I went to the Rax – the last peak in the Austrian mountains – with a novel in mind. I had planned it as a piece of nature writing segueing into coffee-house debate in Vienna over our looming environmental crisis. The novel, Mountain Calls, is a travelogue of my last two significant trips to the Rax, both of which were in late winter. The original experiences of blizzard and snowstorm on the peak mingled with early Spring birdsong in the valley below are now overlaid with the experience of honing the passages of a book that give them second life. With a little effort however I can dig the original memories out from under the prose, and in doing so I am transported.
I start, cold, in the car park outside the guesthouse in the valley. Here I have to look up at the mountain wreathed in weather, an early thrush calling. I set off fast, to warm up, and arrive at the cable car ready for the three thousand feet ascent. The valley spreads itself out below, we punch through clouds, we arrive for the fitting of snowshoes and sticks. Hauling myself up the first slope towards the plateau, the interior, I prepare to abandon myself to the call of the mountain. For, yes, it has called me back again.
I walk, flomp, flomp, over creaking snow in the odd but exhilarating quadrupedal form of propulsion over the tops of small pines poking out of drifts, who knows, twelve feet deep in places. On a wind-scarred slope further on the snow has been scoured away for mosses and dried grasses to sustain a herd of deer; struggling up the next slope I glide over where it has been heaped high. I stop at the old guesthouse that was Sigmund Freud’s favourite summer-time retreat, now boarded up with shutters and a twenty-foot drift. From there it is time to head to the interior where what ski-tracks remain are being erased by fresh snowfall. I am completely alone now.
I stop, panting, the wet snow falling on a pine bough just warmed enough by a fitful sun to yield its fragrance. I have to get my bearings carefully now under the anonymous greyness of low cloud, then conscious of the big personalities of cloudbanks above me lit up here and there. I have come to listen, reminded that once in my home snow-shires near Oxford I had also stopped to listen and had been surprised by the sound of falling snow, then powdery and cold enough in a trillion tiny collisions to add up to a murmuring, the sound of love.
I have chosen a course to a pine on a ridge, perhaps over the heart of the mountain, a place where the story of its heart and the story of my heart would mingle. A crow, or perhaps an Alpine chough, calls in the silence. At the ridge the opposite peak of the Schneealpe fades in and out of view with the fury of the rising snowstorm; I have a glimpse of the landmark that will take me back to safety; I stop now for as long as cold and gathering dusk will permit. The grey light is brilliant, rounded, my eyes softly range over the endless monochrome expanse, over bush, tree and snow-mounds, snow-fields, snow-eddies. No words come to me, unlike the time in the valley at sunset when the peak loomed larger the longer I walked away from it but unable to prevent its call, its query, its charge. It has asked me to ask the world, what are we doing? The mountain knows us as the pinnacle of Nature, it knows us as the lord of all creatures, it knows us as the discoverers of unconditional love, so it asks us, what are you doing? Only here, with all trace of the human erased, can a human be asked this question; only in blizzard and snowstorm are the elemental forces of Nature powerful and dangerous enough to ask of the most powerful and dangerous animal, the human: what are you doing? What on Earth are you doing?
Mike King is a writer living in rural Suffolk, England. His environmental novel Mountain Calls was published in 2017. You can find his books and essays at stochasticpress.com and on Amazon. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, Ethical Capitalism. Photo by the author.