The butterflies are back, darting around my stomach like they’re psychotically dancing along to drum and bass. My throat creates a temporary stomach lockdown, resisting entry to any kind of food I try to swallow – breakfast is the first challenge. This miscommunication between brain and body is only the start of what lies ahead

There’s a reason why passers-by in the mountains often call out phrases of encouragement at the bottom of a climb, such as: ‘Bon courage’. It takes courage, both physical and mental bravery, when tackling 15 to 20-plus kilometer climbs.

Clipping in and setting off prompts an exchange of jittery laughter between us. With mountains draped around us, even the protective embrace of the valley can’t quell the nerves. As the road starts to rise, other body parts join the conversation – legs, lungs, stomach, heart and brain all want to have their say in this physical endeavour.

Our usual group pact has been made: define your own pace and re-group at the top. Soon I’m alone. There’s nothing equal to solitude on a mountain. One moment it is exhilarating, the next tear-inducing; absorbing the world’s beauty by yourself is meditation on a different level. Exertion is interspersed with reflection; I think about the past and about the future, trying to extract physical strength from both.

Five kilometers into the 15 kilometer climb I have a companion, he overtakes me and rides a few meters ahead for a while. “Keep going, you can do it, come on, not far to go,” he imparts; his inspirational pep talk before riding away at speed. Not far? We still have ten kilometers to go – uphill! But I remind myself: ‘it’s your climb, it’s your pace, stick to your guns.’

I try the tact of speaking aloud to convince myself: “It’s better on your own anyway. It means there’s no-one to disturb the tranquility.” I snort with derision, not entirely sure I believe it, but whatever tricks you can play on yourself have to be helpful, right?

At times it almost feels effortless, like I’ve synced with the mountain.

Climbing a mountain gives you no choice but to slow life down. Like clapping along to a musical beat I discover my rhythm, tapping away at the pedals. At times it almost feels effortless, as though I’m in sync with the mountain. At other times the pedals feel like they’re pushing back against me.

I round another switchback and feel a jolt to the stomach. There he is, the guy who overtook me at 5 km. The knowledge of how much ground I’ve gained back spurs my legs on to pedal harder. I think about the story of the hare and the tortoise – not in the sense that climbing this mountain is a race, just that it’s a helpful analogy for life. In this moment I realise I’ll probably always have times when I feel like I’m lagging behind my peers, like I’m failing almost. But in the same way that the tortoise chooses persistence and rallying courage, it’s clear that simply choosing not to quit can reap unexpected rewards.

By now I’m gaining even more ground. Twenty meters, 15 meters, 10 meters. I overtake him and say encouragingly: “Come on, not far to go now.” We exchange smiles, mutually understanding that this is part of the unpredictability of climbing a mountain. Suffering and pleasure are rarely evenly dealt. Where one feels pain, the other feels pleasure.

Rider Charlotte Graf / @Pas Normal Studios
Großglockner High alpine road October 2017         

Words: Hannah Troop Photos: Katherin Schafbauer