When the last train of the afternoon eased its way out from the summit station, the top of the Brocken was transformed. Earlier, hundreds of people had mingled among the collection of buildings that occupy the plateau of northern Germany’s highest mountain. They visited the museum in an old Cold War listening station, or queued up with trays in the canteen-like summit restaurant. They sipped beers in the sunshine of the beer garden, and wandered the plateau trail with its botanical garden and rocky outcrops where Goethe’s witches gather to dance for the devil.
When Goethe first climbed to the top of the mountain there was nothing but a small wooden shelter. Later came the hotels and restaurants, the railway station and the military buildings that once guarded the old inner-German border that passed by just beneath the summit. The buildings still stand but the soldiers are long gone, replaced by the hikers and bikers and steam-train passengers that now gather there, enjoying the view so long as it is not one of the 300 days a year the Brocken is shrouded in cloud.
We arrived at the top by mid-afternoon, drinking a celebratory beer with a view out across the hills of the Harz to the flat lands and their wind farms that ran away north to a hazy horizon. We wandered back and forth across the plateau, and watched the steam trains arrive and depart from the station. And as the last one turned the corner to drop below the tree line, we experienced the Brocken’s version of the tide retreating, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
The wind blew and clouds raced across the sky. We walked the sun set from the Devil’s Pulpit, one of those rocky outcrops made famous by folklore and literature, looking out across the hills of the Upper Harz to where old mining villages occupy the folds in the land. As darkness fell, the Brocken became an unsettling place. When the wind picked up and the moon and stars became obscured by clouds, it was a reminder that for all the infrastructure that had been added to the Brocken, we were still at 1141 metres, and that a mountain can be a cold and unforgiving place.
But inside the Brocken Hotel the dining room was warm, the beers were cold and the staff were friendly. We shared the space with a couple of members of staff and six fellow guests. We were all that were left on top of the mountain. Outside, the wind raced across the summit plateau, shifting the clouds to give us fleeting glimpses of twinkling lights far away below and in the distance.
We slept with the curtains open and woke at first light. There was nothing to block the sun as it rose beyond the flatlands to the east, and with bleary eyes we climbed out of bed and headed out onto the plateau. Our luck had held. The sky was clear, a brilliant blue. But nearly everything below us – the hills and valleys of the Lower Harz, the towns where the mountains meet the plains, the windfarms and the fields in the distance – were all obscured by low cloud. The rest of the world was out of sight, and it was easy to imagine that this was what the witches saw, on the morning after a long night of revelry.
Moments later, everything changed. The clouds seemed to rise up from the valleys to engulf the summit and its buildings. For a time, visibility was less than ten metres, and the voices of other early risers or those who had risen in darkness to reach the summit before the crowds seemed to belong to ghostly apparitions. No wonder this mountain gave its name to the Brocken Spectre, first observed and described by a pastor who scaled the heights near the end of the eighteenth century.
But the clouds would retreat once more. No spectres on that morning. More people began to arrive on the summit, beating the first train by a good couple of hours. They had hiked through mist from Schierke below, but the mountain had decided to oblige them, as the sky cleared as they moved beyond the last of the spruce trees. They sat above the trees and clouds and enjoyed bread rolls and coffee pulled from the depths of their rucksacks. Our time of having the top of the Brocken more or less to ourselves was coming to an end, but it didn’t matter. It is always good to share.
Photography: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton