A Day On Top of the World

I could spend an unfortunate amount of time detailing every single thing wrong with the Lion Lodge, but the damn place isn’t worth more than this: The owner/desk manager doesn’t have a kind bone in his body and somehow holds no patience for paying guests. The WiFi is only available in the common room which shuts down – and locks up – at 10 p.m., or whenever the manager feels like closing that night. The rooms are typical of many budget-friendly joints but the bathrooms are one per floor (or one for every 30 guests) and include a single toilet and shower stall, the latter of which is secured by nothing more than a flimsy curtain. No other amenities are included and if you even consider checking out (or in) early… well, you better hope that there’s somebody at the counter. We only booked our stay there because it was the last available location with any vacancy that wasn’t more than $100 USD per night. Word to the wise: Environment is everything.

But with just a four-minute train ride to the town of Kriens, we found ourselves far away from the Lodge and in the shadow of Mt. Pilatus, so we decided to spend that drizzly, black and white day with the mountain. After a few misguided steps, two poorly-read bus schedules, and one group of middle-aged men who had a keen eye for misplaced tourists and were patient enough to point us in the right direction, we eventually found our way to the cable car depot.

The standard ticket to the top was roughly $75 USD and provided a ‘one way up, one way down’ deal, while another more expensive package offered a ride down from the mountain on the Cogwheel Train and a ferry ride across Lake Lucerne back to your original starting place. At first, I was a bit surprised by both prices but finally learned one of the most important lessons when adventuring either domestically or abroad: If you have a chance to do something that you may never be able to do again – especially in a country or city you’re not guaranteed to return to – just spend the damn money. Traveling can get pricey fast but by opting for hostels and cheap eats instead of hotels and fancy restaurants, an extra hundred bucks here and there is more than worth it.

We got a car all to ourselves and relaxed for the 45-minute (it may have been longer, it was so peaceful that we both lost track of time) ascension through the hills, farms, cow pastures, foggy forests of spruce, fir, and everything else to which belonged the most mysterious shade of green, the same shade of green that I found in the eyes of that Irish bartender back in Nice, France, who, as memory serves, couldn’t have been less interested in me if I tried.

You also have the ability to hike the mountain if you’re a masochist, yet Harman and I rationalized that if we would have even attempted to make our way to the top – or even just the first trail a few hundred yards from the base of the park – we would have been met with a muddy, tragic fate. And remember – when we first arrived in Switzerland at the convenience store with remarkably inconvenient prices, it was clear that we wouldn’t even be able to afford our own funeral in the country. We were more than content to be safe and sound in that rickety little gondola dangling a few hundred feet above the ground, instead.

About halfway up there’s a mandatory car change and another when you reach the final leg of the ride that scales the steepest part of the mountain. A small word of advice: You’ll want to try and get a window seat for the climb through the clouds. At the end of the ride, you’re deposited into a small travel center built on top of the mountain, complete with a gift shop, small café, and boutique just in case you want to drop a cool 15,000 CHF on an Omega. But if you’re going to spend that kind of money on a watch you might as well do it at the top of a friggin’ mountain, right?

Up until that point in the afternoon, the forecast had been entirely accurate: Drizzly and chilly. There were plenty of moments of summer that found their way through the clouds, but the majority of the day could have been described as gray, grayer, and grayest. When we first got to the top and left the guest house, we were both blown back by the sheer force of the wind and rain nearly 7,000 ft. up. It was miserably cold and remarkably saturated. This was the precise moment that I learned another critical travel lesson: Always, always bring a raincoat. After getting pelted relentlessly for about 15 minutes straight we decided to just head back inside to join the other few hundred guests who were avidly avoiding the storm. A half-hour later the rain eased up and we decided to try again, this time navigating the tunnel that is burrowed through the peak. You literally are walking inside of a mountain, with ‘windows’ that offer dizzying views into the clouds and nothing else. It was otherworldly.

Following the tunnel’s path, you emerge on the opposite side at a narrow, rocky outcrop that offers dizzying views of its own, and leads you to ‘do not enter’ stairwell that, well, we entered without hesitation. Climbing up a staggeringly steep steel staircase (it had to have been at an 80 degree angle) you eventually pop out back at the top of the peak, with the travel center in view a few hundred yards away. Somehow, the clouds over-dramatically parted and the rain stopped for a few minutes, gifting Harman and I a view of the Swiss Alps all to ourselves. It was a landscape of cobalt and charcoal, and seeing this was one of the most humbling moments of the trip. It was hard to imagine — even standing right in front of it all — that places like this actually existed in the world. Even looking back at the photos I took, it still doesn’t look real.

But once a pack of aggressive, selfie-stick-wielding families erupted from the travel center in our direction, we decided to make a break for it and were able to snag the window seat for the trip back down the mountain, enjoying another serene descent back down to earth. From the top of Pilatus you can’t see the rest of the world but it certainly felt like it that afternoon. It was another one of those moments when I found it hard to believe that my mouth could make such a sound as I just spent the day on-top of a mountain in Switzerland. I’ve always had a particular affinity for mountains; not that I’ve ever gone camping or anything remotely like that. But something about the sheer spectacle of it all – the volume, altitude, their isolating nature – inhabits an undeniably spiritual geography and it’s always fascinated me. The notion that you could get indescribably lost and still find yourself in the same place as you started: Somewhere in the mountains but in the mountains, just the same.

The following day would be the final in which Harman and I were together; He was bound to visit a friend of his in Zurich for a bit and I would begin preparing for a week in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris on my own. I was eager to know what it felt like to be a solo-traveler in Europe but didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I still had a full day in Lucerne to lose myself in, after all.

Published by Dan Rosen

Documentary Photographer | Lover or Moleskine notebooks and Pilot G2 pens | Avid (and honest) Google Maps food critic

One thought on “A Day On Top of the World

  1. I felt like I was on the gondola with you and I could see the mountaintop. Another beautiful entry into a trip diary like no other. Love your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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