Hiking Switzerland’s Mount Pilatus in winter

Shrouded in myth and legend and rising almost 7,000 feet above Lucerne, Mount Pilatus has lured dragon slayers, adventurers, politicians and even royalty. I have fallen prey to its siren song on cobalt blue December afternoons on several occasions when visitors are few and serenity and solitude speak volumes.

Frankly, the Pilatus massif offers much more to do in the summer. It’s the time when summit wildflowers bloom, ibex are easier to spot, and mid-mountain adventure parks promise ropeways, an alpine slide, zip lines and treetop thrills. But winter, when only snowshoe and ski tracks left by intrepid adventurers mar the snow on the summit, offers unique appeal, especially for overnighters. Among the allurements that seduced me: the silence of a snowy mountain, the warmth of a comfortable hotel, the satisfaction of a good meal, the lively sunset, the joy of spectacular stargazing and the glories of a stunning sunrise.

Although I knew that bad weather could cloud the view, I booked an overnight stay at Hotel Pilatus-Kulm as the coda to an alpine ski trip. Unlike Queen Victoria, who rode a mule to the top, I opted for modern transportation. In the warmer months, one can cross Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad and ride the world’s steepest cog railway to the saddle between two of the massif’s peaks, 6,906-foot Oberhaupt and 6,949-foot Esel. But in winter, you fly to this terrace via a two-stage gondola and a tram.

From Lucerne train station, it is a 12-minute bus ride to the Zentrum Pilatus stop in Kriens. That afternoon in mid-December, I strolled from there to the Pilatus base station and stepped into a gondola car. As it ascended, the view opened up, the browns of early winter giving way to ever-larger patches of seasonal white, and dense vegetation giving way to barren alpine terrain.

Then Pilate began to work his magic.

The late sun slipped behind the mountains, replaced by a rosy alpine glow and the blue hour of twilight, accented with a silver disc of a crescent moon. Streaked skies ranging from tonal blues to salmon colors were the backdrop for the neo-Gothic Klimsen Chapel, which fringed a cliff below Klimsenhorn’s 6,253-foot summit.

I arrived at the top station of the tram as the last day-trippers departed and the last rays of the sun illuminated the Bellevue, the second hotel in the world to book the saddle’s balcony. I ping-ponged from side to side on top of the terrace, struck by smoky skies, snow-capped peaks and dragon-breath clouds over Lake Lucerne far below. Legend has it that centuries ago there lived fire-breathing, long-necked dragons with poisonous fangs on top. Tales of those who fought the beasts or were saved by them are shared in the Dragon Trail, a tunnel with interpretive signs that circles Oberhaupt Peak.

According to another tale, the tortured soul of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus Christ, found its final resting place in a long-vanished mountain lake. Some say it gave the mountain its name; others believe it is derived from the Latin word pileatus, which means ceiling because clouds settle over it. I pondered the stories as I admired the celestial vistas revealed through jagged openings cut into the outer wall of the tunnel.

The three-star Superior Hotel Pilatus-Kulm, dating from 1890, with a view of the top of the Oberhaupt peak, appears almost fortress-like from the terrace. But inside it is cozy and comfortable. When the hotel is busy, dinner is served in the large dining room, but I ate in a less formal room where the more casual breakfast buffet is served.

Afterwards, I bundled up against the cold, stepped out onto the terrace to enjoy the starry night, and noticed a path zigzagging up the jagged mountaintop behind the hotel. Unable to resist the temptation of the mountain, I started hiking to get a better view. About halfway up the occasionally snowy trail, I realized how stupid the impulse was. And yet, I continued: my white-knuckled grip on the rails and ropes along the road was the only thing between me and a death slide. With only the whistling of the wind breaking the stillness of the night, I breathed in the summit panorama. The lights of Lucerne twinkled in the distance, and white peaks glowed in the moonlight. As a shooting star whizzed across the sky, I reached for the sky, experienced a sense of awe and grace, and prayed for a glorious sunrise.

Waking early to steel gray skies, I repeated the walk in the pre-dawn light. Again I had Pilate to myself. As the sun rose, the smoky lavender blues of the sky reflected in the waters of Lake Lucerne. I looked down to spy the Klimsen Chapel, up at the summit cross, and saw alpine choughs, crow-like birds with yellow beaks and orange feet, performing an acrobatic ballet. Then one of Pilate’s mythical dragons crawled to the mouth of its underground lair and breathed brilliant orange and gold flames into the sky.

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