The small, middle-aged woman started out across the wooden footbridge, aswirl under a foot of glacial water. Her bright orange poncho, buffeted by driving sleet, flapped against her backpack. For a few minutes she struggled to keep her balance; then she slipped, arms flailing, into the flooded stream.
I watched in horror as the orange poncho disappeared completely. Then the woman surfaced, clawing her way to the other side, where helping hands reached out from the far bank and dragged her ashore.
Then a young girl started across the bridge, feeling her way along the planks. Just past midpoint, the current caught her; she teetered and fell, floundering in five feet of water before her fellow hikers pulled her, too, to safety.
Other hikers followed. A few lucky ones made it across with nothing worse than sopping boots and pants. But most didn't, even after a flimsy lifeline had been rigged across the torrent. Heads bobbed in icy water. Hands grabbed for them. Somehow, they managed to struggle ashore.
Then my turn came. The moment of frigid truth. Was this really happening to me? In mid-September? In the ultra-civilized Austrian Alps, where the mountain huts serve Wiener schnitzel and where, only two days earlier, I had stripped and basked under a subtropical sun?
In the shrieking wind -- clothes soaked, boots awash, water dripping into my eyes, watching people apparently hellbent on drowning -- I felt unreal. This was no wilderness, but the sophisticated Stubai valley, with saunas and discos in the villages below. Innsbruck, population 120,000, was barely 20 miles away.
Only last evening, I had enjoyed a delightful conversation with the woman in the orange poncho in the Sulzenau Hut, where our hiking group had spent the night. She was a professor of philosophy at the University of Munich, up with friends for a weekend hike. We shared wurst and schnapps; someone produced a guitar and we sang. Very convivial. Sehr gemuetlich.
The weather already had broken, with pelting rain and winds at gale force. But we didn't care; in our cozy hut, with our schnapps and our good talk, the evening passed all too quickly.
Around 2 a.m., I awoke to the sounds of roaring wind and banging shutters; the window was piled high with new snow. It was thrilling, but not particularly disturbing. The trail down to the valley, 2,500 feet below, wasn't dangerous; even under deep snow, it would be maneuverable. The fact that it also traversed a stream funneling runoff from a great circle of glaciated mountains -- and a prime candidate for flooding -- never occurred to me.
At breakfast, word got around: The bridge was under water. So was some of the trail. But everyone made light of the difficulties, talking bravely about roping up (except that nobody seemed to have any rope). There never was any question of not going. We all had rain gear; we all knew the mountains. I got caught up in the excitement.
Once outside, it was a different story. The Sulzenau Hut is perched on the edge of an 800-foot precipice that acts like a conduit for bad weather off the peaks. The wind hit like a wall, and here at 6,700 feet the snow had turned to a foul mixture of sleet and rain. In seconds, we were soaked.
I should have called it quits then. But my German friends, shouting encouragement to each other, already were headed down the path that switched back beside the precipice. I stumbled in their wake, half-blinded behind glasses coated with sleet.
We reached the bottom of the precipice where the stream, after a vertical plunge of several hundred feet, idled for a quarter mile before its final rocky descent to the town of Stubaital. It was one of those typical flat-bottomed glacial cirques, so common in the Alps, where the cows are sent for summer pasture and where, hard to believe, I had sunbathed two days before.
Now, much of the little meadow was under water.
It was at the far end of this cirque, where the cliffs again converged into a narrow canyon, that the bridge had been washed out. Ahead, I could see some of the first hikers desperately trying to scale the crags and circumvent the stream. But these were hikers, not climbers; it was either the submerged bridge, or retreat. And they all chose the bridge.
All but one, that is. Because, when the decision finally had to be made, standing paralyzed by what I was forced to recognize as fear, I chickened out.
Even though it meant climbing 1,000 feet back up to the hut, in the teeth of the blizzard, along a trail that had become a cataract. Better that, I thought, than hypothermia -- or death.
Much later, back at the hut, I learned the other hikers had survived. And after downing three brandies, I began to stop shivering. So much for the "civilized" delights of the Alps.
Richard Wightman is a Washington writer.