The start of the mountains are also the end of the mountains. It just depends which upon the direction you are walking. Our village is right at the border of this place, where the Alps terminate as you head east across Europe. it’s around 30 minutes walk to the hills, and the same by car to reach the first ‘serious’ mountains, the Rax and Schneeberg.
Mountains can call to a person, in the same way the ocean can. They distort and bend light and gravity towards them in a way that cannot resonate in a photograph. When you are near a mountain, you can feel the volume of rock mass. Schneeberg (literally Snow Mountain), is visible from so many areas in and around our village, it is ever present, like the church spire, extending to remind the people of their debt to God.
The beginning of my relationship with the mountain began with my father. He pointed it out so often. One day visible from the village as a brooding mass of rock, the next, catching the weak rays of winter sun so it glowed like molten gold. Walking along its rocky slopes, over the high meadows, in the woods at its base, picking wild strawberries or mushrooms.
The end of my living relationship with my father featured Schneeberg as a prominence, both literal and figurative. Visible from the windows of his hospital, we would look at it, and relive those times, when the talk of illness and dying hung too heavy in the ward. I visited it several times, culminating in a sort of exultant trek where I raced to the summit and back in a few hours – a climb of some 2300m all told. I went to see Dad at the hospital after, still breathing shallowly to overcome the altitude sickness my rapid ascent brought on.
I bought him some cigarettes and we made our way to the garden and museum hospital. I told him about how after all those years, all those connections and visits, I had taken the Mieselthal to the summit and back. He asked me if I had seen the path that cut across the face of the mountain. I said that I had and that perhaps it was the next challenge. In the space of a moment, I realised that my concept of knowing Schneeberg was totally challenged. It was the beginning of a mountain, not the end of one.
When you reach the end of mountains what is to be done? Sometimes we are grateful that the crossing has ended, that for all the hardships and loss, our time in the mountains is over. We look forward and think to the beginnings of mountains yet to come, and hope that the journey will not be too arduous.
And sometimes we do think about those mountains whose end we’ve seen through, with the memory not only of the precipitous heights, the wind and snow, but also of the moments in the heights that shaped us, grew us and placed our beings into the roots of the earth. All those times are the only thing that can ever make us be alive and present.
Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the Cathedrals where I practice my religion.