“The mountains are like medicine for me”: Michael Finger has been in a wheelchair since 1997. Born and bred in Oberstdorf, he knows many ways to enjoy the beauty of his Allgäu homeland. Out and about on mountain peaks, along river banks, up side valleys - full access to unlimited happiness. From Florian Kinast (text) and Tobias Gerber (photos)
Barrier-free mountain tour
The Mädelegabel and the Krottenkopf to the southeast, then the Trettachspitze, often called the Matterhorn of the Allgäu due to its distinctive summit. A little further over the Kanzelwand, the border mountain between Bavaria and Vorarlberg. Then to the west the Hohe Ifen, with the Säntis far beyond it. Finally, to the north, the Nebelhorn, his home mountain.
Oberstdorf resident Michael Finger is familiar with all these peaks that rise up on this cool autumn day with their snow-covered rocky spurs heralding the coming winter.
Finger arranges to meet at the top of the Fellhorn, 2,037 metres above sea level with phenomenal panoramic views. “There is something majestic about these mountains,” says the 50-year old. “I can spend hours looking out across this view at any time of year.” Even if it is slightly harder to get there under these wintry conditions. Finger is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. That has been the case for half his life.
He goes on to speak at length about the challenges he has had to face and the obstacles he has had to overcome, but also about the many ways in which he is able to enjoy the mountains and nature in and around Oberstdorf, ways that bring him great happiness.
Michael, the kid from Bullerbü
Early in the morning, over a cappuccino in the restaurant at the Fellhorn mountain station, Finger also talks about his childhood and growing up here, primarily with his grandmother.
“I can spend hours looking out across this view at any time of year.”
“It was paradise, like being in one of the Bullerbü books by Astrid Lindgren. ”But it didn’t always feel so idyllic when his grandfather took him on long walks and mountain hikes. “Six hours and more,” says Finger,“ with lots of stories about flora and fauna, and the names of all the mountains. At the time I found it extremely boring.”
And that’s often the case with children, who can get horribly bored and whiny on excursions in the great outdoors - before later looking back on those days with blissful clarity and spending time themselves in the mountains, full of enthusiasm, because their parents or grandparents had laid the foundations for the appropriate sensitivity and opened the door for them to discover the joys of the natural world.
Firefighter in Berlin
After leaving school, Finger worked for a few years as a firefighter in Berlin before returning to Oberstdorf with his wife, Gaby. “Just because it was home,” he said, “and I wanted our children to grow up in the wonderful Allgäu.”
Finger became a paramedic, then came 3 May 1997. He was riding his motorbike home from a shift when he was hit by a car and hurled into the crash barrier. “I had two injuries,” he explains, “a slight graze on my hand. And a broken back.” Then Michael Finger says: “C5 to C8.” Shorthand for his four broken vertebrae.
It’s a matter of centimetres: on a mission for greater accessibility
Back then, at the age of 26, he felt young and invulnerable. When he could no longer feel his legs, and was unable to stand, he thought he had broken his pelvis: he was confident it would heal. It took a long time for him to accept the diagnosis, and he mentions the word “nightmare”.
But over time, Finger came to terms with his fate and his new life in a wheelchair - and he began to rediscover his homeland with his wife, Gaby, and their two children, Lucas and Zoe, experiencing it on a whole new level. “The mountains,” he says, “are like medicine for me. And that still holds true today.”
Local politics as a lever
Michael Finger also got involved in local politics, first as a district councillor and now as a town councillor, where he is actively involved in pushing for greater accessibility, both in the town and the surrounding area.
He notices all the details, such as when the entrance to the bank only opens 40 centimetres on one side, or when the three steps to the inn toilets are insurmountable. When doors are too narrow and steps are too high.
Finger claims that Oberstdorf has done a huge amount in the last ten years. Holiday homes and hotels, inns and cafés, youth hostels and leisure facilities - more and more businesses are modifying their access and achieving the coveted “Travel For All” certification, a national seal of quality and comfort in the accessibility sector.
Wheelchair with good brakes required
Naturally, there is still a lot to be done. Raising awareness and ensuring sensitivity about these seemingly invisible barriers, which are not seen as such by the non-disabled population, such as the door sill when getting in and out of the large cabins of the Fellhorn mountain railway. Pedestrians hardly notice this as a step. But for wheelchair users, without the ramp that the gondola operator now puts down for Finger, it would have been a huge challenge.
Pedestrians hardly notice this as a step
As we travel back down to the valley, we gaze out of the window. Finger points to the serpentine tarmac path that he likes to roll down in the summer from the mountain station - and where, as he says, he has to rely on really good brakes.
All around is the area of the Allgäu Hochalpen, Swabia’s biggest nature reserve, and Finger is knowledgeable about the habitat of the local fauna. Alpine salamanders and grouse, not forgetting the rare northern birch mouse.
Environmental protection as a concern
Nature conservation and environmental protection are issues that have been occupying Finger for years, as he explains later when he takes us on one of his favourite routes. First on the Rubi circuit, a walking trail to the source of the Iller, which arises from the confluence of the Breitach, Stillach and Trettach and continues happily on its 147 km journey north to the Danube, as if it wants to document from the start the reason for its name, which comes from the latin hilaris, meaning friendly or cheerful.
Tip for wheelchair users: morning route on the Rubi circuit
The seven km loop from Oberstdorf to the source of the River Iller at Rubi and back is a classic among the local walking trails. The “morning route”, as this first part of the hike to the Trettach dam was once known, according to Finger. So called because you could walk along it all morning then have lunch in Rubi. “It’s a very comfortable route for those of us in wheelchairs too. Just right for a short trip when you just want to get out and about.”
Endurance test in Oytal: gradient of up to 16 percent
Sometimes, Michael Finger likes more of a challenge, such as up in the Oytal, one of the magnificent side valleys around Oberstdorf. The first kilometre from the ski jumping hill, the year-round ski jump venue for the Four Hills Tournament, goes up to the Café Kühberg with a gradient of up to 16 percent.
“That’s quite some climb,” says Finger, suggesting that a taxi may be a good idea for this stretch. “Onwards from there up to the Oytalhaus the track is mostly tarmac,” he says. “There are so many beautiful tours, near us and for us.” These include the panoramic route on the Nebelhorn and the small circuit from Oberstdorf-Haus along the Stillach dam road to Karatsbichl.
Meditation in the Spielmannsau
For the last highlight of the day, Finger leads us to one of his very special favourite places, seven kilometres south of Oberstdorf, along a disused tarmac road through the Trettachtal valley to Spielmannsau – where by early afternoon the sun has already disappeared behind the Einödsbergegg on this late October day after describing its flat curve over the Kratzer and the Wildengundkopf.
At the point where the mountain valley opens into the disused, tarmac road after some short, sharp ascents, Michael Finger has found his own personal place of well-being. “There is always something meditative about this place,” he says.
On the mountain - like on the Fellhorn this morning - he can still go anywhere that the peaks are accessed by mountain railways. That could be the Kanzelwand or the Walmendingerhorn, or even the Nebelhorn, since the latest cable car upgrade.
“And even when I can’t quite get onto the mountain,” says Finger on this late afternoon in the Spielmannsau, “then at least I’m close to the mountain here, and that’s a wonderful experience too.”
“Sometimes,” he concludes, “I simply sit here for an hour, close my eyes, listen to the murmuring of the stream and feel a deep, inner peace.” A real sense of happiness. Limitless and weightless.