Ascending the Swiss Alps

December 19, 2016.  For our last full day in Switzerland, we decided to hit the slopes.  Not skiing, but hiking, since the weather hadn’t cooperated by giving us some snow.  Our choice for an Alpine adventure?  Mt. Rigi, which sits across the lake from Luzern and hosts the oldest mountain railways in Europe.  Although it’s not the highest nearby peak (that’s Mt. Pilatus, which isn’t easily reachable from Luzern this time of year), Mt. Rigi supposedly offers the best views out over the Alps, down across the flatlands of the Swiss Plateau, and into Germany and France.  (By the way, that’s me up top, waving my arms from the summit of Mt. Rigi.)

I'm standing in front of the Vitznau-Rigi-Bahn. The first mountain railway in Europe, it started operation on May 21, 1871.
I’m standing in front of the cogwheel Vitznau-Rigi-Bahn. The first mountain railway in Europe, it started operation on May 21, 1871.  The restored train cars date from 1871 to 1911

Bonus:  getting to Mt. Rigi requires a one-hour boat ride across lovely Lake Luzern.  We decided to be big spenders and splurge for first-class tickets on the upper deck, which promised the best views.  Included in our package deal (about $150) was the cogwheel train trip up to Mt. Rigi and back down, plus an option to switch to a cable car at the halfway point — if we decided that we had the nerve to hang suspended in a tin can from what essentially amounts to a high-tension wire stretched over an Alpine abyss.

Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)
I’m going to bore you for a sec with some uber-geeky bird info. A diving duck, the male Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) courts his ladylove by harvesting a beakful of aquatic plants and offering them to her like a bouquet of flowers … all while swimming underwater. He can stay submerged for up to 30 seconds.

Bear with me, as I’m gonna shift into nerd mode for a minute.  The boat ride began with a bang for a birder like me, when I spotted a species I’d never seen before:   the Red-crested Pochard.  I felt a certain affinity for him, as he and I share a similar hairstyle — a carroty puffball.  He seemed to be hobnobbing along the boat dock with a pretty ritzy crowd that included blue-billed Greater Scaups, some cute Coots, and a couple of regal Great Crested Grebes.  I considered such a superstar sighting to be a good omen for better views ahead — a talisman we’d need, considering that clouds had quickly descended to cloak the lake in dense fog.  So much for paying for a better view.

Check out the castle crowning the hill with its own attached chapel and a boathouse made to look like a chalet.
Check out the castle with its own attached chapel on the hilltop.  And note the boathouses made to look like thatched Swiss cottages.  (Click for a bigger view.)

Our ride took us across Lake Luzern and along the shoreline, where we tried to peer through the dense, pea-soup mist for a glimpse of Swiss chalets, some spectacular resorts, and what appeared to be a castle with its own tiny Gothic church.  Along the way, we stopped to pick up more passengers at various picturesque towns, each looking like something out of a German fairytale.  And eventually, we docked at Vitznau and hopped on to the cogwheel train that would take us to the top of Mt. Riggi.

More than 60 miles of hiking trails lace the slopes of Mt. Rigi and provide a vantage point above the cloud-filled valleys.
More than 60 miles of hiking trails crisscross the slopes of Mt. Rigi and provide awe-inspiring vantage points above the cloud-filled valleys.

The ride up to the summit of Mt. Rigi gave us a hazy perspective down into the town of Vitznau and the yards of small chalets and modern homes stacked on the hillside.  But within a short time, we punched through the cloud layer, and the sun blazed down upon us in rapturous glory.  Hikers trudging uphill alongside the train track took a break to bask on trailside benches.  Farmers with fields perched precariously on the slopes came out to enjoy their hard-earned view.  And here and there, little hillocks of glacial debris rejoiced in their fog-and-snow-free moment, even going so far as to sport a slight peach fuzz of green grass.

The view was impressive, but for some macabre reason, I felt like we were about to be swallowed up in some dark maw.
The view was breathtaking, in more ways than one. For some macabre reason, I had the sensation that we were about to be swallowed up in a giant dark maw.

Eventually, we clickety-clacked our way to the top of Mt. Rigi and clambered out of the train.  An incredible vista of row upon row of jagged, pearly white peaks faced us, giving me the feeling that we were about to be gobbled up by a particularly toothy shark.  But an even higher point awaited, so we trudged up the nearest trail for the short but steep hike to the summit.

Doesn't it look like the tiny village below is a sitting duck for the three-humped sea serpent slithering through the clouds?
Doesn’t it look like the tiny village perched on the plateau below is a sitting duck for the three-humped sea serpent slithering through the clouds?

Having lived at near sea level for several months, we found ourselves huffing and puffing more than we expected.  But luckily,  magnificent panoramas and cutesy way-finding signs provided great photo ops and gave us excuses to stop and catch our breath.  We soon made it to the halfway point, where the Swiss plains lay concealed beneath a sea of clouds.  (Pardon the cliché, but it’s so apt here.)  Towering plumes from distant smokestacks made me think of spouting whales, while a series of hilltops emerging from the foam resembled the back of a slithering sea serpent.  The old wooden fence that snaked alongside us looked like nothing so much as the spine of a beached ancestor to the behemoth breaking the waves below us.

