Vierbergelauf: The epic 16 hour hike covering 4 mountains, crossing roads and rail road tracks, and a Carinthian tradition harkening back to Pagan times to welcome spring and mark the 4 seasons of the year (one mountain per season). Just to make it that much more intense the hike starts in the dead of night at midnight from the top of mountain number 1, sends you down the mountain, through the darkened valley, and up mountain number 2 all before the sunrises. Before even setting foot on a mountain top, our motley crew began with a fine dinner prepared by Christine for our weekly Thursday cooking/dinner club.
Christine stuffed us with breakfast for dinner, which included a fine assortment of fruits, pancakes, fritatas, homemade cinnamon rolls, spreads brought back from the Netherlands (including the ever popular Spekuloos and the newly discovered white chocolate spread), and Mimosas. After this massive carbo-load, Nicole, Emil, and I, loaded down with backpacks stuffed with food, headed off to catch our bus from Benediktinerplatz,so grudgingly we waddled our way 20min. to the city center.
Beneditinerplatz was completely dead, not a soul was in sight, so the three of us wandered around in the dark. We spied a group of girls with poles at the ready and hiking backpacks affixed to their neon-colored-specifically-designed-for-hiking-clothed backs, and followed them. As we did, Vicky found us, exclaiming, "There you are!" We shushed her and continued stealthily eying the group of hikers. They stopped at the marked bus stop for normal city buses, so we did, too. Chatting with the group, one of the girls suddenly frowned and took a longer look at Nicole, asking "Nicole?" It was one of her students.
Slowly, more and more hikers joined the group, until suddenly and an old, weathered man appeared, waving us in to the bar, where he crossed names off of the list and collecting our money for the bus.
Soon, the 4 of us piled on to the bus and were heading off to Magdalensberg, mountain number 1. When we reached the bottom, the bus began to slowly inch its way to the top, a long line of cars, buses, and trucks descended, as our bus climbed to the top. Glancing down through the bus window, the lights of what appeared to be thousands of vehicles zig-zagged their way across the mountain behind us in a seemingly endless line. In the parking lot before the final climb to the Gasthaus on the very top of Magdalensberg, the bus dropped us off and we began to ascend. With 2 hours to spare before the kick-off of the 16 hour hike, we paid our respect to the mass being held in the church, which was stuffed with hikers and filled with the sound of Carinthian songs, and headed to the packed Gasthaus. Every inch of space was taken up by either a hiker, a backpack, or a dog. With barely space to move between rooms, the waiters and waitresses somehow managed to squeeze through the trays laden with drinks and food.
By some stroke of luck, we managed to find an open table and the now 5 of us plunked down. Katherine, a friend of Emil's who had lived in Carinthia last year and now teaches in Innsbruck, had joined us at the bus stop in Zollfeld on the way to Magdalensberg.
We warmed up from the now windy, chilly air and at 15 minutes before midnight decided to start off, especially, as so many others already had. Following the hordes of people and small lights affixed to their heads, we joined the stream of ghostly bobbing lights down the mountain.
(The starting point...)
Their poles made a tapping sound as they quickly made their way down muddy paths filled with stones and tree branches, like mountain goats barely glancing at the ground. I on the other hand, equipped with a failing light, could only hear this sound running through my head...
tip, tap, tip
tip, tap, tip
don't fall, don't trip
tip, tap, tip
tip, tap, tip
don't fall, don't trip
I stuck close to Nicole and her flashlight in the dark, as we made it through narrow paths, paved roads and grassy fields down and over towards Ulrichsberg, mountain number 2 of the day.
At some point, I lost Nicole and Emil, but wound up with Katherine and Vicky. Near a rest stop with a fire, we stopped to rest our feet and warm up near the fire. Miraculously, they were giving out free tea and open faced sandwiches, so as we took part, we kept an eye out for Nicole and Emil passing through in the dark. A quick phone call later revealed that they had already passed the camp and were waiting a few minutes ahead. Reunited, we began our journey up the mountain, stopping at one last rest stop along the way to use the toilets, before heading upwards. Up, up, up we climbed in the dark, listening to a mix of heavy breathing, silence, scattered conversations, which we also occasionally picked up in English, and heavy foot falls.
Covered in sweat and feeling and feeling near the point of exhausting we reached a small outcrop before the final climb to the top at about 5am. Here, there was a sea of lights ascending and descending from the inclined path. Vicky plunked down, devouring a banana and refusing to move. Nicole and Emil seconded her vote. Looking into their exhausted faces, Kathrine and I decided to make the final climb alone. Reaching the top, we could make out a giant cross and stone ruins, as well as free supplies from the fire department. After re-filling with water, we called the others and told them to come up to watch the sunrise over the mountains. They arrived and we huddled together, marveling at the yellows and oranges, as they touched the top of the mountains and shown through what remained of the glass windows of the church ruins.
With Emil raring to go, nervous about being the last person to finish the epic hike, we set out in the chilly morning air. As we reached the main descending path, I realized how happy I was to be covering this particular stretch in the light. The bulk of the path was almost straight down, muddy, covered in slick leaves, and strewn with slippery rocks. Using a discovered branch, as a walking stick, I made my way down, slipping once and sliding down a particularly muddy stretch. The group of men walking by with their walking sticks tapping, simply called out to me "Rutschig! geh?" (slippery, huh?) What an understatement.
The sun continued to rise, gently bathing the valley below in a soft light.
Eventually, as the last one, I made it down to the camp at the base of the mountain, where prayers were beginning to ring out, food could be bought, toilets could be used, and benches were in plentiful supply. Plunking down next to Vicky, we all ate breakfast, moaned and stretched, preparing for part 2 of the hike. We set off once again winding over, down, over, and along grassy roads and paved roads toward the next mountain. Nicole, Vicky, and I agreed to make to the 3rd mountain and then decide if we could continue. If not, then the three of us would stop and head home by train or taxi.
Marching endlessly through small towns lined with children waiting for candy, or passing small churches nestled away throughout the valley, we began to feel the warmth of the sun. At 10am, half way up mountain number 3 and near a line of rail road tracks, we decided to give up.
Me and Vicky near the end, feeling exhausted, but still in good spirits
Wishing Emil and Kathrine luck as they continued onwards, the three of us headed off, walking along the tracks in yet another endless march. Reaching a road, a truck loaded with 3 young men slowed down and yelled out the window, "Geil! Super geil!" (essentially: Awesome!), giving us the thumbs up, and pointing further down the tracks. Far beyond the point of exhaustion, we marched onwards. At last we came to a tiny station and could not believe our luck. Like some sort of desert mirage or magical illusion, it appeared out of no where, and we thankfully dove towards the benches.
I bid farewell to my stick, and we bought a ticket back to Klagenfurt. 5 minutes later the train to Villach arrived and we boarded, riding to Villach, and then onwards to Klagenfurt, falling asleep on both trains. Home at last, I gulped down 2 large glasses of water and by 2pm, was asleep in my bed, exhausted.
Ok, we didn't complete all 16 hours or all 4 mountains, but 2.5 out of 4 and 10 hours of 16 is nothing to be ashamed of, at least not in my book.