days!) in Altmünster near Gmunden and tried to impress the other sex with our performance. Unfortunately, the music we played is no longer with us, but if you click on the picture, you will hear one of our forebearers, albeit from some thirty years before our time. 

Our teenage school band performing in Gmunden
From the left: Emil Ems, Udo Jonas, Raimund Wurzer and Claus Weyrich
Photographer: Herman Becke

6 comments:

  1. Ja - so wars - Emil du bist ein großartiger Erzähler - danke!
    Sehr herzliche Grüße
    Hermann

    ReplyDelete
  2. A magnificent story, Emil, about nature and human nature! Could you imagine 55 years ago that you would once again make it to the top!
    Per

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  3. Actually, it was 62 years ago, Per!

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  4. Lieber Emil!

    Wie schön, dass Du diesen gelungenen Ausflug mit Deinen ehemaligen Schulfreunden unternehmen konntest und eine bezaubernde Erzählung, wie immer bei Dir und natürlich auch die so aussagekräftigen Bilder. Danke dafür!

    Weiterhin alles Gute und einen wunderschönen Sommer!
    Ingrid

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  5. Emil
    What a marvelous trekking class reunion with your classmates.
    A fantastic reconnection with past and present educational institution and classmates.
    Thanks for sharing. Take care and be well.
    Blessings
    Creasie

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  6. You did it Emil! That is an enormous mountain, and clawing back is the appropriate word. I enjoyed seeing the mountain from different perspectives and seeing your "classmates?"
    Linda

    ReplyDelete