Blog Post No.9 (20/10/2019) - Night on Witch Mountain
“Who does not know him, the Harz with his ubiquitous landscape and rich fauna and flora? Who does not know that already frequently wandered by painters, poets and writers, who intoxicated to the unique impressions? Among them were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, von Eichendorf... and Ludwig Uhland whose poetry immortalized the Harz as a realm of monsters and dwarves, kobolds and witches, revenants and mountain haunters.”
It was a night to remember, though not perhaps the night I expected. The day was a long one that began like usual, on a train bound for somewhere. But it was also unusual, because I was not travelling alone. Having gone to Oktoberfest alone by misfortune, I wanted to make sure I would be able to share this experience with someone. My good man Simon showed interest in summiting Brocken, the Witch Mountain, so we joined forces today at the train station. Rumors were floating about the Harz mountains and the city of Goslar for some time. With fall deepening, wouldn’t it be magical to forge a path into the very heart of the Harz?
It took lots of careful plotting to get us across Niedersachsen on nothing more than a Semester ticket (which covers local trains in our area). Three hours and a clutch of well-timed transfers and some bungled questioning on my part got us as far as Goslar. Picturesque castles were already rising over the hills that slouched towards us, green ranks rising higher and higher out of the Northern European Plain until… mountains. The pine-covered heights recalled well those of my homeland and the city lay below them, church spires ministering over the mass of medieval tile and timber.
We wandered around Goslar, wheeling in and out of stores and tourism centers. The town keeps an austere refinement despite the obvious tourism potential. With the timbered houses narrow churches, looming pines and castles on the height had an aura of halloween about it. Maybe it keeps the folkloric soul at the old core of the holiday. We finished our stint there at a cafe and took off towards the mountains.
Der Brocken was my peak of choice but it was not as close as I hoped. Being 30 km away at 2 in the afternoon raised the unsightly prospect of ascending Witch Mountain at night. Did I say unsightly? I meant thrilling. It was another two hours or so of counting spare change at bus stops until we finally arrived at the mountain village of Torfhaus. We were among the pines now and the fall colours of the valley forest had vanished in the evergreen gloom. Simon and I worked our way to the trailhead. We had a roaring chat about everything from witches to mushrooms to horror and music. We passed over black streams and through ferny glades as the sky began to darken.
It was around 5 or so when Simon voiced his first concerns that we would have to climb down the mountain in the dark. He was being reasonable, but I wanted to press on for the thrill of it. So we climbed and climbed until it was 6 o’clock and we swept up to a cliff’s edge. It was dusk but we could see the valleys and ridges of the Harz stretching for miles and miles. Just ten more minutes and we would turn around. But then the train came roaring by.
It was like something out of Hogwarts, a distant rumbling on the tracks that ran beside the path. Then it came, a yellow spotlight cutting through the gathering fog. A billowing plume of coal smoke came by. It was thrilling, inspiring us to run on and on up the mountain after it, smiling at the waving passengers. Then came the sign: 1km to the peak. It was past our proverbial bed time but if we had gone 7/8ths of the way and seen so much, why turn back?
According to legend der Brocken is always ringed in cloud and mist, a bald mountain of Walpurgnisnacht myth. Though maybe not the mountain of fame that inspired Mussorgsky to pen his masterpiece of the name, it is the German equivalent.
To listen to that piece is to feel something of the haunting clamminess we felt that night. And by the time we claimed the peak it was nearly night. The mist had become impenetrable, with dark boughs and skeletal trees reaching out suddenly. Visibility was at ten to twenty feet and the wind started screaming at the peak. It was an onrushing cold as we arrived at the train platform, only for it to blow by. Now we were truly alone in the shrieking mists over Witch Mountain. Our wandering took us over the bald crest and through darkening fog. Suddenly above us a tower loomed. There were lights leading up to heights lost in the swirling fog. The hotel, maybe grandiose on a clear day, was sinister enough that night. We walked in for the warmth and the front door gave, but inside signs clearly said *DURCHGANG VERBOTEN*. Though my faith leaves the ghoulish side of the supernatural in a certain grey area, it had the feel of the twilight zone. Even before we were fully warm, we were out the door again.
The skeletal arbor of dusk had long since faded into a grey-black of a mist-haunted moonlit night. We made our way back down in a dim greyness that soon became a strong dark. The mists were wrapped halfway down the mountain and our flashlights only went so far. The walk had been long but the energy of the experience left us bubbly all 8 km back to Torfhaus. We stopped by Halali’s, the only restaurant in town, for a bowl of warm soup as we waited for the last bus to Bad Harzburg. The staff were friendly but I must say we looked like wild men after that hike. I stumbled in through the black door of the apartment complex at 4 am, after 28 miles of walking, six hours of train and plenty of adventure.