Views of Untersberg, an Alpine peak that resonates in the local consciousness, fill the windows of the building where my husband works. His office associates recount tales of climbing it or skiing from its summit. Even non-athletes like Himself and I can discover its magic by taking the cable car to the top, which we did on Sunday, a warm and cloudless day.
The first part of the nine-minute ride to the top glides along the craggy rock face of the mountain. From the car we looked down on a small cluster of houses set in green pastures, looking idyllic on this bright day. As we climbed higher, we faced the sheer wall of rock from which sprang conifers with their undergrowth. I didn’t let my mind wander to the slender cables supporting the car, which rocked gently as its wheels passed over the first pylon, near the slope’s crest. A murmur of ‘Ahs’ filled the car as we waited for the swaying to subside.
Suddenly, passing the crest, the car bobbed and, with one or two jerks, dipped. ‘Ahs’ turned to gasps. Below our fragile car, the world had fallen away. We dangled over a deep Alpine valley, far beneath our feet. Between us and that distant valley floor – nothing. There was nothing in front of us save the twitching black cables suspended from distant tracks. Our anchor to security dissolved in the pale air.
To this point, I had kept my anxiety at bay by focussing on the solidity of the mountain immediately facing us. Now I saw away in the distance another peak, our destination, the station on its ridge not more than a speck. I tightened my grip on the railing, willing myself to stay calm. What am I doing here? I should never have come.
The station came into view at last, black cables swooping towards us as we inched, agonisingly, excruciatingly, terrifyingly, toward it. We were metres away, less than a metre, inches away – and the car stopped. We’re almost there! Please, just a few inches more! I want to get off, now!
Even as we finally climbed the few steps and came out into the station I was shaky, reluctant. Having arrived, we would not turn around, but the terror of what lay in front of us was nearly crippling. I delayed, looking at a wall-mounted board illustrating Untersberg’s flora and fauna. Behind me, just feet away, large windows opened onto the alarming panorama awaiting me.
Himself spotted a door and stepped out onto a platform at the side of the structure. I followed, reluctant, keeping my hand on the inner wall, as far from the railing as possible.
We stood at an altitude of 1,776 metres. I looked back in the direction we had come, nearly two and a half kilometres away. Out there, over the edge, stretching to infinity, lay a landscape of miniature fields, plains, rocks, trees, rivers and lakes, and faint clusters of pastel buildings. It was beautiful, but my fascination with the view was overwhelmed by primal terror, the suffocating, irrational sense – too visceral to be deemed belief – that even by looking into the distance I would be sucked into the void. Holding the wall, I went back into the station while a boy of about nine, bright in an orange tee-shirt, posed for pictures on the platform.
Taking the next cable car down was unthinkable. I would have to find a way to carry on, like the others around us. Beyond the station, a path zigzagged down the side of the mountain toward a timber building. I looked down then quickly looked away. Path and building seemed utterly exposed. One slip of the foot and one would be hurtled away. I thought of how we had hiked into the Grand Canyon, down trails that faced the vivid depths. It was walking down the exposed face that made me tremble; walking up, back toward the canyon rim, was bearable.
There was another path leading up, past a slope beyond which I couldn’t see. Away across the distance of several hundred metres, a rounded summit was silhouetted against the blue sky, a tall narrow cross on top it. Tiny figures seemed to move along its ridge. I looked away. Don’t make me climb up there.
Instead we took an almost gentle walk along a wide rising footpath. I stayed as close as possible to the landward side, grasping any rail or wall or rock I passed. Passing the terrace of a timber-built gasthaus crowded with people eating and drinking beer in the sun, we reached a resting place where the view off into the distance was protected by grass-covered boulders. Beyond us, vertical shafts of rock buttressed the wall of mountain, relieving the sense that nothing lay between me and the abyss. Tiny alpine flowers of yellow clustered in the grass. Vivid, deep-blue gentians fascinated me, calling to mind a D. H. Lawrence poem I’d read years ago and forgotten. Two women in their late sixties sat on a wood bench next to a man with an enormous stomach like a thick pad protecting him. Families with children clamoured up the gentle rise of hill behind them. It was clear that this expedition did not necessarily demand athleticism or mountaineering skill.
‘You’ll get used to it,’ Himself reassured me. ‘It’s a natural response. Just give it some time.'
It was time to eat, so we settled on the terrace of the Hochalm gasthaus, which first opened in1962, a year after the cable car began operating. Opposite us, a handsome woman with high cheek bones rested her head against the weathered timber boards of the house, eyes closed, sun soaking her deeply tanned face. Our own skin felt thin and tender, vulnerable to burning at this altitude. One of the men at our communal table shared his sunscreen. We ate, drank beer and gradually the binding fear loosened.
