On Switzerland’s Mount Pilatus, a Writer Remembers

“YOU’RE GOING BY yourself?” my mother asks me on the phone from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “To Pilatus?”

I can hear the concern in her voice. It is a January morning, and I am taking a break from working on my novel at the New York Public Library. From the window overlooking Fifth Avenue, I can see pedestrians rushing past, scattering figures hunched against the cold. I was 12 when my mother took me to Mount Pilatus in Switzerland, but the trip didn’t go as planned. Despite the decades that have passed, she still associates the mountain with panic. For a moment, both of us pause and the years collapse. Suddenly, I’m a young girl gripping her hand as she looks for help. How easy it is to be swept back into childhood when speaking to your parents, to feel the past accumulate force until it’s all you can see.


T’s Summer Travel Issue

Three writers retake trips they made when they were different people — and experience a place other than the one they thought they knew.

Switzerland: Maaza Mengiste revisits Mount Pilatus after a life-changing first trip there.

The Grand Canyon: Thomas Page McBee returns to the landmark with his mother’s ashes and reflects on what he’s forgotten — and remembers.

Istanbul: In trying to understand the complexities of the city, Aatish Taseer examines both his past and present selves.

“It’s OK,” I tell her. “I’ve made the arrangements, it’s all organized.”

I’m not as confident as I sound, however. I’m traveling in the middle of a pandemic, and Covid-19 cases are rising across Europe. It is safer to stay home, but I want to go, to push through the range of emotions I feel whenever I think of Mount Pilatus — guilt, fear, confusion — and come out on the other side. In visiting again, I’m trying to regain something that my mother thought I never could. I wonder: “Can I establish a new memory of a place that she used to remember with such uninhibited enthusiasm?” As we continue to speak, I find myself shifting onto one foot, then the other.

Pilatus as seen from across Lake Lucerne.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

NOW I’M LOOKING back through the years, riffling past family reunions and graduations, funerals and weddings, to find my mother in 1981. She is alone in Zurich. This is how her fascination with Mount Pilatus begins. I imagine events unfolding like this: She pauses in the hotel lobby in front of a glossy brochure that beckons tourists to a mountain range near the central Swiss city of Lucerne. She is on her way to visit relatives in the United States, using her layover to tour a city she has never seen. She is in her late 20s, spirited and adventurous by nature. She has a husband to whom she has been married for nearly 10 years; they have two small children and a wide circle of friends. Back in Ethiopia, where she is from, a revolution has devastated the country. Details come to her in Nairobi, where she now lives, about arrests, denouncements and worse. While trying to make a life in Kenya, she and my father offer their house as a refuge for those in need. She has grown up in a large, close-knit family, and in the home she has made with my father are siblings, cousins and family friends who stay for extended lengths of time. She is rarely, if ever, alone.

Perhaps this is why that brochure is so arresting: It offers her a chance to experience a kind of solitude she’s not felt in a long time. For the next few days, she will be on her own. In Zurich, in this short interval before she becomes engulfed in family obligations again, she is free, unencumbered by the responsibilities that usually crowd her life — marriage, family, motherhood, her growing business as a caterer. The photographs of Pilatus’s pristine snowcapped peaks and the splendor of its panoramic views also extend another promise: a momentary but powerful opportunity to feel part of an expansive landscape. To be in the center of something breathtakingly grand. My mother is curious, then enthralled when she opens the brochure. There are red cogwheel trains and cable cars. Picturesque chalets line the Swiss landscape. And in a small photo placed in the corner, almost like an afterthought, is a white chapel balancing on a ledge high up the mountain. It is this that confirms her decision to go.

“I didn’t know why, but I just knew I had to see that mountain,” she tells me when she returns from that trip. I am 10 years old. She had planned everything in English, a second language that wasn’t as familiar to her at the time. “I arranged it all myself,” she says. “Without any help.”

Pilatus and Lake Lucerne.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

MOUNT PILATUS CONSISTS of a range of mountains overlooking Lucerne and the neighboring lake of the same name. At its peak, it measures close to 7,000 feet: Rocky terrain and tall fir trees give way to lush valleys punctuated by gardens, wooden houses and grazing sheep. It is a regal and imposing range, part of the Swiss Alps, but overshadowed by other, more spectacular, peaks and lake views. It might not be the most obvious choice, but its allure lies in the myths and stories that surround its history, a bloody past filled with fire-breathing dragons and the bones of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus Christ. Legend has it that after he committed suicide, the Romans tried to dispose of his corpse in a series of rivers. Storms overtook each river they chose, continuing until they fished the body out. Desperate, they found an isolated mountain in a distant forest in Switzerland and buried him there, where his anguished spirit rises every year on Good Friday in a futile effort to clean his bloodied hands.

