Writer Kelly Knickerbocker discusses how a view from above is all the more enjoyable when a physical effort has been made to climb there.

Metal stairs with see-through grates leading up to an Icelandic waterfall, a pebble-strewn pathway zigzagging across Holyrood Park toward Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and switchback after unrelenting switchback en route to a protected view of a perfect Austrian village. For me, discovery is often a result of taking steps, of literally working my way skyward from the horizon inch by inch. 

The soles of my feet had been gaining distance from the earth below for about 20 minutes. My trainers, muddied from a previous stop, were unequipped for the soggy air. Beneath them, I could see mist rolling off the waterfall through grated steps. Vibrant grasses and tundra-ready vehicles, their tyres taller than me, had become an ill-defined patchwork topped with toy trucks. My goal was to ascend Skógafoss, a mighty white curtain draped over a cliff in Iceland’s Southern Region. Concerns about schedules and itineraries often accompany me on my travels. When’s check-in? Where’s the next gas station? But in pursuit of a singular, attainable goal reached by putting one foot in front of the other, my anxieties keep their distance - in this case, mingling 200 feet below with the tour groups, glacier-climbing convoys and amateur cairn-stackers. I scrambled up the rusty stairs to the pinnacle with my mind focused, rooted in the present. 

Arthur’s Seat looms above Scotland’s capital city, opposite Edinburgh Castle and along the cobbled High Street. We’d chosen the longest, most arduous route to its rocky peak not by choice, but by sheer unknowing. Ruddy gravel crunched beneath my shoes and an unrelenting breeze kicked up red plumes with each step. Walking vertically, I moved at a slower pace. I stayed in one place longer than I might otherwise. And, importantly, I discovered thorough details observed on an unhurried upward slog - the symmetry of nearby neighborhoods and the unfamiliar lack of cranes dotting the skyline. Between huffs and puffs, I breathed in a full experience before moving on. A movie instead of a snapshot.

The Welterbeblick viewing platform is 1,200 feet above Hallstatt, Austria. From the alpine hamlet, it’s nearly indistinguishable from the treetops around it. To reach the UNESCO-endorsed view of the village, lake and Salzkammergut Mountains, visitors can either take a minutes-long ride aboard a funicular railway or embark on an hour-long hike. I chose the latter. Six hairpin turns in the final approach are visible on Google Maps, their pattern like the angled output of a heart rate monitor. Lower, the rocky path dips beneath a green canopy concealing its gradient. Stepping onto the platform, I had muttered many curses and dripped with sweat. The view was worth working for, expansive, unyielding and in the clouds. I ordered a shandy at the mountaintop restaurant; the most refreshing Shofferhofer ever to wash my palate. Watching travellers exit from funicular carts nearby, I wondered if their effortless summit tasted as sweet.   

Discovery, for me, isn’t earned through road-side pull offs, parking lots on top of mountains or pictures taken from a moving mode of transport. Vertical strides connect me to place, whether I’m on grass, dirt or cement, alongside other travellers or in a desolate space, in the city or far removed from it. My anxieties are afraid of heights. I move slowly, have time to examine for nuance and feel a stronger connection after putting the work in. As a result, my memories have a longer shelf-life. They remain vivid in my mind over time, something I’m desperate for when I get back home. I need to feel it to consider the moment mine.

So, shall we take the stairs?

Words: Kelly Knickerbocker