Modern travel has evolved from some strange ideas. One recent August morning we made a remarkable excursion starting in Lucerne, Switzerland, going to the top of 7000 foot Mount Pilatus, walking around and through the mountaintop, and back. I wonder what sort of crazy ideas might have led to the technologies that made our excursion possible…
Hairbrained Idea #1, early 1800’s
“Hey, I have an idea! I’m getting too old to climb this damn mountain just to get a view. Let’s build a train to climb it instead!”
“Are you crazy? A train would just slide down the tracks. It’s too steep!”
“Yes, but my feet hurt from the climb, I’m cold because we’ve been out here all day communing with the clouds, and imagine how much money we could make if we made it easy to get to the top! The view up here is amazing!”
Once money was mentioned rationality disappeared, and these jokers came up with a scheme to get a train to climb a mountain. It’s called a rack railway or cog railway, and the first one was created in 1811 to climb Mount Washington in New Hampshire, USA.
Hairbrained Idea #2, early 1900’s
“Hey, I have an idea! I’m getting too old to climb this damn mountain just to get a view. Let’s build an aerial cable car to climb it instead!”
“Are you crazy? Those things might be good for hauling ore in mines, but you wouldn’t catch me riding in one. Dangling over the void like that? Forget it! What happens if a cable breaks? Maybe we should do one of those cog railways.”
“Cog railways are a lot more expensive than aerial cable cars. And I bet we’d get a lot more adventurous types to buy a ticket if the tickets were cheaper than trains! It might even be a point of bravery and honor.”
Once money was mentioned fear of heights became secondary, and these jokers came up with a scheme to get people to dangle in the air and like it. In 1907 Leonardo Torres, a Spanish engineer, constructed the first cableway suitable for the public transportation of people at Monte Ulía, San Sebastián, Spain. Chair and gondola lifts were a logical extension of the concept.
#3, 2180 BC
“Hey, I have an idea! I’m tired of waiting for the boatman to show up and row me across the river. Let’s build a tunnel underneath it instead!”
“Are you crazy? Tunnels are for mining. And it’s a big river, it’ll probably crush or flood the tunnel. And the cost? I don’t even want to think about it.”
“Let’s pitch it to the King. After all, the palace is on one side of the river, and the temple is on the other side. If he’s got engineers good enough to build palaces and temples they can probably figure out a tunnel. And you know how royalty likes to be seen as being in good favor with the gods. ”
And it came to pass that over the next 20 years the Babylonians dug a 3000-foot-long tunnel under the Euphrates River, connecting the palace with the temple, and two jokers didn’t have to wait for the boatman anymore.
That was then. This is now…
The first stage of our excursion was taking the world’s steepest cog railway from Lucerne, 5365 feet up to a destination near the top of Mount Pilatus. While not as old as the Mount Washington line, it has still been around since 1889. The average gradient angle on the climb was 38° and the max was 48°, with the trip up only taking 30 minutes. That saved a lot of time, climbing energy, and cold, sore feet.
At the top, there are staging areas for the trips up and down, a restaurant, hotel, and indoor and outdoor panorama areas. There are also railed paths that lead up to the top of the peaks.
Because the peaks are so steep, traversing around them called for tunneling a pathway into the mountain. In a couple of sections, the tunnel broke through the mountain wall, rendering both the inspiration and photo for “A Cave With A View”. From the outside, those windows invoke the eyes of the old man of the mountain.
As the timeframe for our third set of jokers suggested, tunneling has a long and storied past. Once through the tunnel we got a view fit for a Babylonian king, or if you prefer, a view that brings you closer to God.
For some, the location’s proximity to heaven inspires attendance at a high altitude chapel. However getting to the chapel does require a little more of a commitment than your usual suburban church.
One disadvantage to joining an organized tour is you can’t always spend more time in those places that, by themselves, are almost worth the trip. A travel writer/tour guide once wrote “Once I got the dates for my itinerary, I knew within 10 minutes when and where I was going to be taking a pee on Thursday morning.” The clock is a cruel taskmaster, we had to leave.
For the return trip, we had the second set of jokers to thank. For the first segment of the descent (2115 feet) we took an aerial cable car. This section was nearly brand new, it opened in April. It’s also quite fast, that ride takes less than four minutes. One car holds up to 55 people.
For the second segment we rode aerial gondolas. That section descended 2950 feet, and took about 20 minutes. Each car holds four people, giving each person a captive audience and plenty of time to chat about the views, the ambience, and whether the tour guide will let them take a pee when we get to the bottom.
Only a few generations ago, this could have been a major, weeks long, uncomfortable and potentially life threatening expedition. Thanks to the hairbrained ideas of a few people back in the day, we enjoyed outrageous views in comfort over the course of a morning.
I’ve always thought “hairbrained” was an odd word. Did it mean you’ve got hair growing in your brain? Instead of a brain you just have a mass of hair? My inquiring, supposedly hair free brain wanted to know, so off to the magical land of Google I went.
It didn’t take long to learn that hairbrained, although a legitimate spelling, was a perversion of harebrained, i.e. someone who has about as much sense as a rabbit. I actually find this perversion of spelling somewhat reassuring. Since this screw up occurred as far back as the 1500’s, it’s clear evidence that those of us who can’t spell worth a damn have been around for hundreds of years.
Disclaimer: these hairbrained ideas were dramatized for entertainment purposes – it’s kind of a harebrained piece. If I’ve bent a few facts here and there my apologies to the historical purists.