There is nothing tranquil about the history of Mount Pilatus. Even its former Latin name, Fractus Mons, “broken mountain,” hints at violence and decay. Swiss lore tells of terrifying thunderstorms and churning lake waters, of phantoms screeching through the air. Brochures marketing Mount Pilatus detail helpless cattle lifted into the sky and, for centuries, residents exchanged accounts of uprooted trees and flooding so heavy that the government of Lucerne forbade anyone from climbing the mountain. Pilatus was a fearsome place, prone to otherworldly storms, and spirits were the only way to explain what defied logic. Demons and monsters helped reframe the world for Lucerne’s residents. They broadened the possibilities of what could happen, when so much that was visible and concrete already tested the bounds of the villagers’ credulity: illnesses and sudden deaths, unexplained crop failures and livestock diseases, floods and storms. Those legends made what was disastrous seem quotidian, unremarkable. They made it bearable.

Today, these myths are merely a point of interest, a marketing angle to help distinguish Mount Pilatus from all the other scenic sites in Switzerland. The very real terrors that might have once existed have been replaced by curiosity and a condescending nod to the gullibility of unsophisticated people born in a different era. The stories are simply reflective of naïve superstitions and overdeveloped imaginations. Surely the same anxieties no longer exist.

Perhaps my mother had a private fear of her own she was hoping to overcome when she started her journey to Mount Pilatus. The place called to her in a way she could not explain, and woven into her many retellings of that trip was her palpable pride in having done it alone. After that trip, she was determined to take me.

The red cable cars that travelers take to the mountain’s top from the city of Kriens.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

I WAS 12 when I went with my mother to Mount Pilatus, two years after her first visit. She would travel there with my younger brother the following year, but she wanted to enjoy our first thrilling encounter with the mountain without the arguments and distractions that normally arose when I was with him. And perhaps, too, she wanted to stand beside me not only as a mother but as a guide, wise in the face of our misgivings. She wanted to be the one who could confidently assuage our fears and urge us to keep looking: “Don’t close your eyes,” “Don’t be scared,” “Look over there,” “Do you see that?”

We took the train from Zurich to Lucerne. It was a beautiful summer day, and I was wearing my favorite cotton high-top shoes. From Lucerne, we boarded a boat that crossed the lake toward Alpnachstad station. From there, we would take the train up the mountain to the top. Lake Lucerne shimmered in the bright sunlight as we sliced through the crystalline waves. While I twisted in my seat to get a better look at the landscape, I shifted my feet, turning them left, then right. My ankles were sore, but I couldn’t figure out why.

My mother’s excitement was clear, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood; I would endure the pain and allow the moment to unfold as she had intended. As she spoke, I listened, so happy to be beside her that I ignored my discomfort. I stared up at the looming mountain range, its dark lines etched sharply against the vivid blue sky and tried to wiggle my feet. My shoes felt tighter, more constricting. By the time the boat arrived at Alpnachstad station, pain was my steady companion, more profound with every step.

We seated ourselves on the Pilatus bahn, touted as the world’s steepest cogwheel train, and began our ascent to Pilatus Kulm, near the top. I was overwhelmed by what was in front of me, by the scale of it all. As we climbed, the houses and roads shrank; I, too, felt myself grow smaller, my ankles the only parts of me refusing to quiet. I was spellbound during that climb to the top. For a brief moment, I forgot everything: my mother beside me, still holding my hand; the other passengers; my sore feet. Instead, I gazed down at the lush valley, at the gentle lines disrupted by jagged rocks and dark clutches of trees and then, farther below, at the magnificent vision of Lake Lucerne.

Lake Lucerne.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

At the top of Mount Pilatus is a stunning panoramic vista. It is a heady sensation to stand at the center of those vast, open spaces at such high elevation. The air was brisk, cold even, and my mother and I shivered in our summer clothes. We moved indoors to the visitor center, then laughingly returned outside. We were happy. She was proud, showing me each noteworthy detail as if it were hers.

But by the time we got into the small cable car that would take us down the mountain, I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I was noticeably limping.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked. We were seated facing each other.

I shook my head, unsure of what to say. “My ankles hurt.”

She had me flex them, then bent to touch my feet. As soon as she did, I winced. She looked up, panicked, and I knew our trip was ruined. She quickly untied my shoes, and when she lifted the edge of a sock to look at my ankle, we saw how swollen it was.

“Don’t worry,” she kept saying. “We’ll go to a pharmacy.” Once again, my mother was alone in a foreign city, forced to navigate new territory. This time, afraid.

As the cable car made its descent, she held me close and we both stared out the window, mesmerized by the scenery despite our worry. Then the small white church she had spoken of so often slid into view; it sat there alone, seemingly on the edge of the world.

“Look,” she said. “Look at this.”

At a pharmacy in Lucerne, we took off my socks and shoes and gasped: My ankles and feet were so swollen, covered in a rash, that there was no way I would be able to put my socks back on. What followed were days of doctors’ appointments; sleepless, agonized nights; painful biopsies; and then, finally, a diagnosis of a viral infection. Treatable. Curable with medicine. My mother and I regularly speak of those days with a sense of horror, as if we had survived something larger than its actual proportions. Lurking in these memories is my childish realization of something my mother knew as an adult: how thin the divide is that exists between safety and danger. This was my first serious illness. I had been lucky and privileged to have avoided so much.

The village of Weggis sits on the shore of Lake Lucerne.Credit…Maroesjka LavigneThe view during a short cruise on the lake.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

I WAKE IN a drizzling Zurich on a cold February day. As I shower and dress, I examine my ankles for the old scars, testing them repeatedly for pain. Nothing. By the time I arrive at Hauptbahnhof station and find the tour bus taking visitors to Mount Pilatus, a hard rain is falling. This trip, on a cold and wet winter day, will not allow for a languid boat ride.

“I’m here for the tour,” I tell the woman at the ticket counter.

She glances down her list, then smiles at me. “Congratulations! You’ve been upgraded,” she says. “You’re going to Titlis.” She pulls out a brochure and points to a photo of another mountain peak.

“I’m sorry, no. I’m going to Mount Pilatus.”

“This is an upgrade,” she repeats more slowly. “Titlis is a bigger mountain, it’s more beautiful.”

“I don’t want to go to Titlis,” I say as she keeps shaking her head. I can tell she’s cold, and I’m starting to shiver.

“No one else signed up for the tour” to Pilatus, she explains. “We’ve canceled it.”

“But I have to go there.”

“There’s no one there,” the woman says. “It’s going to be just you at the top. It’s winter.”

Eventually, we decide that the bus will make a special stop to let me out at the station in Kriens, a town just outside of Lucerne — the only way to reach Pilatus in the winter. From there, I can take the cable car and explore Mount Pilatus on my own.

Hazy air and snowy peaks.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

At Kriens, the bored operator points to the rows of lonely cable cars purring on the conveyor belt. I climb into the nearest one. Other cars drag themselves forward, then one by one leave the station and start to climb, swaying more than usual without their loads of passengers. In some ways, this trip is echoing the solitude of my mother’s initial journey. I wonder what she might have felt as she turned her attention to the scenery for the first time. As an adult, I have come to understand the many and subtle ways that one disappears when traveling alone. As gratifying as it can be, it can also feel like one exists on the periphery of a world, one that springs to life only when you make contact with another person. And that world, peopled with laughter and conversation, can seem safer than the one where we stand alone. Part of the allure of travel is the possibilities that rest in those uncharted segments of the map, the unknown that might herald a transformational moment as easily as it could lead us toward disaster.

AS I INCH closer to the top of Pilatus, I look down at the receding valley with its scatterings of slope-roofed homes, grazing sheep and snow-topped trees. Farther on, I see the waters of Lake Lucerne. Around me, the quiet is broken only by the whir of the cable car engine and the trilling of birds. Through the large window of a wooden house, I spy an empty kitchen table with a plaid coat hanging on the back of a chair. A winding path leads into a cluster of tall trees. A couple bundled in thick coats drive a car on a paved road. A creek flows somewhere below, audible but invisible. As I glance at a cable car on its way down, I see a father and his small son sitting upright and facing each other, no words passing between them. The snow becomes thicker until it lies smooth and unbroken across the surface of the mountain. And on a hillside, corralled by a fence as if it might be blown off the mountain, a solitary tree with its bare branches growing at a windswept angle.

I disembark at the top and walk through the mountain station into an expansive visitors’ gallery. I stop in front of the windows and gaze, mesmerized, at the views. The peaks are massive, jagged, vibrating with an energy that leaves me speechless. I do not know, still, how one describes a mountain if not in relative terms: of my tender, soft-boned body confronting an immense and unbreakable presence; of flesh and blood next to enduring earth; of the silent mortal beside undying stone. I have no language yet to fully grasp its scale, the evidence it provides of another kind of time, of an inhuman permanence. There are words, of course, that speak of geological proportions as mythic in scale, gargantuan. But they are clumsy attempts to pin down an otherworldly existence that has always outpaced language. For a long while, I walk through the nearly empty visitors center, struck by the beauty of the mountain, the sharp, clean white of its snowy peaks, the wide-open sky. My solitude accentuates the enormousness of my surroundings. I am overwhelmed by Mount Pilatus.

Another view of the Pilatus cableway.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

Memories flood back. I am surprised that I remember the windows with their panoramic views. The dignified Belle Époque-era Hotel Pilatus Kulm sits in the distance. Even the gift shop tugs at the edges of my recollection. That long-ago visit I made with my mother had held other moments, but I had forgotten them until now. In the decades of talking about Mount Pilatus, I had laced every recounting of it with my illness and my mother’s growing panic. But now I can no longer recall the pain; only the scars remain. What the body carries, perhaps, is its own set of memories, its own concept of time, detailed in the marks left on our physical selves. Those scars tell a part of the story of our lives, but they do not tell everything.

I am close to 50 now — nearly twice as old as my mother when she first visited Mount Pilatus. I’ve had increasing reminders of how vulnerable I am in my body. I am more aware of the shifting contours of this physical thing in which I reside, this trapping of skin and bone that I used to hurl with such abandon across the playground, around dance floors. With each year, I am becoming a stranger to myself, forced to relearn modes of being, other methods of existing as the parameters that mark safety and health continually contract.

I thought, when planning this trip, that I would encounter new details about Pilatus, something that would help explain my mother’s fascination with the place. What I discovered was how the past had gained momentum and accumulated force until I couldn’t remember anything else from that long-anticipated trip — our time in Lucerne, my first time eating fondue, the walks we took through the streets of Zurich — except that single frightening moment.

Pilatus, as seen from a cable car.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

There is a quote by Walter Benjamin from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) that I’ve been thinking about of late. He is studying “Angelus Novus,” a 1920 monoprint by Paul Klee. In it, the angel’s wings are outspread, his gaze forward, his expression startled and open-mouthed, “looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating,” writes Benjamin. The angel, according to Benjamin, is staring at history with his back to the future. Benjamin describes a storm, which he defines as progress, caught in the angel’s wings. This storm “propels him into the future to which his back is turned.” But despite being carried toward the future, the angel is fixated on the past. “He sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet,” writes Benjamin. While the past accumulates like debris in front of him, Klee’s angel falls back into the future, unable to prepare for it or experience its arrival. He cannot bring himself to look away from what he knows and face the unknown, with all its questions and its possibilities for exhilaration. The angel exists in a kind of limbo, caught between flight and a stunted grounding.

We carry so much as we move through this world. My mother made a decision to face the future when she looked at that brochure in her Zurich hotel. This was during a brutal upheaval in Ethiopia. The stories from friends and family members about the cruelties experienced, both intimately and across the country, often seemed mythic in their proportions: unbelievable and catastrophic. The trip to Pilatus would not be the most momentous choice she would make in her life but, at that point, in the midst of her many concerns and responsibilities, it was significant.

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The nearby Mount Bürgenstock on the shore of Lake Lucerne.Credit…Maroesjka Lavigne

Her trip with me changed that. It provided her with cautionary lessons about traveling outside one’s familiar space. It complicated her sense of herself as adventurous and reminded her, in ways that she might not have wanted it to, that she was not a travel guide but a mother, with all of motherhood’s added responsibilities. Seeing me ill brought her to tears. I realized, after I called to tell her I was traveling to Pilatus on my own, that her world had probably permanently shrunk after our trip together. If memories are all we have in the end, what happens when we become consumed with some at the expense of others? How do we turn to gaze fully at the future if we cannot recognize the difference between accumulated debris and progress?

AS I HEAD back down the mountain, the cable car comes to a halt with a violent jerk. The engine rumbles loudly, then falls silent. I tell myself not to panic.

But I feel like a little girl again; I want to reach for my mother’s hand. I look down at my feet, then turn my gaze to the landscape, blanketed in a warm winter sun. The rain has ended, and the sky is a crisp, bright blue. The cable car starts again. And as I descend, I see the white church that my mother loved so much, the same one she had seen in the brochure. I take out my phone and send a picture of it to her. Back at my hotel, I call her to tell her what just happened to me on the cable car. She laughs. “I remember that! The first time I went on it, I was scared, then it was nothing,” she says.

“We have to come back here,” I tell her. “We should see it again, it’s so beautiful.” I can hear her smile over the phone.

“Yes,” she says. “We must.”