Robert W. Stolz, ex-Marine, linguist, international adventure traveler and founder of the Robert W. Stolz Loden Wool Coat Company.
Blood from my open knuckles stained the blanket of snow and ice covering what could only loosely be described as a trail to the rocky summit of Mt. Rysy. As I stared up the nearly vertical ravine growing narrower and steeper as it reached toward the moon, I realized the park ranger hadn't exaggerated the difficulty of this climb. After completing what she’d estimated to be a three-day hike well before sunset on day 1, I had more confidence in myself and the oxygen high I'd been on since leaving Cairo than in her warnings to avoid the summit.
After a year living in the heart of Cairo, a congested and polluted city of 18 million people, I found myself alone and surrounded by nature, about to embark on a four day solo mountain trek. The fresh air, sounds of birds and solitude never felt so good. I could positively feel the increased oxygen levels – and it felt like being reborn. It was June, 2008 and I was on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains setting off for Slovakia.
The day before I’d visited the national park office and with the help of a ranger planned a route starting in the village of Kiry and meandering through the High Tatra Mountains spending 3 nights in huts and coming out in Slovakia. The route would take a circuitous path around the pinnacle peak of the region, Mt. Rysy which stood at 8,212 ft. and which was still buried in snow and ice after a long winter. Each day would be about a 6 or 7 hour hike, nothing too strenuous.
At 8:00 AM I was on the trail winding up a wooded valley. All I had was a minimalist pack of food, (hard cheese, dry sausages, bread, chocolate) my hygiene kit, a change of underwear, water and a pair of walking sticks someone had left behind. It wasn’t much, but I’d always preferred traveling light and fast. Besides, not having something you might need just creates opportunities to be creative. That January I’d spent two weeks traveling through Yemen with another ex-Marine. Other than the handcuff key and razor blade sewn into the back of his jeans, all we had were half-full backpacks but we managed fine. Since the huts I’d stay at on this trip were equipped I really didn’t need much anyway.
As my lungs filled with the fresh crisp mountain air, my body felt like Popeye after a can of spinach. I lost myself in the pure activity of hiking. I was in the zone, moving quickly but attentively. Pretty soon I was out of the protected valley and traversing steep and exposed grassy mountainsides. Then as I came around a bend I froze. Not fifty feet before me stood a small herd of a beautiful brown animal I had never seen before. Unbeknownst to me, they were Chamois, also known as Gamze in Austrian dialect. They looked like a cross between a sheep and a mountain goat but had a beautiful dark patch of fur between their small horns. They stared at me with caution and then gracefully slipped further up a mountain ravine half bounding, half walking over the steep rocky terrain. I followed them with my binoculars until they disappeared. It was only a five minute encounter, but I was inspired by these mysterious creatures. They lived in a tough unforgiving alpine climate but were clearly masters of it.
Feeling even more rejuvenated than before, if that was even possible, I kept on my way and before I knew it, it was 12:00 and I’d already reached the trail junction. To my left down the mountain about a mile away was the hut where I was supposed to sleep that night. But I’d only been on the trail for 4 hours. I didn’t at all feel like stopping so I thought, “I’ll just hike day 2 today and relax a bit tomorrow”. After all, the days were long at this latitude, so I had a snack and then kept going.
From here the trail traced the spine of a series of mountain ridges that eventually led to Mt. Rysy, the lion of this realm and the tallest peak in Poland. Mt. Rysy was then in view, looming, covered in snow but still quite far off and often hidden by clouds. It had been a long cold winter so the snowpack on Mt. Rysy was thicker than usual for this time of year. The trail was very narrow and on both sides the mountain fell off into deep valleys and the views were fantastic. Little crystal blue lakes dotted the landscape but signs of civilization were rare. As I continued along the trail, the elevation increased steadily and the trees had long disappeared. The trail was quite rocky and sometimes required scrambling over large rocks but it wasn’t hard to keep a good pace. In fact, I was still on such a fresh air high that by only 4:00 PM I was approaching the Morskie Oko Lake on whose shores sat the next hut. It was actually a back-country ski lodge in the winter but open to hikers in the summer and most importantly, it sat at the base of Mt. Rysy.
I had put down my pack and was having a coffee on the porch of the hut as I gazed up at the looming Mt. Rysy. In the breaks between the fast-moving clouds whipping past the summit I could see huge, jagged peaks jutting out from the snow. Every glimpse was fleeting so it was impossible to get a good impression of what exactly lay up there, but it made something inside me move and I wondered, “could I climb it?”
