Mountains beyond mountains


Picture (c) Charlie
…is the title of a book by Tracy Kidder and one of the most inspiring reads I’ve had in the past year. It describes the life of Doctor Paul Farmer and, among other things, his quest to eliminate tuberculosis and serve the poor in Haiti. I can really recommend reading it if you want to restore your faith in humanity a bit. 🙂 But if anyone ever writes my biography, that could also be its name.
If I think of any place that plays an important role in my life, there are mountains. 


I was born in the city of Munich, “München” as we call it, located in the South of Germany, in the state of Bavaria. From Munich it is approximately a 1-2 hour drive to the Alps. On clear days, I could look outside the window of my highschool classroom and see their silhouettes in the distance. If you climb to the top of “Alter Peter”, the tower of a church in the center of the city, you can enjoy a view over the whole city and their panorama as well. I can’t say that I went hiking every week growing up, but I do remember family trips to the mountains on the weekends, school outings and occasional skiing trips. This may come to the surprise of my parents, who don’t remember me as a person who is an avid hiker, but the Alps have always been a part of my German identity and I really love them. 


Ever since I was in my mother’s womb, we would go on vacation in Northern Italy. My great grandmother, who not only survived two world-wars but also was the definition of a power-woman, had built a house there in the 1970s, and since then it was used by our whole family for the holiday-time. Many people are not aware of it, but the Ticino region in Switzerland and Italy is a paradise-like place with turquoise sparkling lakes and green mountains covered in trees. Our house lays on the shore of “Lago di Lugano”, in the tiny part of the lake that stretches to Italy. Standing on our terrace at night, you can see the mountains glimmering with the lights of the cities and villages on the other side of the lake. 
Lago di Lugano, Northern Italy


I spent almost every summer of my life by this lake, walking to the nearest village Cima in the heat of the morning to get breakfast, enjoying delicious Italian ice-cream in the nearest town of Porlezza, dozing at the Lido after a refreshing jump in the water, and taking adventurous walks and hikes with my parents in the mountains. During my two years in Norway, I didn’t get to visit Italy, since I spent my summers visiting friends in other parts of the world. After I graduated from UWC RCN though, I finally returned. This time without my parents, but with two of my best friends. We spent ten amazing days relaxing, swimming and enjoying the Italian cuisine. It was a much needed retreat after the last stressful weeks of IB exams, and we finally had time to reconnect and appreciate each other’s company. 


Funnily enough, these mountains in Northern Italy were the first thing I thought about when I arrived in Norway in 2017. Even though I had never been to this country, my surroundings seemed strangely familiar to me. The landscape of Western Norway with its stunningly beautiful combination of fjords and tree-covered mountains made me feel like I landed in the Northern version of the Ticino region. I came to Norway to spend two years at UWC Red Cross Nordic, an international boarding school with amazing young people from all around the world. Our campus was pretty much located in the middle of nowhere, but for the price of civilisation, we were surrounded by the most beautiful nature. The college lies at the foot of several mountains, which makes it the perfect starting point for short day-hikes. There are actually six marked hikes in the mountains around campus, called “6 stiar”, and it is the goal of many students to complete all six by the end of their time at the college. In my first year, I was part of an extra-academic group called “Outdoor Discovery”. We would go hiking after school every friday in the late summer months and October. Thanks to this group, I discovered the beauty of Norwegian nature in my very first weeks in the country, and I completely fell in love with it. I was not much of a hiking person before coming to Norway, but it had been one of my goals to become one. Even though I did not go on extensive overnight trips, I can still happily say that I reached my goal. Hiking became important to me for a very different reason in my second year: during the most intense academic months filled with deadlines and tests, it was a great way to escape campus and to release stress. I remember one day in the winter of my second year where I was extremely upset about something. There was so much anger inside of me and I didn’t know what to do with it. I left my room, put on my hiking shoes and made my way up to “the rock”, a place with a beautiful view over our campus. The hike up there isn’t particularly long, but it is steep and exhausting. By the time I made it to the rock, my emotional pain had been transformed into physical pain, I was completely soaked with sweat, and I finally felt a sense of calmness again. It was exactly what I needed. 
View from “the rock”, Norway


