When the mountain calls...

What are people looking for in the mountains? Mountain guide Peter Groß and former hotelier Eduard Aberham ask why we climb mountains.

Sir Edmund Hilary, the first climber of the world’s highest mountain is said to have answered this question with these words:. “because they are there”.

Many people may find his answer simplistic, casual and perhaps even defiant, but certainly not very meaningful. But Hilary is at least right in one thing - the mountains are there. And because it makes no difference to them whether we climb them or not, it is up to us humans to give mountaineering a meaning. The mountains themselves will not give us an answer.

The proximity to the mountain as motivation

One person who can relate well to Hillary's approach towards mountaineering is the Lower Austrian mountain guide Peter Groß. He has spent his entire life in the mountains - from the Alps to the Andes to the Caucasus. But the man from Puchberg spends most of his time at home, on the 2,076 m high Schneeberg. And if you were to ask Peter Groß why he climbs the highest peak in Lower Austria day after day, he would say - because Schneeberg is right on his doorstep.

Which is just as true as it is sensible. Because if it weren’t there, Peter would be doing something else that would give meaning to what he does. And if an activity is filled with meaning and passion, then you repeat it again and again. That's why it's little wonder when Peter says that his drive for mountaineering, ski touring and climbing "eventually became a habit". But that didn't lessen the appeal of it for him, "because the Schneeberg and the surrounding mountains are extremely multifaceted", in that there is always a reason for him to be outside and up there.

Simply escape from everyday life

Someone who sees the mountains differently is Eduard Aberham. For more than 25 years, he was the director of the Grand Hotel Panhans at Semmering, the former epitome of a summer retreat. Today's climatic health resort is situated at an altitude of just under 1,000 metres - you can see the peaks of the Rax and Schneeberg mountains from the hotels’ rooms.

Aberham knows both mountains well. For the casual hiker, the meaning of mountain climbing is obvious. "You wanted to look at the world from above; that was the primal urge", says Aberham, "and because you wanted to escape the everyday life of the valley, which is still the case today". With this, Aberham addresses an important point that was revealed to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, during his summer retreat on the Rax. When you go to the mountains, you leave behind the mundane and your thoughts open up. "This works especially well on the countless walking and hiking trails on the hilly Semmering", says Aberham. And if you want to go even further or higher, simply walk the entire Alpine arc, recommends Aberham. The "Vienna Alpine Arc", mind you.

A roller coaster of emotions

Peter Groß, on the other hand, can explain what the long-distance hiking trail across the peaks of the Rax, Schneeberg and Co. has to do with the search for meaning. "Long-distance hiking gives you a lot of time to think, and the inevitable question of “why am I doing this” will eventually come up. That's why it's important that you go hiking "on your own free will", as Groß says - so out of intrinsic motivation. And so that your intrinsic motivation doesn't quickly fade away, you should break the big picture down into many small ones, i.e. into daily or intermediate stages. Otherwise, there is the risk of the question and the overall task failing. "Because otherwise the entire tour seems too long or the next peak too high", says mountain guide Groß, "and then everything quickly stops making sense".

Ex-hotelier Aberham also knows this feeling. Even if he doesn't call himself a "long-distance hiking expert", he often just thinks about the next step when he's climbing mountains and "soaks up nature to the full. Then you feel again why you are here and why you go to the mountains." And then, when you have reached the summit and arrived safely back home, you notice that something has changed. "You have reached a goal that is not commonplace, and it creeps up on you, giving you the feeling of being above things", says Aberham. Of course, this loftiness won't last forever, but it is meaningful. And consequently, it makes you want to go back to the mountains time and again.

As long as the mountains are there

The question about the meaning of mountaineering will exist for long as the mountains do. The only thing that matters is that you are not afraid to face it. Because it is quite similar with fear in the mountains - it is omnipresent. And yet we expose ourselves to it again and again. Why is that? Professor Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and fascinated by the mountains, once explained, "You don't have to just tolerate everything. You can also be stronger than fear". In this respect, mountaineering makes a lot of sense because it is good training in the search for meaning in life.