Between the gates, before the storm – Heiterwanger See

Ahead of us, the mountains rose up out of the Bavarian countryside to meet the dark clouds that had gathered just above the peaks. That morning in Augsburg, the weather had been muggy. Yesterday’s clear skies and sunshine had given way to greyness; the air oppressive and close. There was a storm coming, and when it broke it would feel like a relief. We just had to hope we’d built the tent in time.

Our journey was an old one. Our route south from Augsburg to the mountains ran parallel to the Via Claudia Augusta, the old Roman road that linked Rhaetia on the north side of the Alps with the Po River on the south, crossing the mountains via the Fern and Reschen passes. We were not travelling that far. Our destination was a valley tucked in among the first peaks just beyond the German-Austrian border. It was called Zwischentoren or ‘Between the Gates’, named for its location either side of the starting points for the two main routes into the rest of Austria – the Fern Pass to the rest of Tyrol and the route along the Lech River towards Arlberg.

This had long been a place of travellers, a corner of Austria separated from the rest of the country by the high mountains roads. Since the Roman times people had been passing through the region known as Außerfern (“beyond the Fern”), today known by generations of German travellers as a place of clogged roads ahead of summer holidays on the sunny side of the Alps. The Via Claudia Augusta still existed in the souls of those longing for Italy. But not for us.

Our campside was at the head of the lake, a flat expanse of meadows and fields that narrowed at the point where the slopes of the surrounding mountains seemed to drop right into the water. The Heiterwanger See is the smaller of two lakes that are linked by a narrow channel and are fed by streams bringing water down from the high mountains. When we arrived, the lake was shrouded in a low-hanging mist, while the mountains were cut off by the cloud that was lower than the tree line.

‘There’s a storm coming,’ the receptionist told us, as she showed us to the part of the site where campers without caravans or electricity needs were given space to pitch their tents. She looked at the sky and shrugged. It was dry in her wooden cabin. We hurried to set up camp, to get everything stashed beneath canvas before the thunder and the summer rain came. 

But the weather doesn’t always do what is expected. A wind blew up the valley and at a thousand metres above sea level, the mugginess of Augsburg was nothing but a memory. The clouds that raced overhead still looked threatening, but they held their contents tight as they travelled between the mountains, every so often allowing us a glimpse of the sun. We headed out from the camp along the lakeshore path, happy now that whatever happened we had somewhere dry to retreat to. There were few people about, hikers and mountain bikers, a solitary stand-up paddleboarder on the lake. The further we walked the less people we saw, as if everyone was staying close to camp for when the weather changed.

We made it round, following an undulated and rutted track between the trees above the water’s edge. The soundtrack was the heavy buzz of insects, our footsteps, and the clanking of cow bells in the distance. At one of the more popular bathing spots on the lake there were no swimmers, only cows, approaching the shallows to take a drink. We gave them a wide berth and hurried on. On those days in the tent we find we are much more aware of the weather. We’d got it built, but did we have time to cook?

Still, the rain held off. The other campers, on their way past our tent to the toilet block, seemed to talk about nothing else. ‘There’s a storm coming,’ they’d say, looking up at the grey sky and then down at our tent. You could see them giving thanks for their caravans, with their upholstered corners and satellite television links. It was just behind their eyes. In turn, we got to feel like some kind of superior adventurers, although when the first drops of rain hit the pasta water boiling on the stove, it was a sense of superiority that would soon be hard to maintain.

We hunkered down when the storm finally came, just before nightfall, in our tent in the valley at the head of the lake between the gates. We would have to ride it out for 48 hours, dodging the showers to explore more of what we were already starting to think of as ‘our’ valley, trying to ignore the dampness that was ever present in our clothes and bones, while marvelling at the beauty of the mist-covered mountains. And then it was over, and the sun shone on the mountains once more, the summits revealing themselves against blue skies. 

It was as if nothing had happened, unless you ignored the streams that had swelled with the fallen rain and the noise of the water rushing over the pebbles at the place where it emptied into the lake. It was a reminder of what had gone before, as our clothes dried on makeshift lines in the sunshine. 

47°27’20.9″N 10°45’45.1″E
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton