Dining with the Sky Gods
By Pen Hassmann
The Traunsee lake, in Salzkammergut, Austria, glitters before us in the morning sun, a deep, cold blue. The Traunstein, a mountain of nearly 1700m looms above us, it's jagged grey stone face serene in the cool morning light. I was nervous to tackle it on my own, as people have died on this mountain, so my friend agreed to come with me. She knows the path well and is also much fitter than me - I know she'll help me if I need it. I also know I'll have to pace myself to make it. With equal measures of fear and determination, we begin to walk upwards into the forest.
Oh. My. Goddess.
An hour later and I'm clinging to a cable on the side of the mountain, treading a path so narrow my feet no longer fit side by side safely, but only one in front of the other. There is a steep, almost vertical drop to my right hand side. Indeed, at one point there is only a metal bar sticking out from the sheer rock, bridging the next bit of narrow path. Don't look down, I think. Hang on to the cable with both hands. Phew. Done.
The path transforms into a lovely forested hike, wandering in and out of dappled shade— which would make for a delightful stroll if it wasn't all uphill. And if I wasn't carrying a pack which, even with absolute minimum weight, feels heavier with each vertical meter. And it's not helped even more by the fact that I am carrying far too much body weight. Even when I was young and fit I hated hiking up mountains. I'm built for speed, not endurance, I used to say. Now, in my mid 40's and having put on 20kgs since those days, I would rather say I'm built for comfort, not for exercise.
I am certainly not the only woman to struggle with body image and self esteem after having kids and putting on weight. But I'm taken aback at how daunting it is here, climbing the Traunstein. Every step seems to be a muscle burning reminder that I have become—let's face it, I think—fat.
We stop for lunch and enjoy some amazing views over the lake and towards the larger mountain peaks. Various thin and fit looking people dressed in varying shades of Lycra stop to eat their energy bars and move on. My friend and I linger, savoring the view and chatting, but eventually we too continue the climb. Our forest wanderings are now interspersed with more and more sections of steep climbing, with cables and the occasional ladder bolted into the side of the rock. About now I'm feeling very grateful for the cheap climbing gloves I bought yesterday—best €20 I ever spent. My pack begins to feel more and more like a baby elephant strapped to my back. Just as my legs are starting to seriously tire and I am needing to take breaks more often to catch my breath, we reach the upper third of the mountain. It's clear to me looking up the rather steep face of what lies before me that this is where the real work begins. It's somehow unfair that just when you start to feel real muscle fatigue setting in, the serious climbing starts. We take another break and I find myself thinking about how I got here.
Years ago, I sat in my friends kitchen in northern Austria, looking out at the massive mountain of stone looming out of the lake. The Traunstein. I was staggered by its immense bulk and how it gleamed pink in the late afternoon light. At a mere 1,691 meters, the Traunstein is admittedly no behemoth. But it is unique. In this landscape where the flat plains end, the mountains begin abruptly and the Traunstein stands alone. Simple, steep and singular. On our last summer evening together, I took a swim at the base of this incredible mountain. Lying on my back alone in the breathtakingly cold water, the evening sun reflecting off the face of this magical creation, I decided – I will come back here. And what's more, I will not swim at the base, but rather I will climb up its scarred face to reach the peak. I will place a rock at the cross at the summit and feast at the table of the sky gods.
Many years and many visits later, the time for me to climb the Traunstein had arrived. We had decided to spend 6 months in northern Austria, and every day I saw the mountain from what was now my kitchen window. I was determined not to leave this place without climbing it. I put in about three months training, starting with smaller (although still steep) hikes as preparation. I learned early on that I walk best alone. Most people you see on the mountains are the kind who complete a hike in the timeframe listed in the guide book without breaking a sweat. So when I'm huffing and puffing my way up a comparatively small mountain trail, I see people scooting past me, chatting with their friends easily as they overtake me in brightly colored expensive trail gear. I learned to swallow my battered ego and simply allow them to pass me by, and continue at my own pace. I would focus on going slowly and taking small steps. Gradually my fitness level improved from 'truly woeful' to somewhere in the vicinity of 'kind of normal' and I felt ready to tackle my personal giant.
And now I am here. Rocky slopes which seem to go on forever are too steep for me to walk upright so I feel like an animal, climbing on all fours. I cling to the cables and use them to haul myself up the steeper faces as my legs begin to feel more like jelly than muscle. Clinging here to the side of the Traunstein, muscles burning, struggling for breath, I begin to really wonder why I am doing this to myself. I hurt all over, I'm sure I've pulled a muscle in my never-used triceps, I have a massive bruise on my inner thigh from a metal stepping spike set into the rock, which is throbbing painfully, the sun beats down on my back. All my water is gone and I'm honestly not sure how much longer I will last. But there is somehow something very comforting in knowing I have no choice. The way back down is far too long and steep to attempt now on my increasingly wobbly legs. My friend is quietly encouraging, she knows I can't talk when I'm working so hard and we hike upwards in silence. When you quite literally have no other option, the way forward becomes very clear. Go slow. Stop often. Don't compare. One foot in front of the other. Use the cables.
Quite unexpectedly, we reach a series of ladders and my friend tells me this is the end spurt. I take another short rest. We begin the climb. Every muscle in my body protests but somehow I scale those ladders. Suddenly, we come over the crest and the whole lake valley is laid out before us. To our right, only 25 feet away, is the mountain hut where we will stay the night. Tears spring to my eyes. I have done it. I check my watch – 6 hours and 5 minutes. OK, so I took 2 hours more than most people take, but who cares. I have done it. Me and my 20kgs extra weight and me with my body image and self esteem issues. Tears are just not enough to express my relief and triumph and swirling mix of feelings and euphoria.
Basking in the warmth of the sun, my feet finally free of sweaty hiking boots, I am exhausted but exhilarated. I look down on the lake and remember that moment, years ago when I had swum in the lake at the foot of this mountain and vowed to come back and climb to the summit. I thought about how far I'd come since then and what I'd gone through since that swim in the lake, and smiled. I’d moved countries, fallen in love, become a parent, lost a parent, battled depression and launched a successful business. And now, I’d climbed my personal mountain challenge. I know in this moment, nothing is impossible. Up here it's like I'm sitting on the roof of the world. The clouds feel so close I can almost touch them. Down below, where we began, the sun shimmers in the lake in the afternoon sun and cars look like tiny ants as they scurry along, in a hurry to reach their next destination. But up here the world is still and quiet. Up here, if you hold still for long enough, you can hear the gods breathe.
Banner photo by ADFA / CC BY