As luck would have it, my job has led me to Austria for a month. I’m spending it at the northern edge of the Alps in a region where the soft hills and meadows turn into alpine terrain with lakes, gorges and mountains up to 3000 meters high. On the weekends I use my free time exploring the surroundings; and last Saturday I decided to spontaneously hop on a cable car and spend the afternoon on the high plateau that is the Feuerkogel mountain. It was a mixed bag experience in various different ways, but I made the best out of it. Here is how.
As landscape photographers we are accustomed to see every chunk of land as potentially wild and untamed, perfectly suitable as a subject for a great photo. Especially mountainous regions are subject to this selective perception, even to the degree that we construct our own realities by limiting our focus to the parts that live up to our preconceptions. We think the Alps are wild, grand and spectacular. This is perfectly alright, it is our freedom to bee this selective and to transport an image of the landscape that is not entirely true. It is partly because we want to impose this image on the whole landscape, like we argue for the rewilding of regions simply by showing the beauty of the patches of wilderness that are left.
I was not aware of all this when I entered the cable car at the base station in Ebensee and floated upwards to the Feuerkogel. What I saw when I left the top station hit me hard. Instead of finding a romantic high plateau, with blooming meadows, ponds and a vista of the surrounding peaks, I was greeted with an agglomeration of ski-lifts, huts, random gravel roads, lodges, snow turbines and mobile phone masts. After a few minutes I realised that this place was designed for winter and the infrastructure that seemed so arbitrarily positioned on the mountain top served a purpose when the snow arrived. The hiking paradise that this place was marketed as during summer seemed a bit of an audacious picture being drawn.
I overcame this first impression and started hiking in order to escape the realm of the mountain village and to find a view or a place that might live up to my preconceptions. After 30 minutes everything turned from grey to color and I was really enjoying the hike. What was helping me was focusing on the smaller ingredients of the landscape that provided hints of what this place might look like if it was untouched. The shapes of the lime stone cliffs, the textures of the forest in valley below me and the alpine vegetation next to the paths. Nothing of this was actually special, but it helped fixing my compass, resetting my impression of the place.
After summiting the popular Alberfeldkogel (with the Europakreuz at the top, a cross that consists cubes with a stone from every EU country – they might have to change that when the UK finally leaves) I found a view that I really enjoyed. It omitted all the human settlements and infrastructures and allowed for a composition of the kind I described initially. Yes, I wanted to participate in the escapist movement and show the Alps as the wild place I wish it was. I took a note in my head to return at sunset.
When I returned I had another mixed bag experience: All of a sudden my whole view was engulfed in a cloud that pushed up the mountains from the valley below me. My visibility was practically zero, I could not see anything that was more than two meters away. I had 20 minutes to sunset. After ten minutes nothing changed in front of me, instead I had a clear view of the sky above me. I could see high cirrus clouds picking up soft magenta light from the setting sun. On the far left, where I could see a glimpse of the Dachstein range the light was getting really good, but even with a 300 mm lens this was not a real alternative as a composition. So I waited and waited. After five more minutes the cloud moved faster and revealed parts of the scenery before me for fractions of seconds. I started to believe that there might be this one moment where the compositional elements that I chose where unveiled. And it came, like a brief but glorious 'thank you' for my patience. I soaked in the view, the calm soft shades of blue and green and the fresh scent that filled the air. And I pushed the button, of course.
Epilogue: The third chapter to this story is another mixed bag experience. In order to shoot the sunset I let the last gondola go down to the base station at five in the afternoon and decided to hike back to Ebensee. I am glad that I did not think about this endeavour more thoroughly beforehand, I might not have done it. It was 1200 vertical meters to Ebensee and the trail was designed for two and a half hours. The first hour went well; I hiked down fast through open terrain and had no problems with the fading light. Then the trail entered the forest zone and turned into a narrow, stony and winding path down. All of a sudden it was dark for me, I mean really dark, like f2.8 ISO12800 30s dark! I only had the display of my non-smart phone to guide me down. It turned out to be doable in the end, but thanks to my naivety I had an adventure of the third kind. Once again, after the big clouds, nature showed me who was in charge.