The mountain crest is so narrow you could straddle it. On either side, the precipice is several hundred meters deep, and the trail is gone. I now regret having suggested this route to my travelling companions.
We are on the border between Germany and Austria, in the wild heart of Europe, at an altitude of 2000 meters. Nur für geübte—‘Experts only’—said the sign at the foot of the alp; we thought at the time, presumptuously, that it meant us.
Suddenly some heavy artillery fire echoes in the valley, from the military training camp nearby. We hear a young girl scream in terror. Maybe she’s never heard anything like it before, or she is traumatised by some foreign war, but either way she doesn’t help me master the vertigo I’m now sensing—for the first time ever.
This is no good. We have to turn back.
The landscape is like the traffic. The Autobahn is crowded with German cars keeping a steady and legal speed, but every now and then someone flashes by at 230 kilometres per hour. Then it’s wise to keep away (or accept the challenge, if you’re a fatalist driving a Porsche). The valleys are graced with villages and small towns, all neat and clean. The mountains flow above them at a steady altitude, but here and there is a remote and barren peak, hinting at a lack of mercy to those who dare challenge it.
Germany is Europe’s financial engine. It didn’t take long after the devastation of the 1940s before the Germans took the lead. It is a very well-organised nation, especially in these regions, far from the urban chaos fueled by immigration. The minor, southern communities care for their history, their traditional architecture, and faith, both Catholic and Protestant. On every peak stands a big cross.
We won’t be able to reach the wooden cross we saw from the valley. The view here is breathtaking, but right now my head is spinning. Desperately clinging to a rock, I turn to the group and say, as calmly as I can, to keep my worries to myself: ‘We cannot go any further. It’s getting too steep. Let’s go back.’
Though nobody objects, one guy looks disappointed and doubtful. But soon, when he too has started climbing down along the verge, I can hear him hyperventilate, and he is forced to stop several times. Downhill is always worse. We have no mountaineering equipment and we are only here to hike. There are some metal wires in the cliffside, but we have neither harness nor hook, so we must rely entirely on the strength of our arms and hands if we stumble. I have a short hiking stick, but I drop it into the abyss to get my hands free, as do some of my companions.
Taking pictures is out of the question. Pride comes before the fall.
On our way here, along the highways in the middle of the night, the GPS lured us into the posh suburbs of Kassel, a major city. Not a single person could be seen, but we spotted two raccoons. Their growing population is said to originate from runaway pets that American soldiers brought here—certainly not the only alien and harmful American footprint around. Raccoons are cute, but they cause huge problems when they multiply without predators, and they don’t belong in Europe. They have been sighted in Sweden as well, and an official expert in zoology calls the species ‘invasive’. They ruin biodiversity; the indigenous animals disappear, and the fauna are McDonald-ised. Everywhere you go in the world, it seems you see the same group of strong species wiping out the local wildlife.
That’s worth considering … The Alps hold red deer and even bears, and if you’re lucky you might see a capricorn. One-third of the German territory is covered by trees, but hardly any old forests remain, and almost all of the rivers have been straightened out. And yet, when we travelled through this republic, I could imagine the ancient German tribes as they came together at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where their temporary alliance managed to halt the Roman Empire.
Well, times have indeed changed.
Finally, coming down from the mountain, we arrive at solid ground. We are shaken but not hurt. A smartphone informs us that some years ago, a young woman was not as lucky. She fell from the cliff and died right here. It’s no game.
Anyway, we cheer up by climbing another and far easier gipfel. The mist is thick around the summits, so visibility is limited, but all is peaceful and quiet. Once we reach the crucifix I come to think of a suggestive painting by Caspar David Friedrich. We all take a moment of solitary contemplation, regardless of our personal beliefs.
Visiting the Alps is always rewarding—but this time they gave us a most humbling lesson, and who could ask for more?