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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe
Specials
Julia Rothhaas

Back on the Trails

Updated on 19.07.2021 in Sports, Photos: Peter Neusser

After a long time out injured, our author wants to finally climb a mountain again.
After a long time out injured, our author wants to finally climb a mountain again.

Our author used to love hiking, but since an accident she has had a fear of the mountains. Now she's keen to get back on the trails – and rediscover part of her old self.

Finally, I'm back on top of the world. I am sitting on a bench in front of the Coburger Hütte hut gazing towards the craggy rockface bathed in the last few rays of the setting sun. Step by step I have made my way to this point at 1,900 metres above sea level. No cable cars, no ski lifts. Just leg power and determination. I feel myself slowly welling up, tears filling my eyes. I am overcome with emotion.

For many people a trip into the mountains is something to look forward to. Next weekend, maybe. Or during your next holiday in the Alps. For me it is a lot more than that. Since December 2016 I have been dreaming of the moment when I could finally again set foot on my beloved alpine terrain. Back then I was lying in hospital with a triple-fractured ankle. Metal rods protruded in almost every direction. Above my head dangled a red button with which I could contact the nurses on duty. On that day the mountains seemed a million miles away. I guess you only miss something when it is gone.

Our author doesn't know when she will make it back into the mountains, but it can't be soon enough.
Our author doesn't know when she will make it back into the mountains, but it can't be soon enough.

My road back to the mountains was long and winding. It took me a full six months to be able to walk without crutches – and another year until I could walk without pain in my ankle. Even then, all I could manage was an hour of easy strolling on the flat. And yet, in the months that followed, I found myself wondering more and more what it would be like to be back in the mountains. Eventually I decided to put my thoughts to paper. After all, I reflected, there must be lots of people in similar situations. People with a love of walking and hiking who, after an accident or operation, maybe even a hip or knee replacement, suddenly wonder if they will ever get back to enjoying the sport they love.

In summer 2019 I am finally ready. I have organised the route and a guide in advance – but in the months leading up to my walking holiday my ankle gets more and more painful. In the end I have to cancel just a week before I am scheduled to travel. It turns out that bone tissue has formed in a part of the ankle where it should not be. That, in turn, has pushed the joint (full of various pins and screws) into an unnatural position. For several weeks I had done my best to ignore the pain, but in the end I had to go and see the doctor – and he tells me that I need another operation. Four months later, in November 2019, I can finally walk again without crutches. Despite the setback I am confident that next spring I will be out and about exploring the mountains on foot. Three months later I am back in hospital. I took a tumble while skiing and broke my hip. Once again I find myself looking out of the hospital window at my beloved mountains, dangling in front of me like a carrot in front of a hungry donkey. I'm fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have been given a bed looking out on the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain. From the physiotherapy room I can see the craggy peak of the Notkarspitze.

Step by step

About six months later it is time for another attempt at Project Hiking. We (photographer Pete, mountain guide Regina and I) meet at the bottom of the lifts. The last few days have been rainy, but we are greeted by the sun. It doesn't take long for me to realise that I have chosen the perfect guide: Regina Poberschnigg is not only an experienced mountain guide but also a member of the local mountain rescue service, so if anything should happen she has the right people on speed-dial. It has been such a long time since I was last in the mountains that I have developed a certain level of anxiety. Will I be able to conquer this challenge – not just physically but mentally?

Fear is a constant companion.
Fear is a constant companion.

I find myself constantly thinking, "What if I slip and break something?" It is a fear which has been with me every day since my two accidents. On my bike I am afraid of crashing. In the shower I am afraid of slipping. Even as I walk down the street I worry about tripping over a crack in the pavement and landing flat on my face. I have a recurring dream where I am falling. I often wake up in the middle of the night after having tripped and fallen in my dreams. It's sheer hell. When I was younger I was fearless. Wherever my travels took me – from the scree of Lombardy to the mountains of Tirol to the glaciers of Nanga Parbat – I didn't for a moment think of what might happen if I slipped, fell or missed my step. Now it's all I think about.

"There are several different routes up to the Coburger Hütte," says Regina. She explains that the most beautiful way up is via the Hoher Gang, with a little bit of easy climbing and some steep sections. I hear the words "steep" and "climbing", but I am determined to take the most attractive route up to the hut. The sun is shining. I'm in the mountains. What could happen? I'm even a little surprised at my own courage.

Certain sections of the ascent to the Coburger Hütte include steel ropes for safety.
Certain sections of the ascent to the Coburger Hütte include steel ropes for safety.

The first section winds its way up through a forest of fir trees. The earth is damp and has that unmistakeable smell only found in the mountains. The birds are singing. And at the same time, the roots and rocks that dot the trail are smooth and slippery. Before I have time to really think, my legs start to shake and I stop dead in my tracks. I am so embarrased – after all, what is there to be afraid of? We've made it less than half an hour from the car park and my worst fears are already coming true.

Thankfully, Regina knows exactly what to do. She is in her late fifties and as a member of the local mountain rescue service has experienced plenty of extreme situations. As such, she knows exactly what it takes to calm someone down and assuage their fears. She walks up to me, takes my by the arm and says, "It's okay. Don't worry." She then explains the best way of negotiating terrain such as this, using my hiking poles for extra stability and holding onto branches and rocks in case I lose my footing. Breathing is also a really important aspect, she explains. Deep breaths calm the body and the mind. I do as she says and soon find myself making quick progress through terrain which just ten minutes ago had seemed an insurmountable challenge.

A harness around the chest gives confidence and security.
A harness around the chest gives confidence and security.

