When it's our famous edge-of-the-Alps winter inversion weather,
and the whole of Bavaria and the northern half of Austria are covered in a thick, impenetrable blanket of fog, while above the fog the sky is blue and clear - we get this sort of weather at least once every winter! - there is hardly anything more exhilarating than standing on top of the Untersberg, seeing on one side an endless ocean of clouds to the north as far as the Czech republic, and, when turning around, gazing upon all the peaks of the Salzburg-Berchtesgaden Alps, the Dachstein and the Bavarian-Tyrolean Alps jutting above the fog like continents and islands in the sea, gleaming in white and blue with a perfectly cloudless and bright winter sky above.
Day one: sunset
Having been up the Untersberg on so many of these occasions already, I knew what to expect when I heard the weather report: "Cloudless sky and sunshine for the next three days; in the valleys there can be tenacious fog which will partially disappear during the afternoon." I immediately reserved an overnight accommodation at the Restaurant Hochalm just above the top station of the Untersberg cable-car - occasionally, during the winter season, you can stay overnight up there, given that you reserve in advance by telephone -, took the public bus to St. Leonhard just outside the city of Salzburg and at the foot of the north-east side of the Untersberg, and took the Untersbergbahn cable-car to the top station on 1774 meters (hiking up without skis, as in my case, would have been impossible anyway, what with at least two feet of freshly fallen snow). It was thick, gloomy, impenetrable fog all the way until the cable-car reached 1600 meters, and then, all of a sudden - complete change of scene, or better said, from zero scenery, without any transition, to an absolutely breathtaking one! Anybody who knows the weather characteristics of the northern edge of the Alps and who has been up the Untersberg in winter will know what I am hinting at! See also my photo. I then did the short little scramble to the Geiereck, just right above the Hochalm, from which the view over the north side of the Untersberg massif sinking into the endless ocean of fog and several peaks of the Bavarian Alps jutting out like islands made one feel as if one were on the croatian coast, or, if you prefer it farther north, the Hebrides. Then I headed, continuing along the ski course (The Untersberg has a long downhill skiing course which is kept in order daily during the periods of heavy snow. One goes up from the village of St. Leonhard on the east side with the Untersbergbahn cable-car, and one skis down a considerable amount of kilometers and a height difference of some 1400 meters to the village of Fürstenbrunn on the north side of the Untersberg. There are regular buses commuting between Fürstenbrunn and St. Leonhard, which makes it possible to do this downhill course twice or even three times in one day) plus a short plod uphill through the snow for the summit of the Salzburger Hochthron on 1853 meters, which takes about twenty minutes maximum to get to from the Hochalm restaurant. When I got there it was only four o'clock in the afternoon, so I had still well over an hour to wait before sunset, and it was freezing cold. Best thing to do in this case: Keep moving. Don't just stand still, otherwise the cold really gets to you. So that's what I did between four and five, apart from enjoying the already magnificent view, and, naturally, shooting photos. At five o'clock, at last, change of light. It was so beautiful as the light faded little by little and turned more and more rosy, the sinking sun throwing it's light also on the unchanged ocean of fog that seemed to create fjords into the Berchtesgadener Land, turning mountains into islands, that it seemed almost too good to be true. Yet the cold was really harsh that evening on the summit - I was shooting pictures all the time, but was forced to put my hands into my coat pocket clenching my fists every couple of minutes, it got just too painful for my fingers (By the time I was back at the Hochalm, my fingernails were blue, even though I had been wearing gloves all the time!). By twenty past five, I was the only one left on the summit, the other people up there besides me having made their way down the ski course to Fürstenbrunn. Shortly after, I went down from the summit, all in the evening glow, to the Hochalm, where I spent a much cosier evening and night than I had expected to.
Day two: sunrise
I rose at seven and immediately made my way back to the Salzburger Hochthron. The sun was just at the very point of rising, so only the tops of the peaks were illuminated by the sun. I stopped several times on the way, taking shots like the one on top of this page, and was back up on the Salzburger Hochthron by seven thirty. As I had been the only guest last night at the Hochalm, and the cable-car only opens at nine o'clock, I was rather surprised to find someone else up on the summit, with skis. He told me he had come up from the bottom, starting at I think it was four thirty in the morning, thus still in the pitch dark, making his way up on his skis through 1200 meters of thick fog - so thick it was snowing below it; this I saw when I got back down two hours later! - plus dark night, and arriving at the summit just in time to view the absolutely magnificent sunrise. Then he was going to ski back down - and off to work! I would have stared dumbfounded if I hadn't remembered a similar acquaintance back in 1987 on the Mettelhorn (3406m), 1800 meters above Zermatt, with what one calls hereabouts a Bergläufer - a "mountain runner". Same thing - started before the crack of dawn, did the Mettelhorn all the way from Zermatt in three hours, whistled back down and was able to start his daily work in an office in time!
Come to mention it, people often ski down the Untersberg at night - with head-torches, of course - even in such fog conditions! There was a couple at the Hochalm who had a nice dinner and drink and chat with the owners, who they knew well, and then, all of a sudden: "So, jetzt foarma!" (Austrian for "Okay - lets get going!") I asked them: "Sincerely? At pitch dark night? And with that fog more than two thirds of the way?" "Yes, yes, it's no problem - we'll make it easily!" And so they did. I was glad when about one and a half hours later the owner's wife told me that they had called up on her cell phone to tell her everything was all right and that the couple had gotten down to Fürstenbrunn safely.
After a short chat with the other early morning visitor of the Salzburger Hochthron's summit, he set off to ski down the mountain. Now I was entirely alone on the summit. Alone amidst the wonderfully rose and pink sunlight, the blue peaks, the endless fog ocean to the north, the fog "fjords" and the proud summits of Hoher Göll, Schneibstein, Kahlersberg, Schönfeldspitze, Watzmann, Hochkalter, Reiteralpe, the Steinberge of Leogang and Lofer and the Wilder Kaiser standing parade in an enormous arena. Any trace of any human interference was covered up by the thick, compact layer of fog. In such moments one feels the true deep meaning of Goethe's words "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh'" - peace dwells above all the summits...and also of the statement of a Swiss mountain photographer: "I experienced not only a mountain, but planet Earth."
This time, even though it still was cold, I was able to take pictures without having to worry all the time about my fingers getting frostbitten. After forty-five minutes on the summit, I headed downwards, had an excellent and plentiful breakfast at the Hochalm, and caught the first cable-car heading - back into the fog!
Enjoy a slideshow of the photos I took on this occasion, accompanied by my own recording of "Vers la Flamme" op. 72 by Alexander Scriabin (Russian composer, lived from 1872 until 1915)!
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