My husband went boldly to the edge of the path that wound along the mountain’s north-facing slope. I stood a little back, protected by a JCB parked on the path, grasping its side. Below the countryside spread itself before us as we tried to make out landmarks. The Festung – the 11th century fortress that dominates Salzburg from its hill by the river – looked as insubstantial as a matchbox. Through the blue haze, we could just barely make out the pilgrimage church Maria Plain that stands on another hill near our flat. We tried to follow the course of the river as it snaked through the landscape on its way north toward Germany. Following thin green lines of riverside trees, we located the confluence of the Salzach and the Saalach, a few minutes’ bicycle ride from our flat. A sudden roar of engines drew our attention to the large oval that marked the airport’s runway. A jet would be taking off, but it took seconds to locate it as it lifted, toy-like, over the landscape beneath it. And far off, across a wide expanse of plains and rolling hills, lay a large blue lake, the Weitsee, one section of the Chiemsee – the Bavarian Sea – in Germany.
Though the mountain seemed to fall away just beyond the path, my husband pointed out that the slope below it was gentle. Daring myself and trusting him, I inched a little closer. He was right; covered with low-growing dwarf pines, the slope rolled away gently. Even if I fell – unlikely – it wouldn’t spell disaster. I began to regain confidence in the solidity of the ground under me. The predictability of gravity could again be trusted.
At last we started along the trail, walking along a wide path thick with pebbles, then stopping to investigate the crusted snow that still lay in thick patches in protected spaces. We were moving, inevitably, so it seemed, in the direction of the high summit topped by the cross. Looking up, I could see it looming overhead, surrounded by nothing but blue sky dotted with white clouds. I pushed away the dread of standing there and followed my husband’s lead. As we moved on, I took it one view at a time, one bend, one sudden drop, one hairpin turn at a time. Where the trail ascended up steep timber-edged steps, I clutched the rail; where none was available, I grabbed at stones jutting out of the mountain wall. Mostly, while we climbed, I tried to avoid looking into the distance, grounding myself by focussing on the solidity of my immediate surroundings. Somewhere along the way, Himself received a text. It the mobile network alerting him to rates in Germany. We had crossed the border.
The picture taken of Himself and me on the summit – 1,853 metres – shows my arm twisted awkwardly behind me as I hold onto the side of the cross mounted there. But I had made it, and from there I admired the view in all directions. Off to the north, we could see mountains, still covered in snow, that we hadn’t seen from the valley. In another direction, the half-dome Berchtesgaden – site of the Eagle’s Nest – stood closest to us, some ten or 15 kilometres away. As to my fear, it had not so much disappeared as become manageable. All the same, when Himself climbed onto the level top of a small pedestal – about 18 inches square and half metre tall – the highest point on the summit – I refused to follow him. The sight of him standing on the raised stone support, no matter how stout, with the vast emptiness behind him, paralysed me.
I dreaded the return walk, when, rather than being able to face the mountain as I had on the ascent, I would have to face the vacancy in front of me. I focused on placing each foot carefully on the ground beneath me. As long as I didn’t look out, it would be okay. Still, I couldn’t help but see, amid the beauty, the sheer drops just beyond the trail.
‘Coward!’ I told myself. How could I be so frightened, when so many others climbed without apparent fear? Where was my courage?
Then I remembered a friend who, following severe abuse and abandonment in childhood, remained haunted by emotional trauma extreme enough to make all relationships problematic. For him, even simple interactions could be perilous, and he fought to maintain stability through iron-willed control.
He likened this effort to his weekly climbs up Salt Lake City’s granite peaks: ‘I work each day as if that day were a little life, doing my best, not trying to jump off the cliff, or gaze over the precipice, simply concentrating on each step as I do when I'm walking the edge of a mountain range, since I know that not concentrating on the single step will lead to falling off the side.’
It wasn’t cowardice to feel afraid. Courage is what made it possible to go to the summit and back. Avoiding what would unbalance me was simply sound judgment.
And it turns to be, quite literally, a question of balance. Acrophobia, the fear of heights – what’s called Höhenangst in German – is thought to be triggered when the body’s signals that it is maintaining equilibrium are disrupted by the absence of the visual cues it normally relies on. Undoubtedly, this offers an evolutionary advantage, warning us of potential danger. It’s no wonder the response is so visceral.
Again, as he so often is, my husband was right. While I still grabbed rails or rocks or any handle available, I was able to walk, if not at the edge of the path, at least in its centre. By the time we boarded the cable car for the return trip, exhilaration and something like pride carried the day.