It was a crazy thought. After all, aside from the fact that I’d just finished a fast eight-hour hike, the ranger was very clear about the summit being closed. The route the ranger had given me was long and winding, safely avoiding the treacherous summit. She had said it was the only way to Slovakia. But, I had also seen on the map a second route, straight up and over Mt. Rysy, which she had sternly explained was closed. She very clearly stated that unless you came with ice axes, crampons, ropes and a team to use them, that route was impossible. And yet as I sat looking at that peak some youthful energy deep inside me just wouldn’t calm down, no matter how many times I tried using reason to extinguish it. And although my muscles were a little sore, my spirit was bustling with vigor to keep going. And that ranger's guidance had already shown to be overly cautious. After all, she had said it would take me two days to get where I was now sitting after only 8 hours. And rangers will always err on the side of caution, that’s their job.
While the mountain did look intimidating, I reasoned in my head that I was an experienced climber and had a few notches on my belt. Dangerous challenges were not new to me. For example I’d survived a close encounter with dehydration hiking near Death Valley and I’d almost drowned rafting flooded creeks. Not to mention I’d survived the perils of 4 grueling years in the Marines and if the Marines taught me anything, it taught me that I can do anything. So, as I looked at that raw menace of rock and ice it was no longer a challenge to be won because in my mind I’d already reached that summit. Now it was just time to catch up with my mind. So I paid for my coffee, grabbed my pack and hit the trail again. It was 4:30 PM and a chilly breeze was blowing.
On the other side of the lake the trail turned to snow. Calling my path a trail might not be the best word choice because where the trail went was a bit tricky to say. Less and less frequently, bits of paint on rocks sticking through the snow could be seen, but the further I went the more clear it was that I was going up one very long ravine, so losing the trail didn’t seem possible. It was like a chimney, and there was really only one way to go, and that was up. On either side of it were sheer cliffs that narrowed as they got closer to the summit, coming together like a funnel in the clouds above.
At about halfway up I felt a strange sensation. At first, I didn’t even recognize quite what it was. That whole long day I’d been on such an oxygen high, I’d never thought I could get tired but suddenly I was quite tired actually. I sat on a rock protruding from the snow and pulled my thin jacket close to shield me from the cold wind and the now drizzling rain that had begun. It was rather chilly and my sweat getting cold didn’t help, I wished I had a nice wool coat and warm socks. The sun was low somewhere behind the cliffs to my left and cast me in a long shadow. I looked north down the valley towards the last hut I had left and could just make out the smoke from the chimney rising in plumes. I imagined the lodgers were merrily eating and drinking around an open fire, warm and toasty as I sat exposed, wet and cold. Behind me was the mountain, massive but calm. From below it had consumed me with passion and seduced my pride with promise of glory. But now, as I sat in its bosom, it gave me nothing at all. No fury, no fight not a shimmer of delight. It just was, that was it. It was a cold, large pile of rock and ice. Then I thought to myself, “this is crazy as shit, what am I doing here?” Then, I took the only food I had left, a snickers bar, and ate it as I considered my options.
But it didn’t take long to see, I had no choice at all. I could tease myself with the idea of turning around but I knew I never would, because if there was one thing I hated more than anything else, it was giving up. Something about the thought of quitting just twisted my guts. So, I picked up my sticks, turned to the white wall and started fighting my way, tooth and nail, whatever it took, to wherever it led me.
The ravine grew steeper and narrower. In a few otherwise impassable places, there were steel cables and pegs to grab, which were meant for late summer or fall hikers, when the snow had melted. But for me the trickiest parts were where the indentation of the trail into the mountain had disappeared below the snow, leaving everywhere equally treacherously steep. These long stretches of steep packed snow and ice were where ice axes and crampons would really have been useful.
Without the benefit of a switchback trail to gradually zigzag to the summit I had to improvise. So instead, I ascended vertically, directly for the summit. But to do so I had to kick each foot in the snow three times to make foothold to stand on and then I would clasp my two walking sticks with both hands high overhead and slam them flat into the snow above me. By carefully spreading my weight across the sticks I could take a step, kick another foothold and repeat. My progress was very slow and my bare knuckles had open wounds but they were so cold I wouldn’t have noticed if they had not left a red trail in the snow. With every glance down at my feet, I knew that one false move would send me sliding out of control down that steep face to a most certain death by smashing into the rocks or over a cliff.
It was quite a hairy situation but one thing gave me confidence, my fate was literally in my hands. Aside from an avalanche, I was still in control, which gave me all the confidence I needed. It didn’t have that luck of the numbers kind of feel I’d experienced in Iraq waiting to see where the incoming mortars would land. As long as I stayed focused and methodical I could tame this mountain.
