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An Audience with the Queen of Mountains

A handy blaze

I’ve had some exhilarating experiences on snow, but it’s been a volatile relationship. I’ve been unnerved by the stuff in Japan and the U.S., and I’m also not very tolerant of prolonged or extreme cold. Where most other hikers on the PCT last year claimed to love the High Sierra, I couldn’t wait to get back down on solid, clearly discernible ground.

Switzerland in early winter was the setting for an occasionally testing but always magical reacquaintance.

Alphorn in action on an autumn descent of Rigi

DECEMBER 2010

I wish I could learn to love snow.

Vitznau, facing the mountain, early winter

Maybe today will be the day. I climb aboard the oldest cog railway in Europe at tiny Vitznau, squeezed into the narrow strip between the Vierwaldstättersee — Lake Lucerne — and the snow-dusted base of Rigi, “Queen of Mountains”, as more of it begins to fall. It took a train and two buses to get here — now the final leg before I can put these brand-new trekking poles to use at last. Fortunately there’s a Nordic walking diagram at the kiosk to memorise. Wouldn’t want to get up there and make an idiot of myself.

A popular pastime in Switzerland, even on flat ground

The train’s almost deserted — a couple of Asian tourists and a lonesome snowboarder. Oh, and me, the guy with the shiny red Komperdell sticks, looking out the window in a dreamy daze. The white slopes look lovely through a nice layer of thick glass. The train grinds and creaks, stops at a few deserted stations, then a longer stop while some hotel employees unload supplies. We’re out of the woods; it looks cold and bleak out there. We resume groaning and creaking into the high white.

Goethe and Twain and Tolstoy came up here to enjoy the sublime views — summer views, no doubt. Nothing much today beyond 5om or so. And as I get out at the final stop, Rigi Kulm, bending to pull my Microspikes onto my running shoes, I feel a twinge of apprehension as I realise I’m utterly alone.

The summit, at 1,797.5m, is five minutes further, beyond the church…

Rigi Kulm

..but it seems a tad colder and bleaker up there, and I start down instead.

I’m not alone for long…

A brush with high society

..and then I am, and I stay that way for the next few hours.

The train departs. I follow the tracks for a bit…

Some welcome but short-lived colour

..and then some fences with a steep drop into nothingness on the far side:

In summer there are great views from here

Will I ever feel at ease while utterly alone in places like this?

A month earlier in the same spot

I’m more confident than I once was, and I survived weeks of much more isolated (and fence-free) snow in the Sierra a few months earlier, but elusive trail, a brush with disaster in ill-executed glissade, and a sickeningly exposed ascent to my most detested place on the planet, Mather Pass, have given me the heebie-jeebies. And that’s not counting some unpleasantness in snow in Japan in 2001 and 2002…

Today, at least, I’m not too worried, as I know if I keep heading down I’ll hit civilisation — Swiss civilisation, which is very civilised indeed. Even an idiot like me can find down in all but complete white-outs. But I’m still not — I don’t know – me. I munch some chocolate and my disappointment with myself abates somewhat.

Leaving the last hotel behind, I enter the silent, crystalline perfection of the forest.

Into the woods

This is more like it: more visibility, less wind, a trail. The chocolate kicks in, my lungs fill with cleansing, ultra-chilled alpine air. Mmmm. I’m in danger of enjoying myself as I stride, the delicious stomp of spiked Asics into clean snow. Why wouldn’t I enjoy myself? Other poor bastards are at work.

At Chänzeli (where the Alphornist was doing his thing in the picture at top), there’s a view of sorts, through the gloom, of the lake far below, the village of Greppen huddled at its edge. More chocolate. It’s cold and I have to move. So abuzz with my perfect liberty am I, I make an uncharacteristic diversion from the path and swing right, plotting a crude course on my Vierwaldstättersee hiking map.

Icicles above Chänzeli

Greppen from Chanzeli

I am instantly in deeper snow, unmarred by footprints. Unmarred by trail. Out of my depth in more ways than one, I ad-lib for the next hour, zigzagging waist-deep across snow-smothered pastures, in and out of woods, grateful for every helpful sign — the prosaic…

A rare but handy blaze

..and the unearthly:

Crosses are common sights in rural areas

Past a deserted hut and a very welcome Wanderweg signpost, emerging at last in a gentle field, with snowflakes fluttering down again:

No room at the inn

A faded blaze

I feel a haiku coming on

I reach a country road, and sit back on a rock with snow pattering onto my umbrella, eating a sandwich, and more chocolate, contemplating my next step. Three school kids pass, laughing. It’s good to be down — most of Rigi has withdrawn into dark cloud — but I’m not quite ready for more wheeled transportation. I consult my map again: perhaps 15km to Lucerne. Decided. I pound down the road and into Greppen, enjoying the solid surface underfoot, until I hit the lake. Turning right, I am soon in Küsnacht, William Tell country, a town dating from the 12th century…

View of Lake Lucerne from Küsnacht

..and south-west down the far side of the Küsnachter See, a finger of Lake Lucerne. The next couple of hours are beautiful. I love a good road-walk in a new locale, and the views across the snow-rimmed lake, even in the dreary light of an overcast autumn afternoon, are great. I pass the Königin Astrid Kapelle — the Queen Astrid Chapel — commemorating the death in 1935 of the Queen of Belgium in a car crash into a pear tree:

Königin Astrid Kapelle, lake and Rigi in the rear

It’s always startling to look back after hours of walking and realise how far you’ve come. I started at the top of that thing:

Looking back, Rigi on the right

I love a road-walk where you’re not actually on the road. In time: the outskirts of Lucerne. In dying daylight I enter this beautiful city, passing the swimming areas — deserted for some reason — and reaching the 14th-century Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), symbol of Lucerne, the surrounding streets flickering with Christmas lights — surely one of the most gorgeous climaxes to a day-hike imaginable.

End in sight

Lakeside bathhouse

Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), dusk

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