We started out at midnight, clad in giant raincoats and gaiters, headlamps securely sitting on our foreheads. Hundreds of little circles of light were bobbing through the night, building a steady chain starting from somewhere atop the first mountain and reaching towards the end point of our pilgrimage, 55 kilometers, 17 hours, and three more mountains away.

I was participating in the annual Vierbergelauf (“Race of the Four Mountains”) in Southern Austria, a Catholic pilgrimage going from church to church, mountain to mountain, visited by hundreds of pilgrims every year. Some come to atone for their sins, some like the physical challenge. I was clearly here for the latter.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

Although born and raised Catholic, I left the church I was born into as soon as I could and never really looked back. In the ten years that have passed since, I have been known to get into heated discussions about religion with a fervor only rivaled by those deeply passionate about their God, their religious beliefs. I have a tendency to loudly (inconsiderately, as some might say) make my agnostic views known, which has been the starting point for countless late-night fights with friends and family alike.

Still, I found myself among these religious pilgrims, fighting my way against the incessant rain, the paralyzing tiredness, and the increasingly sharp pain in my knees, listening to sermons on the way. Every once in a while, I would pass or be passed by a cross-bearer, quietly saying a rosary prayer over and over again.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

The first twelve hours were wet. So wet, in fact, that even more so than the constant stream of raindrops that kept finding its way through my clothes, chilling me to the bone, I remember the many people calling a cab to return back home. I’d be lying if it wasn’t on our minds as well, but an hour in the warm hallway of a farmhouse on the way and some Schnaps gave us new motivation. We trudged on.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

It doesn’t really happen very often that I spend more than an hour outside while it is raining. Surely, it was the first time I did it during the night. And voluntarily.

The ground beneath our feet turned muddier as the night grew longer. We scrambled up steep mountains through ankle-deep mud, for every step forward, we slid two back down. We put our feet where hundreds of feet had passed just minutes before, where hundreds more would pass minutes later.

When the night finally started to turn into day, we didn’t stop to enjoy the spectacle. There was no sunrise to be seen, only headlamps to be switched off, more steps to be taken. The rain continued to fall until noon.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

The forests more than made up for the sorry weather situation. The greenery around me was as lush as I had ever seen it before in Austria, and if it weren’t for the freezing temperatures, I would have thought to be on another continent altogether. Fog and clouds were fading into each other as we walked through the woodlands. The atmosphere turned mystical, mysterious – magical, almost. By the time we reached the third mountain top, I was ecstatic. The beauty around me overwhelmed me, in the best of all ways.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

The rest was almost easy. At lunchtime, just as we had reached another chapel on the way, the sun came out. As the religious pilgrims attended the afternoon mass, their chants filled the air. I was sitting outside, dirt drying on my gaiters, not wearing my raincoat for the first time in twelve hours, munching on a granola bar. Life was good.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

Only three more hours to go, and spirits were high. We reached the fourth and last mountain top in no time, enjoying the rays of sun that kept tickling our noses. The joy I felt after those 17 hours, I couldn’t possibly begin to describe. But what I will tell you is that we all shared it, those of us sitting on the last mountain, victory beer in hand.

This feeling, this collective joy, the smiling faces and the knowledge of the path we had just conquered, this is it. The reason why whether you are religious or not, whether you are practicing your belief regularly or not at all, you should go on a pilgrimage at least once in your life.

For me, my very first pilgrimage wasn’t a religious journey – but definitely a spiritual one. And it sure as hell won’t be the last.

Pilgrimage Hiking Religion Spiritual Walk Austria Europe

Have you been on a pilgrimage before? Would you ever consider going on one? Let us know in the comments, we would love to hear from you and find out!