Time disappears when one is lost in pure focus motivated by survival. I cannot recall how long that portion of the ascent took me. But I remember well by the time I was approaching the summit the sun had set and the clouds had cleared so the light of the moon reflecting on the snow gave just enough light to see the end was near. A few times on the final stretch the snow would run out, leaving a sheet of icy rock, impossible to pass. I’d have to climb down a few meters and traverse until I found a path still caked in enough snow to support me. The closer I got the steeper it became and I knew if I ran out of threads of snow, it would be bad news. By this point I had realized the ranger really wasn’t exaggerating the difficulty of the climb and my bull-headed bravado was the real beast I needed to tame, not some stupid goddamn mountain.
There was nothing I could do but keep going because climbing down felt even more treacherous. So, I kept pounding those sticks in the little bit of snow and kicking toe holds one at a time. Finally, the summit was just a few meters above. The chimney formation I was ascending was protected from the wind but above me now I could hear it howling. The last few meters were rather terrifying. The last meters were nearly vertical and there was just a couple inches of snow to climb on. I was standing on my toes and carefully spreading all my weight across those sticks. On my right was a sheer stone wall and placed in a rough hewn cubby hole not a meter from the summit was a statue of Virgin Mary and Jesus calmly watching me pass. Their serene expressions reminded me of the Gamze I’d seen that morning which now seemed like ages ago. It gave me some comfort to know someone had been here before and as I reached my arms high they came down on the flat of the summit. I had reached it at last!
Pulling myself up I was smacked by the wind, it made my eyes water. You’d think I was crying with relief, but really in that moment I was too mentally exhausted to feel anything. My body was just euphoric not to be straining every muscle anymore. After a few moments on the summit I could appreciate my new situation and it felt so good to be alive. I was proud of myself for conquering my fear and pushing my limits. It took perseverance and the toughness I’ve always had in abundance but it was also a bit sobering, to ask myself, what did I risk my life for exactly? But I’m not one to dwell.
The moonlight view was quite impressive indeed. It was all kind of fuzzy, either white black or grey. I was relieved to see my expectation was correct, that my descent looked much easier than where I’d come from. The south face was much less steep and the snow had been piled up high by the wind. I was standing on the border between Poland and Slovakia and looking east I could see a long valley stretching about 10 miles before me and it had a few lakes in it. I knew at the end of that valley I would find a hut, where I wasn’t supposed to be for another three days. I hoped they had a bed for me.
So I waded into the deep snow and started making my descent. It wasn’t long before I was out of the deep snow and heading down the long valley at a comfortable pace. Then I was out of the snow altogether on an easy slowly descending trail. To my right were spectacular views of the moon reflecting off the lake. My legs were like rubber just moving from sheer will and after a few hours I saw a flicker of light up ahead. I had found the hut and I could hear loud voices, they sounded Russian.
Before I went in I looked back from where I’d come and I remembered the Gamze I had seen just that morning but it felt like years ago and in another life. I wondered if I’d ever see those animals again, little did I know but a few years later in Austria I would see lots of Gamze. I left my dear sticks at the door and stumbled in to the hut. A group of loud hikers were still awake and heartily drinking but when I stepped in the doorway silence ensued. They all looked at me puzzled. My hands were all bloody, my knees as well. My clothes were torn - I looked like hell, even by mountain hut standards. Strangest of all, it was well after midnight and I had just stumbled in. When I sat down the raucous resumed and the two guys at my table started talking t me. But I didn’t understand a word, so they poured me some schnapps. They smiled and nodded as friendly as can be. A little while later I was snug in my bunk and never slept better.
In 2015 when, with the support of my family, I founded my own Austrian Loden Wool Coat company, I kind of knew it would be a long hard journey, but I had no idea just how long and hard a journey it would be, and we’ve by no means arrived at a metaphorical summit. However, climbing Mt. Rysy represented that challenge for me and the majestic creatures I’d seen along the way, the Gamze, demonstrated that grace and beauty were possible even on a challenging difficult journey. I thought nothing would be a better source of inspiration than those fine animals coupled with my own experience climbing that mountain. That is why I chose the motif of a Gamze on top of a mountain for my company logo.
But hard work and perseverance don't mean anything without the trust and support of loyal customers who have shown us that there is value to what we're doing. So on behalf of myself and my family, to all of you I want to say a heartfelt thank you! You have made my dream a reality and I hope I can be an inspiration to anyone else who dreams big, whether they dream to scale a mountain or build a business on a not so obvious idea.
Robert Stolz & Family