When I woke up at 9:30 a.m. in a little town in the mountains of Austria, it was foggy and rainy for the second day in a row. I thought, “Ah, what a perfect day to do absolutely nothing.”
I was sipping on my second or third cup of coffee in the kitchen, staring at the fog-covered mountains, when I noticed what looked like snow-covered trees about half way up the mountains across the valley. The fog was shifting upward, and as it did I could more clearly see, yes, the trees on the top half of the mountains were covered in the thinnest layer of powder sugar snow.
I stared and stared and stared, and finally decided I needed to be IN them rather than just looking at them. So I set off for town around 1:30 p.m.
I walked on a bike path along the river heading towards the smaller of the three mountains in the area. It took me about 45 minutes to get to a small village at the base of the mountain. As I was walking, my eyes were drawn to this one tree. The entire mountain was covered in pine trees, but at the end of this particular ridge, right where the snow started, was a grassy, treeless knoll, treeless except for this single, bushy pine tree standing on its own. I decided I could climb to that tree, no problem.
From a distance, I could see a winding road going from this village up to the mountain. I figured, perfect, no intense hiking necessary, just a nice stroll in search of snow.
I walked through the village, which smelled like cows and eggnog, up the winding road and finally came to a fork in the road at the base of the mountain.
There was a sign post with a bunch of different names of places pointing either direction. But since I didn’t have a map and didn’t know where I was going, it didn’t help me at all. The road to the left looked like it might only go through the valley, and I couldn’t see much of the road to the right, so I went right. I quickly realized this road only went around the mountain rather than up the mountain. I was about to turn back when I came across across a grassy path leading up the mountain. It had obviously been driven on by a tractor or a car, and looked fairly promising, so I decided to take it.
The path switched back and forth four or five times, and I followed it keeping to the inside of the mountain since I actually wasn’t sure if I was trespassing or not. I was congratulating myself on finding such a well-traveled and easy path up the mountain when the path suddenly ended.
I had two options: go back or climb up the mountain sans path. I looked across the valley and could see that lone tree that had driven me to do this point in the first place. It was calling to me, “Look how close you are, Sammie! You’ve come all this way already! Don’t be a quitter!” So I decided to climb up the mountain without a path.
Hiking Cecil Mountain in Alaska, which I described as “if it had been any steeper, it would have been rock climbing”, prepared me for this hike. The ground was covered in wet, and therefore slippery, leaves, and it was quite steep.
I was dodging tree branches and trying not to slip when I stopped to listen, thinking to myself, “Hmmm…I wonder if there are bears in Austria. Probably not since everyone keeps their chickens and rabbits and goats outside…” But I yelled a cautious, “Heyyyyy bear!” just in case.
I looked around and thought about how easy it would be to get lost coming back down without a trail guiding me and with leaves covering my tracks. I decided to follow a ridge so I’d have a “path” to follow on my way back. Just as I was thinking this, I spotted a barely visible trail. Either someone was just as crazy as me or it was a game trail (a trail created by animals… and perhaps bears….). Either way, I followed it and yelled another, “Hey bear!” just in case.
Seeing as I was slipping every other step, I found a suitable walking stick with a pointed end to help steady myself on the slippery terrain. I dragged my feet every few steps so I would be able to find my way back. I put the walking stick firmly into the ground before each step. And even with all of this, the trail I was blazing got fairly sketchy at times. At one point I was on my hands and knees crawling up a particularly steep and slippery portion and thought, “if I do manage to get up this, getting down is going to be next to impossible.” But I continued upwards anyway because I could see the ridge across the valley and the snow seemed so close to my level!
I looked at my watch at 3:15 p.m. and knew I needed to head back soom because the climb down was going to be treacherous enough without trying to do it in the dark. I gave myself 10 more minutes.
I pushed past a bunch of trees as I was giving myself this time limit, looked up, and there it was – snow on the tippy tops of the pine trees.
A huge smile spread across my face and a huge wave of relief relaxed my entire body. I’d made it!
I walked through the next patch of trees and came to a clearing with… a road.
I laughed to myself. A road. I quickly realized it was most definitely the road I would have taken if I had gone left at the fork in the road! I laughed. All that and there was a road.
I took my time enjoying the snow since I no longer had to make the treacherous climb back down the slippery mountain. I took the road to a farmhouse on the ridge across from me. The ridge stuck out farther than the one I was currently on, promising a view of the entire valley.
And indeed it did. I could see every mountain surrounding the valley for miles, all half covered in a powder sugar snow. It was beyond gorgeous.
I couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face if I had wanted to. I felt warm and light and happy. My soul was on fire and I felt free. I was floating.
As I was taking the abandoned, paved road back down the mountain I realized even now knowing there was a road to the top of the mountain, I preferred the way I took. It was messy, difficult, questionable, scary, and, frankly, dangerous, but it was also exhilarating and fun as hell! Kind of like this funny game in which we are all participating.
In life (as in hiking, it seems) the most difficult paths are the most rewarding, the most beautiful, and shape us into the people we want to be.
So here’s to the messy, the scary, and the slightly dangerous. Here’s to adventure and imperfection. Here’s to difficult paths that push us to our limits and test us. And here’s to the climb, because the summit is beautiful, but it’s the climb you remember.