Of the many activities available to me in and around Lucerne, Switzerland, the one everyone insisted I should not miss was the Golden Round Trip to the top of Mount Pilatus. This appealed to me, not only because I wanted to do some mountain hiking, but also because of the many legends surrounding “The Dragon Mountain.” In the Middle Ages, the bleak crevices of the mountain were believed to be the abode of a well-meaning dragon and spirits. There is also a legend that says the body of Pontius Pilate was ultimately disposed of in a tiny remote lake on Oberalp on Mount Pilatus. Once a year, on Good Friday, Pilate allowed himself to be seen, a figure with flowing grey hair and wearing the purple regalia of a judge seated on a chair in the middle of the lake. People so feared this vision that local priests and government officials made it illegal to climb the mountain or use the lake. Finally, in 1585, Lucerne’s priest, accompanied by a band of townspeople, climbed Mount Pilatus to challenge the ghost. They threw stones into lake, churned up the water and waded in it but the ghost did not react, thus the the spell was believed to be broken.
My Golden Round Trip experience began on Lake Lucerne, where I boarded a nostalgic lake steamer for the trip from Lucerne to the town of Alpnachstad at the foot of Mount Pilatus. We pulled away from the pier into the crystalline lake waters, bound for the Alps to the south. Very soon we were sailing past towering headlands that rose straight out of the water and picturesque hamlets carved into the few lowlands that dotted the shores, each one prettier than the last.
We stopped to pick up passengers in Dorf, Hergiswil and Stansstad:
Using a hydraulic system to lower the mast and chimney of the steamer, we sailed under the low bridge separating Lake Lucerne from Alpnacher Lake. At Alpnachstad we left the boat and crossed under the highway to the Pilatus cog wheel railway, where we boarded rail cars bound for the top of the mountain. Completed in 1889, this 4618-meter long stretch of railway was and still is the world’s steepest railway. It climbs 7000 feet in 30 minutes, using two horizontally revolving cogwheels to conquer the 48% gradient.
These cute little rail cars were like the “Little Engine That Could,” slowly but inexorably inching up to the top of the mountain. Initially we traveled through tall pine forests on steep slopes until we passed the tree line. The landscape went through several quick transitions. First came sweeping meadows where cows grazed, the big Swiss bells hanging around their necks clearly signaling their presence. Then the lush grasslands turned to scrub grass over rocky scree. Finally even the scrub grass disappeared and everything was sharp, barren rock.
Now we could see the snow covered Alps in the distance. How these cars keep from toppling off the mountain is a mystery. Our train traveled along an impossibly narrow, razor sharp lip of rock on the way to a tunnel carved into the mountain. I had to remind myself to breathe – it seemed as if we were hanging in mid-air, held only by a thread.
When we reached the summit and exited the train my first view was of crazy people jumping off the mountain with nothing more than a silk parachute. Each one waited for a strong gust of wind and at just the right moment, pulled the cords of the parachute, lifting it into the wind. At that same instant, they ran forward and jumped off the edge of the mountain. It was an amazing site to see – they drifted off into a giant void of space with those awesome Alps in the background. I was astounded at their courage but wondered WHY anyone would WANT to do this:
This mountains offers pleasures for all levels of outdoor enthusiasts. A bit further along the path, sunbathers were splayed out on orange canvas chairs, availing themselves of the bright sunshine despite temperatures in the 60’s.
I decided to stick to the middle ground – no extreme sports or lounge chairs for me. I found the first hiking trail and headed out. One of the first views was of this tiny, white chapel perched at the top of the world on cliff accessible only by a narrow dirt track. I mused aloud, wondering WHO attends church here and a man standing next to me gave his opinion, “People with a lot of faith.” Another man added, “And people who are very young,” eliciting laughter from those of us looking down at the church.
Soon the path began to climb and the concrete steps changed to rugged, crooked steps carved out of the rock. By this time, there was only a nominal railing and the combination of thin air and my fear of heights where there are not sufficient guard rails was making me breathless. But, I persevered and, mounting the last step, crossed through a final tunnel carved in the rock to look down on this view:
And, here I am in the photo, just to prove I was actually there:
With every step I took the view changed. In the two photo below, the snowy Alps are seen in the distance, with the cog railway and the many hiking trails on the upper flanks of Mount Pilatus clearly seen in the foreground. Just to get an idea of the immensity of the place, look for the tiny red railway car in the second photo, inching its way to the garage at the peak.
With a half hour left before I had to descend, I headed for yet another trail – the one going to the highest point of all, on the peak perched above the Pilatus building. Two-hundred and eighty steps later, with knees quaking, I reached the top and was rewarded with these two views shot from the exact opposite directions, one showing the Alps to the south and the other looking down on Lake Lucerne, where we had begun the journey:
I raced back down the mountain just in time to catch the last cable car, which swept me down the back side of the mountain to the town of Krienz, where a 15 minute bus ride took me back to Lucerne. The cost for this four-hour excursion was 41.50 Francs,or about $32 US (regularly twice that, but I have purchased a half-price Swiss Pass that allows me to buy tickets for 50% off.). Throughout the trip I kept repeating the words ‘amazing’, ‘astounding’, ‘unbelievable’, and other like adjectives. Without a doubt, this was worth every penny.