The village of Ehrwald sits at the corner of a valley in Austria, just across the border from Germany. The valley is about a thousand metres above sea level, a damp moss of drained moorland divided into neat fields for growing the hay that will keep the cattle fed over the long, snowy winter. At each corner of the valley, rocky mountains rise up above the treeline. The highest of which, looming over Ehrwald itself, is the Zugspitze.
Its summit marks the border between two countries, and by Austrian terms, it is a fairly modest peak at 2,962 metres. On the other side of the dividing line, it is slightly more important. The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest point, and cable cars on both sides of the border carry daytrippers to the top, to experience the view from the very roof of Germany.
From our apartment on the edge of Ehrwald, the Zugspitze was behind us. Instead, the view from the balcony was dominated by the moss, looking over to the village of Lermoos, and above it to the ridge leading up to the summit of a mountain called Daniel. Three years before, when we’d stayed further down the valley, we’d spent our mornings in the garden looking across to Daniel. Now, we sat on our balcony and did the same.
We sat on the balcony and watched the sun as it set behind the ridge. As the lights from the hut about a third of the way up flickered against the darkness of the mountain. As the stars appeared above, allowing us to make our the shape of the hill once more. With a map laid out on the kitchen table, we followed the route of a motorcyclist – the cook maybe? – as he or she zig-zagged down through the trees at the end of their shift at the mountain hut. We traced our fingers over the dotted line that would lead us from the hut to the ridge and on to the top. Three years ago we’d talked about it. Tomorrow, after days of looking up from the valley, we were going to go to the top.
Three years ago we’d walked these mountains but never to a summit. As we plotted our return, in a garden in Yorkshire, it was the only real goal of the trip. It would be nice to get to the top of something, we said. To lean against a cross that marked the highest point. To eat our sandwiches as the mountain fell away around us on all sides. The Zugspitze seemed like a step too far, beyond our capabilities – perhaps. And who wanted to get to the top and find a restaurant and a museum, and a load of people in flip-flops? Daniel it was. 2,340 metres seemed like plenty.
Why did we care about getting to the top? Why not plot a walk, like we did last time, from mountain hut to mountain hut? Enjoy the beers and the views? What did the summit mean anyway? Who would care?
In his book about our fascination with the high places, Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane describes where this desire to reach the summit comes from, and how the top of a mountain is a symbol of both the effort needed and the reward:
‘What simpler allegory of success could there be than the ascent of a mountain. The summit provides the visible goal, the slopes leading up to it the challenge…’
As morning broke, as the sun that rose over the shoulder of the Zugspitze began to chase away the mist that had clung to the moss at dawn, we walked out from the apartment along the dirt track between the drained fields. With each step, Daniel loomed ever higher, until its peak was hidden by our proximity. We would only see it again when we emerged above the treeline.
Daniel is not the most difficult mountain. Aside from a few moments requiring an undignified scramble along the rocky path, you can simply walk to the top. It’s steep, and hurts perhaps more coming down than going up, but there were plenty of us capable of reaching the top on that sunny late summer day, of many different ages and shapes. Still, the mountain was big enough for all of us, and aside from when we came together in the beer garden of the Tuftalm hut on the way down, for most of the walk we had it to ourselves.
The mountain and the view. With each step the view opened out across what we had come to think of as our valley, our apartment building on the edge of Ehrwald in sight almost the entire way, growing ever smaller as we went. As we moved above the trees, the path winding its way up the side of a huge scree basin beneath the summit, we began to be able to see beyond our valley, beyond the mountains that had marked the limits of our view for the past few days. Deeper into Austria. Perhaps even beyond.
And then came the moment, the perspective shift when you reach a mountain pass or a saddle, or in this case the ridge that linked the secondary peak of Uppspitze with Daniel itself, when a whole new world is made available to you, the world beyond the ridge, on the other side of the mountain. We were looking now across into Germany. The mountains falling away into the foothills. Beyond that, the rolling fields of Bavaria. From there, it was only a few vertigo-inducing steps along the ridge to the summit.
What did we feel when we made it? Macfarlane again:
‘When we walk or climb up a mountain we traverse not only the actual terrain of the hillside but also the metaphysical territories of struggle and achievement…’
Was that it? Or were we simply happy that there was no more up to come? That we’d reached halfway? That we could finally eat a sausage and capture the odd image or two for Instagram (and this blog)?
‘To reach a summit is very palpably to have triumphed over adversity. To have conquered something, albeit something utterly useless.’
Yes! There was no point to all this except for the joy of a day out with friends, the views and the sense – however unimportant it is the greater scheme of things – of having achieved something. After all, as Macfarlane goes on to explain, the significance of the summit is entirely imagined. Any value it has, is one that we have given it.
For us it was born three years ago, sitting with beers in that garden, looking across to Daniel as it appeared through low clouds. It was born on the balcony of our apartment, and in that Yorkshire garden, and in the pictures and maps we shared online as we planned our trip. It mattered that we reached the top, because it was what we had decided to do, and most of all because we’d decided to do it together.
In the beer garden of the Tuftalm, with a third of the descent and a walk across the moss still to come, we nursed beers and our weary legs and looked out across our valley. We pulled out our map and laid it on the table between us. Named the mountains that we could see. Although nobody said it, plans were already forming. New mountains were gaining a foothold in our minds. Our day was not even done yet, but the question was already there: what’s next?
Words & Photographs: Paul Scraton
With thanks to Nev & Tom