I swear I could see the curvature of Earth from my lofty perch.
I swear I could see the curvature of Earth from my lofty perch.

Finally, we reached the summit, which sits at an elevation of 5,900 feet (1,798 m).  Not so high as to trigger altitude sickness, but far enough above the clouds that I still felt slightly dizzy and lightheaded.  It was the oddest sensation, like gravity had loosened its grip.  I found myself deliberately planting my feet with each step, like I was in danger of flying off into space.  The words to that song, “I’m on the top of the world, lookin’ down on creation…” sprang to mind as I surveyed the landscape spread out below me.

In reality, three different lakes almost completely surround Mt. Rigi and isolate it from its neighboring mountains.
In reality, three different lakes almost completely surround Mt. Rigi and separate it from its neighboring mountains.

With its regal isolation from other peaks in the Alpine chain, I can understand why Rigi has earned the nickname “Queen of the Mountains.”  I felt like a deity myself and was tempted to try out my godliness by testing whether I could bounce off the mattress of clouds hovering around the mountain’s flanks.  Even as I watched, fog billowed up and over a plateau, increasing the impression of an incoming tide and tempting me to make a swan dive into all that fluffiness.

Tell me these don't look like everyone's mental picture of the burial mounds where the Frodo and his buddies were tormented by the wights.
Tell me these don’t look like everyone’s mental picture of the burial mounds where Frodo and his buddies were tormented by ghostly wights.

The mountaintop itself surprised me.  Rather than sharp edges and craggy boulders, it hosted a gently rolling pasture.  Here and there, grass had grown over piles of glacial debris, forming what looked like the Barrow Downs right out of Lord of the Rings.  Tired hikers collapsed on the spongy grass and whipped out their cell phones to see if the antennae tower looming nearby would facilitate the immediate posting of photos to Instagram.

Check out the size of that wedge of cheese!
Check out the size of that cheese wedge!

By now we were getting hungry, so we headed back down the trail to a tiny mountain hut of a snack shop.  Several other folks had the same idea, and we waited in line for a few minutes, which gave us time to study the menu.  Beer?  Definitely.  Sausage?  Of course.  Cheese.  Wouldn’t be Switzerland without it.  The proprietor filled our tray with our order — a hunk of cheese and a length of sausage large enough to guarantee a serious colon blockage.  Good thing we had a loaf of bread for some fiber and two beers to help flush out the system.  We grabbed a lawn chair in the sunshine and commenced the carnage.  Nuthin’ like free-basing protein while gettin’ a tan on top of the Swiss Alps!

The cable cars are pretty large, holding about 20 people or so -- which means you gotta fight for a spot in the front.
The cable cars are pretty large, holding about 20 people or so — which means you gotta fight for a spot in the front.

All too soon, the sun began to set, so we decided to hoof it down to the cable car and skip the train.  A half-hour walk brought us to the aerial thrill ride, situated right next to a posh mineral bath and spa (gotta file that awesome discovery under “stuff to schedule next time.”)  Luckily, we found ourselves first in line for a front-row view.  At least we thought we were first.  But no sooner had we stepped aboard than a couple of Swiss families began elbowing and toe-stomping their way to the window.  And just like that, we were relegated to backseat spectating.

Doesn't look so high from here, right? Yeah, we're just gettin' started.
Doesn’t look so high from here, right? Yeah, we’re just gettin’ started.

Matthew, polished statesman that he is, managed to negotiate a spot over the heads of the toddlers in the front.  But frankly, once the car started moving, I was glad for the obstructed view.  The height seemed much greater than it had looked from the ground.   Every now and then, we came to a spot where the car tipped over a precipice in the landscape … and it felt exactly like we were in a slo-mo stomach drop down a waterfall.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-1-40-49-pm
Sure, everthing’s sunshine and smiles until the cable car plunges into the darkness of that cloud bank.

Worse was when we plunged into the cloud layer.  The yawning mouth of Hell would have looked warm and cozy by comparison.  I seriously thought I was going to pass out.  Sadly, I spent far too much of the trip with my eyes squeezed shut, attempting to pray the rosary (even though I’m not Catholic).  But Matthew caught the whole thing on tape, so check out the YouTube video here.

Our ship glides up to the dock just as darkness sets in.
Our ship glides up to the dock just as darkness sets in.

Finally, we touched down and I shakily toddled off the rollercoaster ride and plopped my butt on a bench until my stomach settled.  Guess I still haven’t conquered that fear-of-heights thing.  Anyway, a short hike through the quaint little town of Weggis brought us to the boat dock, where we caught our ride back to Luzern.  Sitting in the lounge with a cup of hot coffee, watching the lights of the city slide by, we’d already started planning our next trip to Switzerland. img_8584

 

 

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