New on Sidetracked:

Finding Balance

Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Ben Read // Film by Summit Fever Media
Produced in partnership with Visit Austria

Through spectacular trails, hidden valleys, vast lakes, and alpine forests, Jenny Tough visits Austria for a summit-to-water exploration into the healing power of nature.

We are all seeking something. Joy. Peace. Passion. Connection.
And we can choose how we get there. The journeys we take, whether fast, dependent on the rush of endorphins, or slow, letting curiosity lead the way. These things define us.

My alarm sounds, gently rising in volume as I fumble to turn it off. A couple of friends and I had calculated the time it would take to reach the summit for sunrise, and agreed on this 3.30am wake-up call. The Alpine hut is still silent, all other trekkers still tucked up in bed, so I tiptoe upstairs to make a quick coffee in the dining room by the light of my head torch. I open the route on my phone. The ascent will take about two hours, and then we will start our day in the best way possible: catching the sunrise from the summit of a mountain. I can’t pronounce the peak I’ve chosen – my German is rudimentary at best – but excitement fills me as I review the contours of the map on-screen.

We step outside into the night. The clouds have cleared and the last lingering stars are still out. Around us loom the peaks of the Rofan Alps, Tirol, their energy palpable. I’m eager to gain altitude and see what the summit will reveal.

Under the light of my head torch, my field of view is limited. I focus on the trail, my feet pattering the dirt floor, which undulates away from the hut for a short time before I climb steeply to the ridge. Flashes of colour from wildflowers catch my eye. My breath rises in the tight beam of light from my torch. Between the trees, the air is silent but humid, and my hair curls around my neck as beads of sweat form. Only feet on rock, the delicate crunch of gravel, and a tree branch brushing against my small pack make any sound. The life of the forest is asleep. We move wordlessly, taking care not to wake it.

The trail emerges from the treeline and winds skyward. I’m breathing heavily now, using my hands to scramble in places. The rock is smooth from generations of use. I marvel at the history that these Alps hold, but not for long – my mind is focused intensely on keeping my balance as the earth falls away to the side of the trail. Scrambling in darkness, concentrating on my illuminated field of view directly ahead, brings an intensity I haven’t felt before. For a moment my world is narrow, consisting only of my body’s movement, the texture of the rock where I search for holds, and the endless pursuit of elevation. Heartbeats. Breathing. Footsteps. Nothing else.

As we near the ridge, the wind hits us and instantly chills our sweaty bodies. At the crest, where I get my first glimpse of the view beyond the slope I’ve been climbing, the air is knocked out of my lungs. The slow dawning glow of a sunrise has just begun. In all directions are the jagged silhouettes of the Alps. It’s always an emotional moment for me when the mountains reveal themselves like this. I see my summit – Rotspitz, marked by a giant wooden cross – and aim to be there before the sun hits.

The final scramble is delicate. Slick rocks and jagged holds meander vertically to the tiny summit. I catch myself smiling when I realise I’ll be the first person on this top today. It hardly matters – these Tirolean Alps hold so many centuries of human history already, but I still cherish the thought of being the first one here, today, for this sunrise.

I stand on the top, the cool wind drying any sweat from my climb, waiting to receive the sunrise that is now slowly making its way towards me. I watch as the peaks of the Rofan Alps in the distance light up. Warmth wakes the earth as the night ends. Time stands still as I inhale this perfect mountain moment.

The situations we crave can ignite your soul.
The taste of blood from a split lip
The smell of rain after a dry spell
The scrape of knee on a rock
The howling wind shutting out all other sounds
Seeking these experiences awakens the senses
But what if chasing that passion takes you to the brink
And you find life hanging in the balance
How do you find a way back from that?

I take one last deep breath and turn my face to the sun, feeling the warmth enter my bloodstream. It’s time to get moving – time to play.

The descent from the summit is precarious. I slide my way through the downclimb, clutching holds with my fingertips and seeking little ledges to wedge my toes into. I’m going back the way I climbed this morning, but it’s completely different now. With light on the earth we can now see what we missed coming up by head torch. The carpet of wildflowers blanketing the rolling slopes. The rocky spine of the ridge. The amphitheatre of giant mountains we came from.

When the trail evens out enough, I take off at a full-tilt run. I’m not saving energy today. I’m thriving on the mountain setting and letting my body move naturally down the trail. Stones fall away, a sound like a chandelier, as I spin my legs through a scree slope. Small steps and keeping my weight low, giggling at the loss of control while the rocks slide under my weight. I hit solid ground at the bottom and once more unleash my legs to their full stride as I accelerate down the ribbon-like trail.

The light grows stronger and warmer. Now we enter the forest once more. The energy shifts immediately, and my feet naturally slow to a walk. My heart is beating rapidly. I take long, steady inhalations and feel it begin to slow. As my heart and breathing ease, I can start to listen to the forest. Birdsong rises in all directions. Branches creak as they sway in the gentle breeze. A stream gurgles as it plunges down the valley below. I let my fingertips drift through leaves and branches, running along the bark of grand tree trunks. I move slowly, guided by curiosity and beauty, letting the forest wash over me. Shinrin-yoku – forest bathing – is literally this. Letting the natural world cleanse your heart and mind. I feel enveloped in the embrace of nature, and the rest of the world falls away.

Maybe the answer lies all around us.
In the details, the little things
The trickle of a stream
The texture of tree bark
The symphony of birdsong
Why do we assume to know everything? To be able to fix everything.

I wander to the lake shore. It’s brilliant and green, reflecting the peaks above in its still waters. I feel so utterly content with my day. The clear water is too inviting.

There is perhaps no better sensation than being naked in nature – it’s quite literally natural, and I always feel infinitely more connected to the environment this way. The cold Alpine water on my bare skin immediately cools off the day’s effort, and I slowly swim out to the middle of the lake, taking time to settle, breathe, look, listen. Above me and all around are the great mountains, my favourite place to be, and the dense forest protecting them and growing up their rocky sides. I float, delicately treading water in place, just letting this moment take over. Letting the memory imprint itself on my soul. Letting the mountains hold me in their grandeur.

Could we learn more from nature? – after all, we’re just temporary visitors to this planet.
We could take more time.
Listen. Learn. Connect. Create.
Through experience and growth, perhaps we can find balance in life.

Written by Jenny Tough // @jennytough
Photography by Ben Read // @benreadphoto
Film by Summit Fever Media // @sfm_films
Produced in partnership with Visit Austria // @visitaustria // #feelaustria //