Joan Larsen’s Travel Stories: A Near Tragedy in the Austrian Tyrol

Posted on September 19, 2012


By Joan Larsen

A True Story

The young boys – best friends – had reached almost the top of that mountain in Austria when Bill’s foot slipped and he plunged 200 feet down the rugged mountain side, landing on a small ledge.  From above, my son Steve saw no movement, received no response.

What was to have been an afternoon’s trek up the glorious “pearl of the Alps” in the Austrian Tyrol of Kitzbuhel, Austria, by two 15-year-old boys who were spending the summer in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, became much more.  Coming over from the States in a group, each morning was spent in class learning German.  Some afternoons were planned, and some used as an opportunity to independently soak up the people, the culture, the landscape.  A dream trip – or so it seemed.  But now it had turned to what looked to be a tragedy.

Little did the two boys know that their only good fortune was to lie in a chance encounter with an American boy their age who asked if he could join them on the climb up.  German classes or not, not one of the three was that proficient in the language that they could even put a sentence together well.

It was to be this plight that almost became their downfall.

In a split second, a joy-filled afternoon became tragic.  No one else was climbing up.  No one else had seen this.  But from there they could see a sprinkling of climbers far above – those who had already safely climbed to the peak.   Plans were made quickly.  My son Steve had to put full trust into this boy – this stranger – who had joined them, hoping he would be reliable, praying that he would find help.

Steve must quickly climb down the rock-strewn 200 feet to the ledge his friend Bill was on.  The other boy – the stranger to them – said he would climb to the mountain top, hoping to find someone who spoke English so that help could arrive quickly.  The plan made, one edged his way down to the ledge where his friend lay, the other climbed to the peak.

When he reached him, Steve’s friend was blood-covered and in shock.  How a 15-year-old would know enough to instantly realize he had to take off all his clothes to cover his friend I still do not know.  But Bill was cold, shivering, incoherent.  And so he did.

And then he waited.  Time passed.  The other young boy had found no one at the top who could understand his German or speak English.  He climbed down to where the fall occurred, calling over the edge that he was now on his way down the mountain for help.  “Wait,” Steve called.  “I need your clothes also as Bill is very cold.”  The boy – this boy they had not known before – stripped to his jockey shorts, and Steve climbed part way up to gather the clothes thrown down.

“I will get help on the way down somehow,” the boy offered.  And then he was gone.  Steve did not even know his name.  Now he was left on the ledge with his friend with only a hope and a prayer.  It was 4 p.m.

During the hours when no one came, Steve kept Bill going by talking of anything and everything except mentioning his friend’s injuries… and the large amount of blood.  He did everything to keep him awake when his friend started to drift off by making him laugh – anything.  Evening came.  And with it darkness.  But help didn’t.  It now was getting colder.  Steve’s  clothes were still keeping Bill warm and alive by covering him.  Steve was now quite chilled.  Afterwards, he never said what went through his mind at that point.  He just talked about everything and anything about their lives together as kids and best friends.  Bill later said that the flow of conversation meant to keep him alive and awake never ended.  Their dilemma wasn’t mentioned.

Only much later did they hear that their companion – now trekking down the mountain in jockey shorts and Nikes only – and approaching anyone in sight – was shunned as a hippie no doubt – or not understood.  His remaining garb would not exactly inspire confidence in the truth of the tale he was telling, and it was only when he got near the base of the mountain that he would finally find someone who would believe him.  And help him.

High on the mountain the two boys were now in total darkness – two fifteen-year-old boys on a thin ledge of one of Austria’s greatest mountains, the Kitzbuheler Horn.  Far below, but still unknown to Steve, the police had finally been notified.  A group – including a “climbing surgeon” – were about to climb up, attempting to locate them on a ledge on the mountain side in darkness.

The night on the mountain was to come to an end.  Powerful flashlights spotted them.  A warm coat covered Steve for the trek down.  Bill was taken by stretcher to a hospital.

But the night had not ended for Steve.  He had to fill out a police report on the accident.  It had been a very long day and would be a long night.  The next morning’s Austrian newspapers had the story on the front page with a headline.  Their companion – who did carry through and finally was the hero for getting someone to believe him and send help – was never seen again… name never known… and never able to be thanked.  His story was passed on only by the police in the telling of the hunt for the two on the ledge in the darkness for 6 hours.

A week after the mountain accident, Bill – all broken bones – was sent home by plane.  Steve – at Bill’s request – again climbed the mountain the following day, searching and finding Bill’s prized possession – a Tyrolean hat that he had covered with the colorful pins the Alpine nations use to denote the places seen and the treks taken.

Steve continued on to Switzerland with the group, climbing as usual.  All we, his parents, heard about the fall, the care and devotion of our son for his best friend, we heard only from Bill – the boy who had fallen the 200 feet.  Steve never mentioned any part of the story again.  For him it was a closed book.  And still is.

But in that one afternoon, as a parent, I look at it as the day a young boy grew up and became a man.  A son to be cherished.