Too Many Blessings
Joachim Apitz is an educated man; he is old now. At the time of the story I am about
to tell you he had just reached retirement age and I was a punk in my mid twenties.
Joachim’s problem was that he had not grown up in the so-called free world. He was
born in Dresden, East Germany, eventually grew up to be an engineer and dreamt
his entire life of seeing and maybe climbing the Alps.
That is where I grew up.
He had done quite a bit of climbing himself in the east german climbing mecca of
Elbsandstein, which has been a protected area since 1956 thanks to some visionary
people. It was later popularized by Climbing Star Bernd Arnold.
It kept him sane – he said. I had just become an aspiring Swiss Mountain Guide. After
“the Wall” came down in 1989 he started saving his Deutschmarks and in 1994 he
made his dream come true. He and his wife Else were on their way to the Swiss Alps.
That is how he and Else walked into my fathers post office in the little town of
Stalden which is located about a half hours drive south of Zermatt and the famed
Matterhorn. They had just come in for directions, but a nice conversation a couple
glasses of wine later, my parents offered up their little studio apartment in Saas-Fee;
yet another amazing mountain town one valley east of Zermatt.
I met Joachim a few days later in Saas-Fee after I had just come down from the easy
glacier summit of the Allalin. Joachim and Else had been hiking on the trails below
the majestic peaks. He kept asking me questions about the mountains above and
told me that there had been a photo of the Matterhorn hanging above his desk for 30
years. For the most part, he had tought that he would never get out of East Germany,
let alone see the Matterhorn. There was no way he was going to be able to climb it
now at his age, let alone afford a guide. I was young, had extra time and there was an
amazing honesty about this man; so I offered to take him up the Allalin. I did not tell
him that we were going to have an amazing view of the Matterhorn from the
summit. I got him equipped in town and the next day we made it up the Allalin in
perfect conditions. Just as we crested the summit ridge, we got this clear view of the
Matterhorn and when Joachim reached the summit, he touched the cold metal
summit cross and fell to his knees and cried. Through his sobs I could hear him say:
“Dear God, I cannot believe, you are letting me live this day…..”. It was maybe for the
first time in my life it became clear to me that I had lived a life of too many blessings
and not enough appreciation. He had waited literally his entire adult life for a moment like this deprived of all the
freedoms we enjoy on a daily basis.
Many thank you’s later we parted way in Saas Fee. I have not seen him or Else since,
but my parents kept in touch and apparently they have not stopped travelling since.
He is 84 now.
I moved to the US a couple of years later and discovered the savage beauty of the
North Cascades. The first time I travelled deep into the rugged valleys, I felt like I
might have found what I had been missing in the Swiss Alps. In my naïveté I thought
it simply was untrammeled American Wilderness and I remained oblivious to the
fact that many resource extraction companies had had their eyes on some of the
most beautiful valleys in the Cascade Range. Had it not been for men and women
with great Conservation foresight – I might not have had the level of inspiring
experiences – the ones I had imagined for years.
Once I started having kids, I started telling them about mountains of raw beauty in
their own backyard and it started painting a picture in their mind.
Recently my now almost adult daughter returned from a trip to Hidden Lakes Peak.
It was her first solo foray into the mountains she had heard so much about and just
like Joachim and myself, what she found was even more impressive than what she
had imagined – thanks to men and women who fought for our blessings.
From the Outdoor Research Verticulture Archive: