Mount Pilate is sometimes ascended from Lucerne, but the journey is difficult, occupying 6 ½ hours; the greater part must be performed on foot, and the view from the top is decidely inferior to that of the Righi.
I’m not sure if Murray was trying to put his readers off making this ascent, however today most tourists to Luzern also make a trip to the summit of Pilatus a must-visit, aided by the steepest cog railway in the world, which opened in 1889.
As Murray’s notes were written fifty years previous, such an easy journey to the top was sadly out of the question for me, so I set off on the “difficult” journey by bike, having no idea of the tough ascent that lay ahead.
The road up it from Lucerne proceeds in a South West direction, by the side of a wild torrent, which, when swollen by rain, is very injurious to the habitations on its banks; and, in the last century, destroyed many houses in the town.
The Unterer Krienbach stream runs alongside the lefthand side of the road, but does not appear until after Kriens, where it was tamed from flooding by being built over, the water now flowing underneath the town on its way to the Reuss in Luzern city centre.
Skirting the base of the mountain it passes through the hamlet of Krienz, Obernau, and Herrgotteswald; then, crossing a ridge covered with pasturages, descends into the Alpine valley of Eigenthal.
“The hamlet of Krienz” (Kriens) is now a bustling town, heavily built up and swallowed by the growing city centre of Luzern.
It is a popular connection point for those tourists using the cable car gondolas, which run direct from the pretty Schloss Schauensee in its town centre to Fräkmüntegg, and thence to the top of Pilatus in a glass aerial cable car cabin, taking less then 40 minutes in total. Sadly, this wouldn’t have been a shortcut available in Murray’s time, so I continued cycling up to Obernau, where the road turns off into pretty open meadows.
This is where it gets tough; the steep 7 km climb through the forest, running alongside the once “wild torrent”, seemed to be a popular training route for local cyclists and is as tough as any high Alpine passes I have encountered.
It is a punishing cycle up zigzagging chicanes to the stunning church at “Herrgotteswald” (Hergiswald).
The film-set perfect spot took me by surprise, not least because of its lack of detail in “Murray’s Hand-Book For Travellers In Switzerland 1838”.
Occupying a dominant location on the mountain side, it seems rather odd that Murray does not detail the Wallfahrtskirche Hergiswald, a pilgrimage church dating back to 1489 and taking its current form in 1652 with the altar modeled as closely as possible to that at Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy, with a Black Madonna and paintings by famous Luzern painter Kaspar Meglinger.
Sadly, the long ascent didn’t end there as the road continued to zig zag up the mountain through forests, eventually reaching the aforementioned “ridge covered with pasturages”, before, as promised, it “descends into the Alpine valley of Eigenthal.”
The Eigenthal valley offers one of Switzerland’s prettiest views and, whilst most hikers heading up to Pilatus had to park their cars at Talboden, I was able to continue cycling 2km further to the historic farm restaurant at Unterlauelen, where, after 2½ hours hard slog in the saddle, I ditched the bike and changed into my hiking boots.
The towering mountains of the Pilatus massif above gave an idea of how far I’d have to climb, seeing as the route to Pilatus Kulm was to take me over the peak of each.
Had I been religious, I would have said a much needed prayer at the tiny chapel behind the restaurant, however, as it was, I just sat there imagining John Murray or William Brockedon, his collaborator for the mountain routes, kneeling in front of the altar, begging God for his assistance in what lay ahead, this being the days before Powerbars and isotonic drinks.
Beyond this the path becomes steeper, and is only practicable on foot.
Indeed, the ascent is not only “steeper” but “only practicable” for the fittest hikers with suitable footwear, clothing, walking poles and plentiful provisions.
The path is crude, with loose rocks acting as makeshift steps and various sudden drops testing the faint hearted. The added danger of falling rocks adds to the equation. It is certainly not to be attempted in wet or windy weather, nor without proper hiking equipment; something the warning signs inform you about, rather inconveniently, once you have already reached the summit.
Other than various metal ropes to help you find your footing on the steepest, most dangerous sections, and the occasional painted indications of which direction the path ascends, I’m guessing very little has changed since Murray’s time. I was just thankful that the necessary clothing and backpacks have become lighter and sportier over the years.
There is a very remarkable echo near the Bründlis Alp. Above this vegetation ceases and naked rock succeeds.
In an attempt to see how “remarkable” the echo was, I randomly shouted “Hello!” at various cliff faces and, lo and behold, Murray was right: My screams not only produced numerous replies of “Hello”, but impressively did so in a Swiss German accent, one “Hello!” even bouncing back to me in a female voice. It wasn’t until a fellow hiker came sprinting down the mountainside to try and save me from whatever danger he feared I was in, that I realised why the art of yodelling was originally invented.
