Stepping out of the car in the little gravel car-park is a relief – the smell of warm dust has become overpowering, and the mountains have been beckoning for days. Half an hour before we ate a cluster of wild strawberries below a roaring waterfall, and watched an elderly lady walk up the steep path, her arms outstretched in supplication, and realised that this stranger expressed the ideal that we had both sought in our own lives.
Perhaps it was just clearer to see then, because we had taken a few days respite from seeing the old man – wheelchair bound, coughing, hacking, weary. He would never again walk any path by mountains or in forests, down corridors of wheat or even across the room. Seeing this lady and her vitality and connectedness made clear what an aspiration could be. In Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard, he describes passing a child in Tibet who greets him with one simple word – Namastê. ‘I salute you.’ What greater freedom and aspiration to have than to be able to feel earth and grass, hear thundering water or smell the odour or wet rocks drying in morning sun? What else would you ever want to do but raise your arms and salute your world? My beautiful new wife turned to me and said,
‘I hope we will always be able to do that, even when we are old.’
And so, now, a few minutes later we step out of the car in that little car park and strap on our packs, and begin to ascend the Grandetal – the Grand Valley. Off to pay homage to rock and plant, water and sky on the trail, to salute our vitality small as it may be on this earth.
You can look at a thousand photographs but nothing can prepare you for the immense bulk of a mountain in reality. Though in my life I have been privileged to walk under the gaze of a thousand or more prominences, every glance upwards brings the reeling sense of scale in a way that is as much calm and serene as it is challenging and difficult. There’s a reason why we think of hermits and monks as residing in the lofty reaches of our planet – because they simultaneously enfold you into the bosom of the earth and remind you of who you really are.
The last of the pine forest is punctuated by stacks of lumber being seasoned, and to the left is the evidence of an avalanche – earth rent apart by the push of snow and rock; somewhere between a scar and a rumpled sheet. To the left an impossible pile of stone rears it’s bulk into being, so far it both compresses space into claustrophobia while floating free in a sky that is the only thing than can challenge it. What seem to be stones and pebbles reveal themselves as house sized boulders, and everything bends inwards, as though gravity was visible now for the first time.
Ahead the last trees peter out, and the mountains beckon. An hours’ climb brings us ap to the vast meadow – ringed on three sides with the countless tributaries of the spring melt that percolate through the alm and run beneath the little wooden bridge in a icy torrent, and a profusion of purple and yellow blossoms is spattered across the grass in the kind of perfection that seems too wonderful to happen by accident – until you realise that it is no accident, every blade of grass is assigned its place here, every pebble rests where it should.
I lost time – there was so much I thought to do that I never did the important things before it was too late. Did he walk here? What secrets, what stories did he tell about this place? Which stones did his feet kick up on the path – did mine touch them as well? I realise now that I wanted to know all of his life, and I knew so little that it scares me. Now I can only wander the paths 50 years after him, and hope.
We find snow towards the last quarter of the climb – while below us summer pushes the valleys into blissful heat, we scrunch our way across ever deepening snow fields as we rise to just under 3 kilometres above the sea. We stop for lunch on a high promontory that overlooks the Großglockner, the highest mountain in Austria, adrift in a cap of snow that is deceptively fluffy and gentle through the summer sky. The summit lies behind us, another 200 vertical metres of climb, but the way looks too cruel under the gathering storm, so we make our way delicately, dreamily back down until we return to the grass, rhododendrons and then the streams and forest to the car park. A farmer is guiding a group of cattle up the path and we step up the bank to let them pass, and he nods his thanks and my wife says, in the clear afternoon air.
And the man’s confusion is framed by our laugher as we make our way back to our little car.