Peter has such good friends. Several months ago, a group of his friends met and decided to organize placing a memorial plaque in the mountains for him. I felt deeply touched when they told me about it, grateful that such a beautiful gesture could happen – and that without any effort on my part.
The beautiful plaque was mounted this past weekend. A number of people went up to Prielschutzhaus on Saturday, others set off at dawn on Sunday morning. Since there was no more room for us at Prielschutzhaus, Paddy and I, along with Agnes and Leo, decided to spend the night in Hinterstoder and set off from there in the morning. The climb up to Prielschutzhaus is steep and rocky, though, and after much consideration, I decided not to attempt the almost three-hour climb, but to wait below at the starting point. I took a bottle of whiskey along to drink a toast to Peter’s memory with all the climbers on their way down. Waiting, as I always waited for Peter, felt right, and I needed to have a serious talk with the mountain by myself, without feeling at a disadvantage.
Returning to Hinterstoder feels hard, but necessary, too. It feels necessary to make present again what happened last November, stand in each place, remember, attempt to grasp that it was real, that it really happened.
Over the past year I have made several attempts to return to this place. In March, when I went to Ljubljana, I was grateful to have a quiet seat by myself on the train. I curled up in a corner there to just look out the window as the train passed through the Alps. Along the way, there were so many signs for place names that I recognized from Peter’s photo albums of ski tours and mountain tours. Recognizing that he had passed through this place and this place and this place, knowing how happy he had been, I was glad to be left in peace to just let the tears run down my face.
A few months ago, I went on a small bus with a group from the art university to visit the art festival Regionale in northern Styria. Sitting on the bus with talkative friends all around me, passing through the Alps felt a bit easier, but still very, very close. On the way back, though, because some people in the group had to reach trains in Linz, the bus took a quicker route back, which meant going through one tunnel after another. After Amy died, riding in the car through tunnels became a problem for me. The smell of gasoline in a dark, enclosed space induced a feeling of rising hysteria, panic. Whenever I was in the car with him, Peter always drove the long way around then, avoiding tunnels wherever possible, quietly reassuring me, when it was not. He never made an issue of it, he never questioned me about it. He simply understood and acted accordingly.
When I realized that the bus was taking the route through the tunnels, I also realized that I had two choices: I would either have to make a request to the whole group, which would mean justifying taking the extra time to avoid tunnels by explaining my problem with tunnels, making a fuss, calling attention to myself – or else I would simply have to cope. I decided to cope. Sitting by myself on the bus, I concentrated on a knob at the bottom of the window, reminded myself to keep breathing, recalled all the breathing exercises I had learned with meditation exercises over the years, and I just kept telling myself, “I can do this. I am calm. I can do this…” And I did.
When the bus pulled into a rest stop for a short break, I was feeling pleased with myself, almost smug even, because I had made it through tunnels without panicking – and then I realized where we were…
The bus stopped at the rest stop St. Pankratz, the same rest stop where Jörg, Cornelia, Paddy and I stopped to wait for the phone call to tell us whether to go first to the police in Hinterstoder to collect Peter’s belongings and the accident report, or to go first to the morgue in Windischgarsten, where he broken body was. While we waited there last November, Cornelia kindly kept bringing us hot tea, I attempted to buy handkerchiefs, because Peter had forgotten to buy handkerchiefs the last time he went shopping, and Paddy and I continued making phone calls to people we had not been able to reach the evening before.
As I stepped out of the bus, I found myself standing in exactly the same spot where I was standing when I was finally able to reach Will, who was just running through an airport in London. There was a sense of a sudden shift, a streaking of time and space, as Gerald Raunig writes. In the midst of the majestic beauty of the Alps, all that I was aware of was the booming echo in my head of the memory of poor Will’s voice, wanting to have misunderstood: He’s dead, he’s dead. Peter is dead. Peter can’t be dead. Peter is dead.
I hope that the people on the bus who wanted to catch trains in Linz got to the train station on time. I was just immensely grateful to my friend Susanne for delaying our departure to go back in to get a bottle of mineral water for me, when she realized there was something wrong. After we somehow returned to Linz, Susanne went with me to Solaris for a drink, and I slowly began to thaw again.
The third time I returned to the area was the end of September, when Susanne and another friend and I drove to Slovenia, on the “sunny side of the Alps,” as a friend from Ljubljana said. This time, I knew where I was going, and I was mentally prepared. The beautiful Alpine landscape felt oppressive as we drove south, but I resisted by writing poetry in my head. I imagined writing poems about mountains and death and then reading them at a poetry slam, where people would agree and applaud: Take that, you mountains! A fantasy, of course, but a helpful and encouraging fantasy.
Returning from our three-cities-in-three-days weekend, Susanne, Robert and I stopped again at St. Pankratz. Having succeeded in re-learning to be able to travel through tunnels, this time I was able to prepare my defenses against the echo. It wasn’t easy, but it worked, and I felt my confidence returning.
As the plans progressed for mounting the memorial plaque for Peter in the mountains, I found myself dreading the weekend. First I thought I would just wait at home for everyone to return, then I thought I would wait somewhere nearby. At some point I convinced myself I could do it, I would go up the mountain with the whole group. As more and more people expressed serious doubts about my physical condition in relation to the steep and strenuous path, however, I was worried. Had there been room for us at Prielschutzhaus, I would have attempted the climb on Saturday, but setting out on a three-hour climb at dawn on Sunday to continue on for yet another hour and still come down again on the same day, was ultimately more than I could face. Once I had decided to stay at the way station at the start of the path, I felt relieved, able to focus again on the reason for this journey.
Some time after the others had set off on their way up the mountain, I took a little walk from the way station to where the path starts to get steep. Rather to my surprise, I found it deeply comforting to walk along the beautiful path that was the last path that Peter took. As I imagined him walking there that day in November last year, I could so clearly imagine him enjoying the day, taking in the beauty of the scenery, the pleasure of the company, the restfulness of the quiet. Then I imagined that some small detail – a leaf, a stone, a branch – briefly caught his attention and reminded him of me, reminded him that he loved me too. Then it was as though I could sense his spirit walking there with me.
When I reached the point where the path started becoming steep, narrowing, turning into steps, I stopped and briefly considered going on – just a few more steps, just a little farther. Then I turned around and returned down the same path. I returned alone, though. Peter never came back down that path.
Much later in the afternoon, after it had been pouring down rain for hours, the climbers started to return. They were all drenched and cold, but most of all they were so many! Seeing all those familiar faces, I felt overwhelmed by the effort that so many, many people had made for Peter’s sake. Since everyone was eager to get home to dry off and get warm again, unfortunately I wasn’t able to share the bottle of whiskey with them, but I hope to do so in the near future under more comfortable circumstances. Despite the cold and the rain and the crowded space in the way station, though, the sense of contentment and happiness among this little crowd was amazing. I didn’t care how wet they all were, I just wanted to hug all of them.
In the days and weeks and months and years to come now, whenever people take this path on past Prielschutzhaus, they will find a beautiful metal plaque in the shape of the back of a gamba, carefully placed in a sheltered spot among the rocks, where there is rooms for candles too. Inscribed on this plaque:
1962 – 2011
Brotfall – SO Grat
Peter lebte seine Liebe zu den Bergen mit allergrößte Freude und Begeisterung. Seine wunderbare Lebendigkeit behalten wir immer in Erinnerung.
Peter lived his passion for the mountains with tremendous joy. His love of life will always remain in our memory.
The plaque will tell them that a man once passed this way, a man who was happy and full of life and much beloved, but he did not return.
Peter stayed in the mountains.