"Hoher Gang" translates as "High Walk" and is a pretty good description of what awaits us. We make our way up through a wide but steep couloir. Regina explains that the trail we are on only opened again in July after a landslide. "A landslide?!" Before I can say anything, Regina explains that work has been carried out to secure the mountainside and eliminate any risk of the slope slipping again. I am slightly reassured, but nevertheless I grip my poles super-tight as we make our way up through this section. We make good progress, but every now and then I can feel the fear creeping back in. My legs begin to shake, quivering like a flag in the alpine wind. We have reached the final section. All I need to do now is grab hold of a small rocky ledge and pull myself up, but I just can't get my head around it. Regina has the patience of an angel. She talks me through each move, explaining to me like a guide to a blind person where to put each hand and foot. It takes a while for my body to listen to what my mind is saying, but finally I manage to do it. The sense of relief is overwhelming.

Stronger together

We take a break at Coburger Rast, a beautiful vantage point overlooking the valley. Soon it is time to head off once again, this time onto the bit of the ascent involving a little rock climbing. This kind of climbing route is known as a "via ferrata" (Italian for "iron road"). It means there are iron handholds and footholds as well as a steel rope from start to finish. We both put on the necessary safety equipment before we set off. I have an additional harness around my chest. To be honest, I feel like a bit of an idiot. The idea is that whenever I am unable to clip into the steel rope myself, Regina will hold onto a rope attached to my chest harness. A bit like a dog on a leash, I guess. I just hope nobody sees me. As ridiculous as I feel, I have to admit that this arrangement does make me feel a lot safer. I know that I could still fall (and probably pull Regina down with me), but the connection between us gives me an extra layer of confidence. As we make our way up the sheer rock face I find myself growing in confidence. After all, I have made it all this way. Surely it can't be much further now. Finally we make it to the top of the via ferrata. The reward for our work? Lush pastures with lambs frolicking, the Zugspitze mountain reflected in the turquoise waters of the Seebensee lake. We are even treated to the unusual sight of Buddhist monks in their orange robes strolling around the lake. I can't remember when I was last this happy.

The shimmering water of the Seebensee lake makes it easy to forget all your worries.
The shimmering water of the Seebensee lake makes it easy to forget all your worries.

Half-way there, but after a quick break at the lake it's time to keep going.
Half-way there, but after a quick break at the lake it's time to keep going.

I cool my feet in the lake. Everything hurts: my ankle, my hip, my lower back. Eventually I raise my eyes to the horizon and see ... the Coburger Hütte. Seriously? I thought we were almost there. I chuckle to myself inside. I spent almost half my childhood in the mountains of Tirol. I know what it means to hike. My father would take us kids into the mountains whenever he could. Later in life I came back to Tirol again and again. I know what the mountains are all about. And now, all of a sudden, I find myself being overtaken left, right and centre by other people – some of whom are significantly older than me. I feel a little embarrased. But it is what it is. After all my body has been through in the last few years, it is no disgrace that there are some days when I feel less like 40 and more like 70.

The slippery approach to the Coburger Hütte is hard work.
The slippery approach to the Coburger Hütte is hard work.

From the shores of the Seebensee lake there is another steep section up to the Coburger Hütte. We take the "old" route, as Regina explains it is more attractive and less busy. That may be so, but one glance at all those loose rocks and all I can think of is the potential for slipping and hurting myself. Still, this time I am determined that my mind won't rule me. I keep going, whatever nonsense the little voice inside my head is telling me. Now I am in charge. It feels good.

Then the moment finally arrives. We are there! I feel like shouting out to the world, to every single person on the hut's terrace, that I have made it. That I have conquered my fears. I drink in the view. The mountains look so different up here. Everything is closer. Bigger, but at the same time somehow smaller. And most definitely more beautiful. I had forgotten just how wonderful it is to be in the mountains. My heart sings with joy.

A fine reward for all that hard work. Up at the Coburger Hütte awaits fine views and a hearty meal.
A fine reward for all that hard work. Up at the Coburger Hütte awaits fine views and a hearty meal.

More than just a hike

At dinner I look at the people on the tables around us. "I am one of you," I think to myself – even if most of them will be up early the next morning to take on another challenging hike or climb. I won't be joining them, but that doesn't matter. I am up here. I am one of them.

To be honest, I'm pleased that none of them are around the next day to see me crawl back down into the valley. This time we don't take the steep trail we came up but instead the wide open path. It isn't the most enjoyable part of the hike, trudging down as my ankle and hip remind me of the excesses of yesterday's adventure. I decide that in future I will only do hikes where I can walk up and take the cable car back down!

After the success of the previous day, it's time to head back down into the valley.
After the success of the previous day, it's time to head back down into the valley.

By the time evening comes I am lying in the bath reflecting on what I have achieved. The last two days were much more than just a hike. For me they were a kind of closure – a final goodbye to years of accidents and injuries, anger and frustration. No longer am I the invalid people have to wait for. I have managed to do something I never thought I would do again. Nobody could have convinced me that it is possible – I had to prove it to myself.

In the weeks that follow I realise another change in me. For some people it may seem ridiculous, but for me it is a huge relief. I am sure it is my time in the mountains that has made the difference: I no longer dream of falling.

Fear of the mountains? Conquered.
Fear of the mountains? Conquered.

Julia Rothhaas, a freelance journalist from Munich, is lucky that her parents were so deeply fascinated by Tirol that Julia and her siblings spent most of their childhood at the foot of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains. Her favourite thing to do in winter is skiing, doesn’t matter where. Her favourite thing to do in summer is jumping into the Hintersteiner lake after a long mountain hike.

Julia Rothhaas
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