From Swiss horn music to mountain goats, the climb up Mount Pilatus is peppered with surprises

One warm, summer night, by a picture-window near Lake Lucerne, I saw the moon peep shyly from behind a steel-blue hill. It climbed swiftly up a clear, star-sewn sky, hanging there, like a disc of creamy white chocolate. I ran to fetch my camera, trying to frame it with the purple hills, the lake, the moon's reflection — a quivering pool of gold, when a party boat obligingly moved into the frame. Ah, Switzerland, I remember thinking, the only country where everything works in your favour and makes your holiday nothing short of perfect.

It was with those charitable thoughts that we set out the next day — a scorcher of a day, when Lucerne sizzled under a white sun — to Mount Pilatus. A leisurely ferry ride along Lake Lucerne took us to Alpnachstad, from where the world's steepest cogwheel railway was to pull us up, one tooth at a time, to 2,132 mt above sea-level. It took us about 30 minutes to make that ascent; and the ride was — pardon the frightfully overused word — awesome. Sitting back (which, because of the incline, we truly were) in the fire-engine-red rail-cars, it took a few moments to get used to the not-entirely-unpleasant sensation of being hauled at inclines of 38 to 48 per cent gradient. As the rail-car progressed upwards steadily, dense pine forests scented the air and coal-black tunnels made us whoop; in the distance, rocky mountain tops tapered into sharp, craggy summits, while nearby, it was all lawn-smooth grassy knolls. All along, cows politely stood a few feet from the track, heads bent, bells tinkling, jaws clamping on the fresh, green pastures, making me dream of lusciously smooth Lindt bars…

No sooner had the rail-car pulled into the squat Pilatus-Kulm station, than a long, low sound, carried on the back of a deliciously cool breeze greeted us. In any other setting, the Swiss horn (Alpine Horn) would've overwhelmed the listener, but on Pilatus, where the massive mountains were tamed with shawls of mist, where sharp rocks and the soft backs of the cows sat side-by-side, where the sky was a patch-work quilt of grey, white and blue, it struck just the right achingly, beautiful note.

Mist swirls in

There was, of course, much to do at Mount Pilatus beyond the obvious ‘striking pretty poses, with great, wrinkly mountains in the background'. There were the obligatory restaurants and inviting, bright-red deck-chairs; some tourists simply lay in a stupor, others grabbed ice creams and cooled off with the views.

We headed for the caves, a labyrinthine path scooped out of hard-rock, where the velvety darkness presented just the spooky atmosphere to showcase the legends about Mount Pilatus.

The mist had, by then, swirled in. We watched it gather here, thin there, teasing us with tantalising views one minute and frustrating us with an opaque wall the very next. The plains, several thousand feet below, were pin-pricked with dwellings; the rail-track was crawling with the red caterpillar-like rail-cars; and the air was rich with the rustling of the wind, the harsh cries of the Alpine birds, and the musical tinkling of cow bells.

It was the cow bells that drew us into the ‘flower trail'. We followed the rocky cliff-face, on a level, cemented path, from Pilatus Kulm towards Tomlishorn (a peak nearby). Now this was supposedly a half-hour's trek; but I really wonder if they had factored in the ‘pause-to-smell-the-flowers' (or read their exotic names — the likes of Fairy fox gloves, Alpine Kidney vetch…) in their calculation. Or, even, admiring the views; and the cows, which, somewhere deep down in the valley, were busy shaking their heads, setting off their bells, making us feel we were walking into a prayer meeting…

We never completed that walk though, all thanks to a wild mountain goat. The Ibex (which is what they're called in these parts) startled me by climbing down a sheer, rocky cliff-face, with a delicate grace and surefootedness that shocked and awed in equal measure. Trying to get the husband's attention, I was surprised to find him helpfully sorting out office issues over the mobile phone. I don't think the Ibex approved of it because, after desultorily plucking at some plants, it disappeared into the valley.

Why, I asked myself, when the enchanted spell was broken and we irritatedly turned back, must there be crystal-clear mobile phone reception in one of the most beautiful mountain tops in the country? But then, isn't that the price — and a small one — you pay for Switzerland's penchant for perfection?

Keywords: Mount Pilatus