A cave in the face of the precipice, near this, is called St.Dominick’s Hole, from a fancied resemblance in a stone, standing near its mouth, to a monk.
It’s stories like this that highlight the difference between the Swiss and the British:
Look carefully at the rock at Dominihöhle and it actually does clearly bear a “fancied resemblance” to a praying monk, with a very big… hmmm… “hole”.
It could be any monk to be honest, however, as the 12th Century monkey burner from Route 7 performed the greatest miracle ever (getting 104 nuns rat-arsed with a self-refilling cup of never-ending wine), I’m more than happy to go with St.Dom.
Because of the uncanny resemblance, the Swiss decided to name the cave after him.
The Brits most certainly would not have done this. Instead, they’d just have christened the monk with the new nickname, “Cave Arse” or “Cavern Bum”, whilst the young girl whom the Jungfrau is said to resemble, would probably be monikered “Mountain Tits”.
It reminds me of when I first moved to Switzerland and kept referring to my landlord by his first name, something that, unless you’re still living in the 1970’s, bankers, lawyers, doctors and accountants in the UK would do likewise with their customers.
I was instructed by my shocked Swiss friend, “you can’t do that in German. It’s incredibly disrespectful!”.
“How can he feel disrespected?”, I protested, “I’ve just given him a bloody expensive bottle of whisky as a gift and pay him thousands in rent every month”, before adding, “In England, you earn respect, you don’t demand it.”
Fortunately my landlord had lived in America, so understood the informalities of the English language just as much as he enjoyed the Scottish whisky. He was sympathetic to my disgraceful linguistic etiquette and agreed only to increase my rent marginally as a punishment.
Anyway, back to the Dominihöhle. Legend has it, that an old chapel in Bründlen had been destroyed by a landslide. The statue of St.Dominic was miraculously moved into the cave, which had previously been called by various other names. It is said, that afterwards, the figure in the rock only answered to the name of “Domini” and anybody who dared call it by another name would die in the same year. Watch this space.
The cavern was reached in 1814 by a chamois hunter, Ignacius Matt, at the risk of his life.
Looking up at the incredibly inaccessible cave, I couldn’t help but think “what an absolute nutter!”. Then again, when your parents call you “Ignacius”, you’re probably not so bothered whether you live or die, and it can’t be the first monk’s crack that has been penetrated with a bit of effort.
It takes nearly 5 hours to reach the chalets on the Bründlis Alp, the highest human habitation, occupied by shepherds only in the summer months.
Although I had saved almost two hours by cycling rather than hiking, it was still a testing two hour ascent from Unterlauelen, of which Murray was probably referring, to Oberalp, the “highest human habitation”, still occupied “only in the summer months” by an elderly Swiss gentleman.
The traveller may here obtain shelter for the night, but nothing deserves the name of accommodation.
Unlike at Alpwirtschaft Unterlauelen, where you can sleep in small wooden cow huts, sadly, there’s no option for the weary hiker to eat, drink or sleep at Oberalp – not that I checked if the old man was listing his sofa on AirBnB or was serving takeaway pizza. Instead, I chose to eat my own sandwiches on the adjacent bench, rather than cheekily asking to join him and his daughter at the al fresco dining table.
The peaceful location, occupying an Alpine meadow, is breathtaking, and I could fully understand why the old chap would continue to make the effort to trek all the way up here to escape the coach loads of foreign tourists back in the city.
It is said that the large bog next to the old man’s hut is from where the Pilatus massif takes its name. Once a tiny lake, known as Pilatussee, it was blamed for the terrible storms in the area.
According to a wild tradition of considerable antiquity, this mountain derives its name from Pilate, the wicked governor of Judæa, who having been banished to Gaul by Tiberius, wandered about among the mountains, stricken by conscience, until he ended his miserable existence by throwing himself into a lake on the top of the Pilatus. The mountain, in consequence, labours under a very bad reputation.
With 3½ hours of climbing still to go, I wish it had have been “on the top of the Pilatus”.
It would appear Pilate died even more times than the Son of God, whom he crucified, given that, amongst other legends, the ancient Greek scripture entitled “Mors Pilati” (“Death of Pilate”), seemed to have been added to, amended and localised with each translation. In it, Emperor Tiberius, bed-bound with man flu, tries to book an appointment with his doctor, Jesus Christ, however is told by Pilate, who has already crucified the miracle-worker by this time, that the surgery is fully booked for at least another month. Tiberius finally learns the truth after Pilate is grassed up by eyewitnesses.
The story goes on to say that, at his trial, circa 36 A.D., Pilate had the audacity to wear Jesus’ robe, presumably his coat of many colours, which at first softened the Emperor’s heart before he thought, “ah, fuck it” and orders the Roman governor to be horribly executed or forced to commit suicide.
His body was thrown into the River Tiber, however it caused such a storm, they had to fish it out and send it First Class Airmail to Vienne in France, where it was chucked into the Rhone. Again, it played havoc with the weather system, so Vienne sold it at their local Bodyshop to Lucerne, where it was either buried or dumped in Lake Luzern, before being drowned again at the lake in Oberalp, depending which version you believe. Given I’d struggled to climb up to Oberalp with little more than a backpack, I can only imagine how cumbersome dragging a cadaver up here must have been.
A similar version also says his final resting place was at Lago di Pilato in Italy’s Sibillini Mountains, where his body was dumped in a potato sack and placed on a cart, pulled by cattle which were left free to wander aimlessly until they fell into the lake.
The corpse is said to rise every Good Friday to sit on the bank of the old lake at Oberalp, practice pilates and wash his unavailing hands, which makes me wonder why there are so many variations to his death, when, surely, historians could simply just go up to him and ask how he came to be here.
From its position as an outlier, or advanced guard of the chain of the Alps, it collects all the clouds which float over the plains from the West and North; and it is remarked, that almost all the storms which burst upon the lake of Lucerne gather and brew on its summit. This almost perpetual assembling of the clouds was long attributed by the superstitious to the unquiet spirit still hovering round the sunken body, which, when disturbed by any intruder, especially by the casting of stones into the lake, revenged itself by sending storms, and darkness, and hail on the surrounding district.
So prevalent was the belief in this superstition, even down to times comparatively recent, that the government of Lucerne forbade the ascent of the mountain and the naturalist Conrad Gessner, in 1555, was obliged to provide himself with a special order removing the interdict in his case, to enable him to carry on his researches upon the mountain.
I always find it fascinating how, thanks to the wonders of modern science, we now easily scoff and dismiss such mumbo jumbo superstitions, yet people still take the rest of the Bible and other religious scriptures as fact. Why do people follow one god, yet dismiss all the Prehistoric and Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Mayan, Hindu, Greek, Roman, Aztec, Inca, African, Māori, Norse and Buddhist gods, nearly all of which pre-dated belief in our “modern” God? I guess the PR and marketing teams responsible for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, back in the day, were just so much more talented. Either that, or they were much efficient at chopping the heads off non-believers.
Talking of which, Gessner did well to convince the Catholic government of Lucerne to leave him alone under supervision, with the promise he would not throw anything into the lake, “to enable him to carry on his research upon the mountain”, (the Gnepfstein, or Mittaggüpfi), for the 1555 New York Times Best-Seller “Descriptio Montis Fracti sive Montis Pilati”, especially given the fact that Pope Paul IV had banned his books on account of him being Protestant. In fact, booksellers in Venice later successfully protested the Inquisition’s blanket ban on Gessner’s books, and some of his work was eventually allowed onto their shelves after it had been “cleaned” of any conflicting opinions.
In 1585, the dean of Luzern went to the lake with the magistrate and a crowd of locals to refute the legend. They threw stones into the lake, waded through the water, dug holes in it, went snorkeling, played a game of water polo and rented out pedalos. As there was no storm on the mountain tops above, they had disproved the legend. To be safe, nine years later, Lucerne Council decided to dry the lake through excavations and any such threat was removed. All subsequent storms have been blamed on immigrants or global warming.
The lake, the source of all this terror, turns out, from recent investigation, to be beyond the limits of canton Lucerne, and on the opposite or the East side of the Tomlishorn; so that the Town Council had no jurisdiction over that part of the mountain, which belongs to Alpnach.
So, after all that effort, the lake belonged to the canton of Obwalden in the first place? See you in court, Luzern!
It’s an easy mistake to make, as geographically it does fall in the canton of Luzern, however as Oberalp is so cut off, it is aligned with Alpnach in Obwalden, the nearest town.
It is rather a pond than a lake, is dried up the greater part of the year, and reduced to a hepatitis of snow, which being melted in the height of summer, furnishes water to the herds upon the mountain, which resort to it to slake their thirst. There is no other lake upon the mountain.
And we all know who to blame for that!
It’s interesting to read that it’s not just in these days of Club 18-30 cheap package holidays that “hepatitis” rates increased “in the height of summer”.
Photo: Memch Wikipedia
It took me 30 minutes to climb the 140 metres from Oberalp to Felli (1690m above sea level). The surface at the top resembled something from another planet, perhaps one that would be nearer and with more facilities than the 3 hours of climbing I still had to conquer on the way to Pilatus Kulm.
As if the first 2½ hours hiking hadn’t been tough enough, the steep climbing wasn’t over, as the exposed brow of the first of four peaks I had to cross, loomed high above.
Skirting the cliff edge as it made its way up the spine of the Widderfeld (2076m), the path offered spectacular views and acted as the geographical boundary between the cantons, my left foot being in Luzern, my right in Obwalden, and my middle one swinging from one to another, as I headed slowly up the hill.
I figured that I must now be directly above St.Dominic’s bald bonce and, looking down, I could see how high I had climbed in the 3 hours hike to this point, barely halfway to the summit of Pilatus.
Climbing into and above the clouds, which, obviously, as explained by meteorologists, were made by Old Pontius down in his lake below, it was possible to make out Sursee in the distance on the Luzern side.
Whilst, the view in the Oberwald direction spanned the stunning Uri Alps and beyond, their tips popping out over the clouds like shark fins.
It was at this point that the climb became a descent and, as if the exposed rough narrow path wasn’t scary enough, it involved a huge drop down a cliff edge with a metal rope providing the only safety protection. One false step and you’d be a gonner.
There was no warning of this in Murray’s notes and I wondered how they would have overcome this dangerous obstacle in 1837, or in wet weather in 2017 for that matter.
Seemingly descending almost as far as I had climbed up in the first place, this did not bode well for what lay ahead, seeing as the remaining peaks of Gemsmättli, Tomlishorn and Pilatus were all much higher than the point of the Widderfeld to which I had reached.
Having to climb across an ice field on all fours, whilst trying not to stare into the abyss below, added to the sense of danger but gave my clothes and exposed legs a nice muddy coating which served as a warning to the passing hikers heading in the opposite direction, many of which seemed far too old to be able to do likewise, let alone be able to lift themselves up the steep rock face further along.
Then came the next climb, a seriously long punishing ascent up the back of the Gemsmättli and crossing into the canton of Nidwalden.
Dropping down around the imposing face of the mountain, the view opened up onto the Alpnach valley below.
From here, the path became extremely narrow, perched right on the top of the mountain ridge, as it snaked round the Tomlishorn, continually climbing. It’s not a place you want to be in windy weather as it’s a sheer drop on either side and there would be nowhere to escape to for shelter.
Once again, metal ropes save you from inevitable death and, when Pontius Pilate decided to clear his moody clouds, the expansive view of the path, snaking along the tip of the mountain to the peak of the Tomlishorn was revealed in all its frightening glory.
Daring not to look down, views of the pretty chapel on the Klimsenhorn could be spotted opposite, with the city of Luzern appearing in the background.
The Tomlishorn, the highest peak of the mountain, is 5766 feet above the lake, and 7116 feet above the sea level; but the view from it is said to be inferior to that from another peak, the Esel (ass).
After hiking for well over 4 hours, passing only a handful of fellow adventurers along the way, it came as a bit of a shock to be surrounded by so many tourists at the viewing platform on the top of the Tomlishorn, many clearly not dressed in suitable Alpine clothing.
They’d obviously made the 35 minute walk along the tourist footpath, from the cable car and train station at the Pilatus Kulm, however I made sure to congratulate them on their efforts nonetheless.
The summit of the Tomlishorn and the ridge of Pilatus in front, marks the cantonal borders of Nidwalden, on the left, and Obwalden, on the right, with the mountains of Glarus, Central Switzerland, the Bernese Oberland, Diablerets, Schrattenfluh, Napf, Jura and the Black Forest, all on view.
Whilst the “view from it is said to be inferior” to that found above the Hotel Pilatus-Kulm, and much of what had come before from my own perspective, the walk itself from the main tourist hub at the station is certainly worthwhile, as it works its way along the mountainside, passing through tunnels carved into the rock.
John Murray or William Brockedon would obviously not have taken this route to the Kulm. Instead, they would have put their lives in the hands of the the old Tomliweg, an extremely scary, shaded path, much of which has fallen down the mountainside, hugging the cliff wall of the Chastelendossen.
Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1862 that wire ropes were added to that incredibly narrow path. Needless to say, you won’t see hordes of tourists on this path and it even takes balls just to watch a video of some hikers attempting it. [watch here].
Back on the more sensible route, the Esel (ass) peak and Pilatus Kulm resort at its base had finally come into view.
