I don’t tend to make New Year resolutions – perhaps because of football seasons and growing up surrounded by people who work in Higher Education, autumn always feels much more like a “new beginning” that the 1st January – but I have decided to hatch a plan for some point over the next twelve months: to climb what was the highest mountain in East Germany…
On December 25th 2006 our daughter Lotte was six months old. We were celebrating her first Christmas with some friends in a small town on the edge of the Harz Mountains, and decided on the day itself to drive into the National Park and go for a walk. The Harz straddle the border between the German states of Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, which means that during the years of division the inner-German border. We were staying in the old West. We went for a walk in the old East.
The summit of The Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz and in northern Germany, stands two kilometres from the old the border and thus during the long years of division was a restricted zone, complete with listening stations belonging to the Soviet Union and East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, aka the Stasi. One of the symbols of reunification in the early months of 1990 was the reopening of the summit to walkers from both sides of the divide. From 1994 it has been fully open, and the train to the top (originally built in 1899) was also restored.
On that Christmas Day then there was nothing to stop us climbing to the 1141.1m summit to look down on central Germany… we could even have taken the train. But that was impossibly expensive, and I have a reflex aversion to trains going up mountainsides (less so cable cars, but that is a different story), and it happened to be one of the average 300 days a year that the mountain is shrouded in mist and fog, so we could barely see a hundred yards up the path in front of us.
Oh yes, and we had a six month old child in a carrier for whom we had forgotten to pack any shoes, and so she was left wearing a pair of adults socks on her feet in an attempt to keep them warm. We were hopelessly unprepared for anything other than what we did; a couple of hours on the lower slopes, never more than twenty minutes from the resort town of Schierke at the foot of the mountain where we had parked our car.
Still, even pottering around the lower slopes it was easy to imagine why the Brocken had become a mountain steeped in mythology and folklore, a place that had attracted writers such as Goethe and Heinrich Heine as well as countless other climbers, walkers, poets and dreamers. Walking In these woods those fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm are never far from mind, whilst you sense that if you wait long enough on Walpurgis night you will catch a glimpse of the witches of Europe who fly to the Brocken to hold their revels with the gods.
And of course the fact that, with the exception of that Christmas Day in 2006, the Brocken exists to me only in the imagination, in the tales and the mythology of this mountain at the heart of Germany and German culture, gives this mountain never climbed a kind of magical appeal… and so I made a loose sort of vow to come back when Lotte could remember her own shoes and walk to the top under her own steam. Now it is time to slowly put the plan into action…
So there we have it… the first in a series of posts about a mountain never climbed, reflecting on the history and the folklore surrounding the Brocken, that will hopefully inspire me one day to the top, and to stand above the tree line in the heart of Germany.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton