The sun was just barely visible above an undulating landscape on that Saturday morning. Although the weather forecast had been fair it had also warned of extreme heat. Therefore, they had opted to launch their endeavor as early as possible. Rising temperatures would only make things more difficult. And thus, increasingly dangerous.
They followed a narrow gravel road out of the sleepy mountain village, and into nowhere. He stopped the car when the others told him to. All three of them got out, stretched, and put on their backpacks. A strange feeling of unease suddenly washed over him, clouding his mind and paralyzing his thoughts, but only for a passing moment. He steadied himself and brushed away the sense of dark foreboding. Outwardly, at least, he appeared calm and ready.
When they set off the damp earthen ground felt soft under his boots. They chatted leisurely at first, about this and that, but conversation soon petered out as they ascended steadily through the dense forest. In total, they had about a thousand meters in altitude difference to cover, so he forced himself to keep his talking to a minimum. He knew he had to conserve as much energy as he could, even though what to expect once they crossed the timberline, he wasn’t quite sure. But it was clear that he would need all the strength he could muster then.
The silence was only occasionally broken by the cries of startled birds and the faint conversation of another group of adventurers, somewhere far below. The thick air felt warm and humid on his skin and a thin layer of mist already blurred the view of the valley floor. High above them, the few clouds that dotted the bright blue background looked harmless enough. He considered that a good sign. Where they were going would be the worst place imaginable even in a light drizzle, let alone during a thunderstorm. But despite the cheery outlook, an unexpected change in conditions was always a possibility.
Soon his shirt was drenched with perspiration. Then his socks. His head. His entire body. Little pools of sweat collected in his hair, crept along the edge of his baseball cap until they reached the foremost tip of its sunshield. There, each sparkling droplet briefly crossed his field of vision before falling to the ground. His breathing had turned audible. His nose had started running, but if with snot or sweat he couldn’t tell. He also didn’t care.
Broader slivers of light fell through the widening cracks between the tall trees as they ascended. The sun had risen over the hillcrest, but still hung low in the morning sky. The bright illumination bestowed an unreal beauty onto what would otherwise have been unspectacular imagery. It made the khaki soil glow in the shades of antique golden trinkets. A moss-covered boulder cast his long shadow down the steep slope, its myrtle surface gleamed as if lit from a fire burning within. Tiny wildflowers sparkled in colorful hues that would have fit well in a psychedelic hallucination. Momentarily, he cursed himself for not having brought a better camera. Then he reconsidered and cursed himself for thinking about snapping pictures rather than taking the invigorating scenery in with all his senses.
Gradually, the surrounding vegetation started thinning. When they left the forest after a long, hard march, he allowed himself to relax for a second. He was in better condition than he had feared he would be after that first, energy-sapping, part. Mind you, they had a lot farther still to go.
The gravel path that led onward, out of the woods, was flanked by low brush. Only a single, courageous tree had attempted to prosper here and succeeded in reaching almost its full height. Despite the hostile environment it had managed to tower above what was otherwise a dark green sea of thick undergrowth. That audacious specimen would be the last of its kind they would encounter for a long while.
Suddenly he found himself in the midst of an entirely transformed landscape. The scenery was unrecognizably different from that painted in the earthen browns and leafy greens of the forest. Grey, silver, almost white, was the immense body of rock that now covered nearly his entire field of view. He was surrounded by it, except on one side, where there was nothing at all. Only a steep cliff. Sensing the cold, hard, unyielding massif briefly made him contemplate eternity. And mortality.
The summit they were about to climb was unlike any other mountain. Or, maybe it was just like any other, except for the people who were born here, in that tiny corner of the world. The thought struck him at once that this particular rock had dominated the lives of his forebears for tens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, of generations. Its impact on regional culture, philosophy, even society, had arguably been greater than that of any organized religious or political movement. The imprint it had had on collective consciousness was so much deeper because the ties it had formed with the population went back so much farther. The mountain had been here when humans first settled the area. At times, the distinctive outline of its crest could be seen from hundreds of kilometers away. Unquestionably, its massive body would still reign over the landscape long after mankind would be gone for good. The original name it had been given, according to ancient records, translated best as Vaterberg. Father-mountain.
Its transformation into a touristy destination for skiers in winter and hiking amateurs in summer had of course been unavoidable. Visitors today could reach a high-up alpine lodge conveniently by chairlift, take a few selfies, drink imported beer, snap pictures of the breathtaking panorama, and still be home in time for dinner. The word desecration briefly crossed his mind, but he didn’t allow it take hold in his thinking. Most of that was going on along the opposite flank from where they now stood, anyway.
The route the three had chosen was in no way suitable for mass-tourism. Well documented as it was, it was far from being a walk in the park. Called Rauher Kamm, rough crest, it lay just on the edge of what was advisable for people to attempt to climb without the aid of specialized gear. The iron crosses and brass plaques bearing the names of those who had not made it were grim reminders of the seriousness of their endeavor.
Sooner than he had expected they reached the final plateau. A thin smile flickered across his lips when he registered how the signposting suddenly changed. No longer were the little arrows that were sprayed onto the rock directing them forward. From here on, they pointed straight up. He followed the lead of his friend, who had made this ascent many times before. The few footpaths that still appeared occasionally looked easily navigable at first, only to end abruptly on the edge of steep crevices, treacherously luring the unsuspecting wanderer towards one of the countless dead-ends. He was glad that his ego had lost the battle with his fears so many times, so that he never had been foolish enough to come here on his own. But maybe, just maybe, he would, the next time?
His left hand connected with a solid boulder barely wide enough for his fingers to take hold, his right was already safely anchored on another edge of the rock. He brought one booted leg up, positioned it carefully. Once he was satisfied with the new placement of his extremities he started searching for the next foothold. Found one. Released the grip of one hand. Reached out, tentatively. Hardened his grasp. Moved. Steadied himself. Took a deep breath. Repeat.
The process was unfamiliar to him and initially seemed slow and tedious. It required an attention to detail like no physical activity he had ever engaged in before. But here, the tiniest slip, the briefest loss of concentration, the shortest mental disruption, could well mean nothing less than death. That understanding made him adapt quickly. His movements began to feel like the precise, measured actions of a wild animal navigating a dark jungle.
As he quietly continued upward his attention became increasingly focused. The annoying chatter at the back of his mind diminished. His thinking encompassed only the present moment. His consciousness narrowed down to precisely the task at hand. But then, suddenly, it expanded, incorporating more than just the motions of his limbs. More than the feeble shell of his mortal body. More than his singular self. He was at once one with the mountain. One with the planet that had formed it. One with the friends who had brought him here. One with every person who had successfully made that climb, and one with those had lost their lives in the attempt.
And then it was over.
Breathless, he stumbled across the upper edge. His companion, the point-man, waited, smiling. He looked down at him and said, “wasn’t so hard after all, was it?”