On another occasion during my second year, one of my best friends and I decided to hike up one of the mountains behind the college. It was January, and it had started to snow when we began our trip. By the time we reached the top of the first mountain, the tiny snowflakes had become a little snowstorm. I had never been up there, but my friend assured me he knew the way. We continued our march through the snowy trees, wandering through a world of white that was so close, yet so different from our campus, talking about life, but mostly just enjoying the silence around us. It turned out that my friend didn’t fully knew the path, and so we ended up not hiking one mountain for one hour, as we planned, but all the mountains behind our college. After three and a half hours, we found our way back to campus. I was freezing cold but also extremely happy. One of the feelings I associate most with Norway and its nature is freedom. I felt so incredibly free in this place. Sure, I couldn’t go to the city whenever I wanted, because there was only one free bus a week. But I could always go to the mountains. Our college thankfully was quite liberal here, as there was no real danger in our surroundings. There was no curfew either. You could basically go sleep up in the mountains for the night, and as long as you came to class the next day, no one cared.  My time in Norway gave me another country with another set of mountains I came to love very much.


When I found out I was moving to Ecuador, I couldn’t have been more excited to discover that I would actually be living in the Andes mountains. I had been fascinated by the Andes for a while, even though I didn’t know much about the region. Now I would the next spend seven months of my life there. The most annoying thing about waiting for my departure to Ecuador was probably that I didn’t know where exactly I was moving. “The Andes” is a pretty broad description. I just knew it would be on an altitude very different from what I was used to, and because of that I also knew there would be no malaria-carrying mosquitos. That fact gave me a lot of calmness. One week before my flight to San Francisco, the description of my new living place changed from “The Andes” to “The Andes,South of Ecuador”. A little more specific, you could say, but still incredibly broad. The only other thing I got to know was that I would live in an “urban” environment (even though “urban” means something very different here than in Western Europe), and that it would be a “calm town, surrounded by mountains”. That last part was enough to make me really excited, and I patiently waited for more information. One week later, on a sunny afternoon in the outskirts of Quito, I finally held an envelope in my hands, containing the answer I had been looking for all this time: the actual place I would spend my next seven months in. There it was.  A map, and a circle around the name of a town: Paute. My first thoughts were: Cool. “Paute.” I know absolutely nothing about “Paute”. Thinking about this moment now, a month of living in this dot on that map later, I’m smiling about that version of me, who didn’t know anything about how her life was about to change yet. 


It is still very surreal to me that I’m living in the Andes. Everytime I’m sitting in the bus from or to Cuenca (which happens a lot)  and we’re driving through the mountains, my face is glued to the window, trying to take it all in. Every day during my break at work, when I’m sitting in the yard of my school, watching the kids play,  I look up to the mountains that surround us. It may sound stupid, but it’s as simple as that, looking at that panorama makes me happy.
Last weekend, I finally went on my first hike in Ecuador. With a group of other fellows, Charlie’s apprenticeship supervisor took us on a trip near Sayausi, on the outskirts of Cuenca. I had very little information about this adventure when I signed up for it, I was just incredibly excited to finally get my mountain-experience. And let me tell you: it was an experience. Our goal was to reach the top of a mountain at over 3,500 metres. Breathing at this altitude is a little more difficult as you can imagine, and thus it took me a good two minutes of rest after every 30 seconds of hiking.. At this point I’d like to thank Zack again who took by backpack for the last part, I probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise. :’) <3 We ended up making it to the top, which made me really really proud of myself and our group! Just to give you a comparison and to show you how crazy that number is to me: the highest point in my country, the top of the mountain “Zugspitze”, is 2,962 metres high. 


I hope you enjoyed these three pages of me rambling to you about my connection to and my love for mountains. Maybe you’re even inspired to go for a hike now. 😉