Halfway up a mountain we stepped from a swaying cable-car onto a narrow platform, a transfer point where uneasily we boarded another swaying cable car which would take us near the top. It was difficult knowing where a steady point in the world might be.
The mountain was the Zugspitze which straddles the frontier between Austria and Germany. As an act of amiable diplomacy, an Austrian Emperor had gifted a spare alpine peak to his German counterpart who could lay no claim to any mountain reaching 10,000 ft in altitude. A line was given a nudge aside on the maps.
We were making our approach from Erwald, an alpine village on the Austrian side. The second cable car brought us to a mountain hut established for skiing, still in Austria. Our intention was to walk into German territory, then make our way back down the mountain to our base. What that involved was unexpected. We had to pass through a dimly lit tunnel hewed from the solid rock. When we set out the walls were slippery with ice. There was only just enough head room as we walked in single file, on and on. Then we reached a plain blue wooden door, which we needed to pass beyond. It opened readily enough, and we entered Germany. This was the frontier: no border guards, no passports, no delays. Deep in the bowels of a mountain we had moved from one country into another with its distinct legal system, even if the language was held in common.
How deeply do national frontiers go? At the centre of the Earth they must all converge on a point and become irrelevant. Conversely how high do they rise? In outer Earth-space there seems to be a free for all where anyone can toss up a satellite.
Eventually we came out into daylight at the top of an enormous scree slope dropping away in front of us. As mountains weather under the action of frost and snow, ice gets into cracks in the rock and flakes pieces away. Trying to find secure footholds where the scree was liable to shift, we picked our way down the slope, noting that even at this altitude in such a barren terrain a few plants managed to grow.
Our immediate destination was a mountain hut, (currently assailed by bedbugs). Refreshments would be available there, much needed after what was already becoming a strenuous walk. So, this was indeed Germany, for some of us a first entry. To mark the occasion, at the hut we made sure to sign the Visitor’s Book, a trivial sort of act yet it felt significant at the time. When arriving in the USA I had to allow the border official to take a mug shot but I didn’t leave my signature anywhere to show that I’d been.
After a rest we spent the rest of the day descending the mountain on foot to return to our base. Rough paths led us up to a long ridge, an arête, which must have provided the frontier, though not marked in any way. This was the back door into another country. The route up to the ridge was steep. On the other side the slope fell away sharply. We had to edge down a series of steps holding onto a reassuring fixed rope. But the final step proved very deep and at that point the rope ran out which did nothing for the more nervous members of our party. Beyond that we just had a long trudge descending to Erwald, where the cows were let out in the mornings to saunter along the main road down to their meadow. Later in the day they would return unaccompanied to the security of each one’s own stall, just a stone frontier between them and the humans next door.