Twenty years ago I was happily scrambling about on all the hiking trails visible from the top of this mountain, including the one leading up to it. Now, I take the cable car, and discover that even walking down the well-tended paths on the summit with carefully carved out steps is tough on my knees. No way am I walking down to the village below, over any of the oh so familiar routes.
I turn back and stroll around the beautifully paved summit platform drinking in the panorama: I know these mountains well, having lived so close for almost twenty years in my forties and fifties, when I was still fit enough for day-long hikes up and down the steepest tracks.
I know exactly what the path feels like underfoot over there, what the view is like looking up from that little lake, where the path from it leads to, how it smells in the forest on that hillside, what flowers bloom on that mountain pasture, what lies just behind that craggy rock. Names I had forgotten come back to me as my eyes range over the hills and crags: Fänern, Kamor, Ruhsitz, Staubernkanzel, Saxer Lücke, Sämtiser See, Bollenwees, Fälensee, Alp Sigel, Äscher, Ebenalp, Füssler, Schöfler, Säntis, Bommern, Gartenalp, Kuhschnurweg … And there in the distance is the village where I lived until 2005.
Twenty years: yes, it must be at least that long since I last stood here. They have developed the summit for tourists, with a self-service restaurant downstairs topped by a more sophisticated revolving restaurant that opened eight years ago, so that’s all new to me and not unpleasant or ugly. I am grateful that I don’t have to stumble over the uneven stony surface that used to be here, and can lean on the railings as I gaze on this lovely scenery: gratitude for the convenience, mixed with a pang of regret that I am getting older and a bit wobbly and need that support.
My friend suggests eating in the revolving restaurant, but it’s just twelve noon and the Germanic stomachs of the tourists send punctual signals. They got there first. We aren’t really hungry so we go back outside, wander around a while and then sit on a bench in the sun. It must be about 30°C but there’s a breeze. At 1 pm we try the restaurant again, and find seats. The restaurant rotates through 360° in one hour, so you don’t really feel any movement; it’s just when you glance through the window now and again that you realise the Austrian mountains have slid off to the left and you are looking down the Rhine towards Graubünden, or the peaks of the Alpstein have hove into view.
For old times’ sake I take an Appenzell cheese salad, which turns out to be a huge plateful and delicious, and a glass of Bernecker white wine – you have to come to Switzerland to appreciate how good our wines are: I don’t think any are exported, the quantities produced aren’t so great so we drink them all ourselves.
Now there is no question at all of walking down the mountain. If I felt wobbly before, just that one little glass of wine, the rotation and the altitude (only 1795 m above sea level) combine to make my walking stick an essential third leg. Once more around the block, then back to the cable car. Eight minutes later, we are down in the village. I need a last photo before we drive away, but the sun is so bright I can’t see what I’m snapping, and there’s a Mercedes behind me impatient to move off the car park, so in my haste I find I’ve chopped the top off the mountain. Never mind: perhaps there’ll be another visit on an equally beautiful day and a chance for another pic, before the next twenty years are up.
My apologies for the poor quality of the iPhone photos, due to the bright sun and my inability to hold the phone still, but you’ll find better ones on the website of Hoher Kasten.