When I threw back the curtains on Thursday morning, it was to see that the hills closest to Obergurgl (Austria) had been sprinkled with snow, and the higher peaks had disappeared completely behind a curtain of white cloud. In all my years of coming here, I have never seen snow so late. The locals say that it isn’t ‘unknown’ to get snow in July – after all, this is the highest parish in Austria, and snow can fall at above 2000 metres at any time of the year. But still, there is a novelty to looking out of the window onto a winter wonderland.
Our neighbours at breakfast are ecstatic. The lady can’t wait to get up above the snow line. Her enthusiasm is both touching and exhausting as she bounces off, dragging her long-suffering husband behind her although he hasn’t quite finished his boiled egg. After they’ve left, the restaurant seems very quiet.
We wander off to get a coffee, and I take photos of the church, and the local hills. I often wonder what the village is like in the winter, and this is just a little taster. During this holiday we have talked to several people who have come to Obergurgl to ski, and to me it sounds like hell. The figures speak for themselves. 450 people actually live in the parish of Obergurgl. In the winter, a further 1500 workers arrive to service the 4500 visitors who can be here at any one time. There are tales of two hour queues for the pizzeria, and of discos that go until the wee small hours. In other words, it wouldn’t suit a tired old introvert like me. I love the peace and quiet here, the chance to hear myself think.
We head up in the lift to the Hohe Mut.As we rise, the hills and rocks become whiter and whiter. Everything is monochrome. The path that we walked earlier this week is a black scar against the snow. Icicles hang under the rocky outcrops, and all sensible marmots are bedded down in their burrows for the day. Near the top, everything whites out, and we are almost into the lift station before we really see it.
There are men sweeping away the snow, which is about eight inches deep at the top. The children’s playground is covered in snow, and someone has built a little snow man. On the roof of the hut there is a single bird, some kind of baby robin or stone chat. It chirrups pathetically. Has it lost its parents somehow in all the confusion? I look around, but can’t see any other birds.
We go inside where it’s warm, and I have a cup of hot chocolate. There aren’t many other people. Some folk will still decide to walk, I’m sure, but after three solid days of rain and then this snow, it’s too dangerous for us to attempt anything significant. We discuss Theresa May’s reshuffle, and how on earth Boris Johnson is now Foreign Secretary, but fortunately it all seems a little distant. We can see exactly nothing through the window.
Finally, we decide to head back down. Out by the lift, the same little bird is standing all on its own in the snow, chirruping. We didn’t bring our lunch packs up with us, but when John finds a few crumbs and throws them to the bird, it ignores them. I suspect that it is just out of the nest, and would normally still be being fed by its parents. I wonder if this is what climate change looks like – a lost bird calling out in a wilderness of white. Sometimes it takes something small to bring things into focus. We cannot bear the immensity of the world’s problems, but we can relate to a single story, an individual.
As we journey back down through the whiteness, I see that a flock of sheep are moving at speed back down the hill, looking for forage that isn’t frozen. I’ve noticed this before with the domestic animals on the mountains – the horses come down in advance of a storm, and the sheep will stand in patches of snow if the weather gets too hot. The cows are indoors today, so the silence is intensified by the lack of the omnipresent cow bells. Everything is at a standstill, everything is waiting for this cold front to move on so that summer can come back, which it is due to do in the next few days. But by that time, we will be home, and back into the normal run of things.
In truth, it’s time to be going home. I miss my bed, and cooking my own food, and my friends and family. I miss the foxes, and the cemetery, and my garden. But my batteries are recharged, and I’m ready for whatever comes next. That’s the beauty of this place: it forces me to live a bit more in my body, and a bit less in my head. It reminds me that humans are animals, and that we are meant to move, rather than to sit hunched over a computer. And most of all, it reminds me of our relationship to the animals and plants around us, and how interconnected we all are, in London as well as here in the Alps. We are all subjects of nature, however much we deny it.