Change sneaks up on you, each tiny increment like the wings of a hummingbird, hovering with seemingly invisible forward and back strokes near 80 times per second, until finally the bird lifts and soars away.
But hummingbirds don’t hover at Jungfraujoch, the icy top of Europe that sits between the Mönch and Jungfrau mountains in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. Here, at 3,471 meters above sea level, I found little but an ice castle guarding, not a king or a queen, but the largest glacier in the Alps mountain range, the Aletsch.
I love the majesty of mountains, but hate the way their shadows cast darkness over the places below.
That said, I’ve always found being in the shadows preferable to standing at the top of the peaks, perched on the edge of nothingness. To put in bluntly, I’ve been afraid of heights all my life—none of the challenges I’ve taken have ever eliminated it. I guess that’s why I’m still a prairie girl.
Fear, however, wasn’t about to stop me from experiencing Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch or the Eiger Trail, one of the world’s most famous hikes.
My morning at the mountain top disappeared in a whirl: In and out of the ice palace rooms and sculptures; through the Sphinx observation hall and terrace; a walk on the snow trail that leads to the 120 sq. km. glacier; even smiles for friends on the zipline that flew them down from the castle until they dragged their feet in the snow to stop.
After that, it was time for the Eiger Trail. I’d been getting in shape for months, however, in Saskatchewan we can’t even imagine a landscape as steep as the Alps, never mind hike it.
The mountain stretched above and below me, so I felt tucked into the belt of a tall, skinny giant. It was easy to find the trailhead where it started at a lone wooden gate with no fence attached.
There didn’t seem to be a counter to log the number of hikers, nor would the gate keep animals of any sort from the train depot. After a few moments, I had to ask the guide accompanying our group what purpose it served.
He said, “If you’re too big to get through, you’re probably not fit enough to make the hike, so should take the train to a lower level.”
I stepped between the posts, thinking a gate measure at home might embarrass a lot of Canadians into considering their fitness level more seriously.
The Eiger Trail, now that it stretched out in front of me, seemed little more than a cow path twisting and turning down the mountain. In fact, hikers shared the trail with numerous cattle, the bells around their necks cling-clanging a tune that reminded me of Heidi, the famous Swiss character I’d met in a novel during childhood.
I kept my fear of heights at bay by keeping my eyes focused on my hiking boots, and my thoughts on where to stab my trekking poles into the worn path. Left. Right. Left. Right. The rhythm controlled my breathing and my fears.
Lumpy pebbles and pointy rocks clattered away, tumbling down the mountain as I poked at the ground. I didn’t want to follow them…
Most of the first half hour the path curled down, but then we came to a section where it snaked up a steep incline. Ten minutes into it and my legs felt like rubber sticks. I sat, pulled out my water bottle, and contemplated turning around and returning to the train.
I forged on, one foot after another, following cows, following the group I’d come with, following the steps of other hikers who’d passed this way a decade, even five and ten decades ago.
Pretty soon only the mountain mattered. The sun, a yellow smiley face in the empty blue sky, encouraged me on.
The trail grew tougher again and I pulled myself along by rough ropes hung from weathered posts, panting as I caught glimpses of what must be a village far below.
A waterfall splashed over rock above me, its gurgles mixing into the harmony of cowbells.
Another half hour passed.
Cattle grazed ahead, blocking the path, and we slowed again, waited for them to move. I smiled, turned until I faced down the mountain and caught a breeze that caressed my face.
At last, I stared at the grassy alpine slope spread out around me, so steep I felt I could leap off and fly. I realized I was the hummingbird, finally free of the thing that had challenged my independence—fear.
About the Author: Linda Aksomitis teaches the online courses, Introduction to Internet Writing Markets and Publish and Sell Your E-Books, through community colleges around the world. She has conducted class from the top of the mountains in the Yukon to the rainforests of Borneo to the Mayan jungle in Mexico.