It felt wrong, having made such an effort to reach Pilatus Kulm through tough remote Alpine terrain, only to be surrounded by so many tourists at the top. I pictured Edward Whymper conquering the Matterhorn or Edmund Hillary reaching the summit of Everest, only to be confronted with a crowd of Spanish and Chinese tourists, in Hard Rock Cafe T-Shirts, dining on Rösti and drinking ice cold Rivella from an overpriced restaurant, looking somewhat bemused as to why these physically exhausted overdressed new guests had also not taken the cable car or cog railway up.
The Hotel Bellevue, which was replaced by the modern glass rotunda in 1963, was originally built in 1860, which made me wonder how the hell they got all the materials and equipment needed to build it, let alone the kitchen ovens, up the mountain in the first place.
It certainly wasn’t by train, as, at a gradient of up to 48%, the steepest cogwheel railway in the world didn’t actually operate until 1889.
As Murray points out, the best view is to be had from the Esel, or “Ass”, located directly above the modern Hotel Bellevue.
The view from the Oberhaupt allows an impressive panorama of the whole resort as well as the pretty little chapel, seemingly hanging on for dear life to the side of the Klimsenhorn far below.
According to some the name Pilatus is only a corruption of Pileatus (capped), arising from the cap of clouds which rarely quits its barren brow, and which is sometimes seen rising from it like steam from a cauldron.
And here was I believing that Pontius Pilate actually did commit suicide in the mountain lake below, unable to overcome his guilt for crucifying Jesus. It just goes to show that it is not just in this modern Internet era that people believe and share bullshit until it becomes more quoted than the truth.
Whisper it quietly around these parts, however the mountain was already called Mons Pileatus long before Ponty was associated with it. But you believe what you want to believe, just don’t go all Donald Trump on me: “Your book is terrible. No, I’m not going to give you a reason. You are fake news!”
Whilst most people would take the train back down to Alpnachstad, or the cable car to Kriens, in 1837 that was not an option.
There is another path from the summit down the opposite side of the mountain, by which Alpnach may be reached in 3 hours.
I would have taken this route, or even the modern transport options, had it not been for the fact my bicycle was parked up at Unterlauelen and I’d left it too late to connect with the last bus back to Eigenthal from either Alpnach or Kriens.
Instead, I took the steep direct path back down to where I had started, which begins in the Drachenweg themed tunnel path at the Hotel Bellevue, tracing the medieval legend of a dragon with healing powers that is said to have resided in one of the caves on the mountain, presumably grounded by air traffic control because of the heavy clouds created by his neighbour, Pontius Pilate.
From here it is a crude path down sharp limestone rock, dropping down 200 metres to the Klimsenkapelle on the Klimsenhorn peak.
Built in 1856, 22 years after Murray published his Handbook, it was adjacent to a large hotel, which tragically burnt down in 1967.
As any hiker will tell you, there’s nothing that makes you more apprehensive than having to walk through a field of cows when they have young calves with them. Every year, you read stories of innocent walkers being attacked and often killed in Switzerland, when the footpath happens to cross grazing cattle. In fact, the same week I visited Pilatus, a hiker was killed in Austria and another almost killed in Switzerland by angry bovines.
Imagine then, how much I was shitting it when I suddenly found myself within headbutting distance of a large family of wild Steinbock on the descent from the Klimsenhorn.
Fortunately, they seemed to be less alarmed than me when the footpath went directly in between themselves and their babies.
I could have stayed there watching them play for hours, however with the rain clouds rolling in and at least 3 hours of hiking still to complete, I reluctantly had to say my goodbyes.
Whilst the views rewarded me for the effort, my knees were starting to punish me for a day of hard cycling and climbing, not helped by the sheer steepness of the path.
More metal ropes provided much needed assistance, however the crudeness of the path, loose rocks and steep drops required severe concentration.
The route would be almost impossible to cover had it been raining, the limestone effectively becoming as slippery as ice and the gradient acting as a waterfall. With that in mind, it became a race against time as Pontius Pilate sent over the moodiest dark cloud he could muster. It was at that point that I regretted earlier shouting “Cuthbert” and “Polycarp” into Dominic’s Hole.
Incredibly pretty throughout, there was plenty to distract the attention away from my now failing knees.
However, no matter how far I descended, the bottom of the valley just seemed to be getting no nearer.
After two hours of descending, I reached the old farmhouse at Oberlauelen, where the path became more manageable if not any less steep, for the remaining hour through the forest.
I just had time for a reassuring look back up to the top of the mountain, to see where I had dropped down from, before the heaven’s opened, soaking me to the bone before I could even reach Unterlauelen again.
Pontius Pilate had certainly kept true to his legend.