Last weekend, I conquered a 10,000-foot mountain.
It’s only fair to make clear that such a feat required no special effort on my part. Except for enduring the coach-load swarms of iPad-wielding tourists, all the hard work was done by a series of three cable cars. From the small Swiss town of Engelberg on the valley floor, they carried me to the top of Mount Titlis.
(If you just sniggered at the word ‘Titlis’, don’t worry. I spent my whole time there suppressing a stupid grin every time I said it. I can be childish like that, sorry to admit…)
The five floors of the summit complex featured, among other things: a pizzeria; a restaurant; an ice cream bar; an outdoor snack bar; a chair lift ride over the glacier (£8 extra); and a watch shop (naturally! Europe’s highest, selling only premium brands). All of it was a remarkable and effective means of securing more money from the endless stream of visitors; the perfect illustration of society’s commercial progress.
Nevertheless, after twenty minutes crammed into a cable car with 79 other people and their electronic eyes, I craved fresh air rather than a new Breitling.
Ascending such heights brought a refreshing drop in temperature compared to the 32-degree heatwave gripping the streets of Luzern. Under the dazzling full beam of the sun the summit still felt warm, and I never expected to see so many people in t-shirts and casual shoes playing in the snow at that sort of altitude.
Man vs Nature
The most impressive man-made feature on offer was the Titlis cliff walk – a suspension bridge (again, Europe’s highest) with breathtaking views over the famous Switzerland landscape. Standing at its centre put me in the path of a cool breeze caressing its way through the maze of jagged peaks.
Guidebooks – those trusty old travelling companions – made reference to the purity of mountain air. I’m not going to pretend I suddenly felt previously unknown levels of cleanliness in my lungs, the toxins of urban living flushed from my system by the superior non-EU air.
I did, though, simply want to savour the moment.
I tried to see rather than just look; tried to take in every rock formation and every pattern in the snow. Like eating cheap (non-Swiss) chocolate, I wanted to avoid getting only the temporary hit of pleasure, the fleeting instantaneous ‘wow’ that is so quickly forgotten again.
The frightening permanence and unforgiving challenge of what stood before me deserved better than a mere glance. I was determined to pay it due respect and try to gain a better understanding of my place in the world relative to the magnificent powerful beauty of nature stretching before me, touching the endless sky.
Some children ran up and down the bridge, seeing how much they could make it sway. Well, I couldn’t have expected a moment of perfect tranquillity, could I?
I persevered and felt the mountain air rush into my mouth, but only as a function of the unconscious act of breathing. I regret not taking in a deep and deliberate lungful of the stuff, to taste and remember its crispness.
However long I tried to savour the views Switzerland granted, it never felt enough. I was afraid of too easily forgetting them, of casting them aside and then glumly wondering why I struggled to recall them. How long should I have spent imbibing the experience? What length of time did I need to spend?
Perhaps I tried too hard, the enlightenment I apparently sought never likely to be possible. At what stage does one graduate from ‘travelling’ and ‘being on holiday’ to ‘climbing the mountain every day at dawn to meditate and gain greater spiritual understanding’?
The latter was certainly not my goal! I paid knowingly and willingly for the privilege of seeing the Titlis summit, no less of a tourist than any of my fellow camera-clutching sheep.
But that didn’t stop me wanting to embrace mindfulness for a change. I wanted to feel in tune with where I stood. More importantly, I didn’t want to rush onto the next place and the next place and the place after that, led around by the lens of a camera.
The Next Step
‘Savouring the experience’ was not about nostalgia and holding on to more vivid memories than normal.
It was about understanding me – my thoughts, feelings and sense of place. Every day I learn more about how I want to live and what I consider important. Every day I learn more about how I want to act as a person, even if I don’t always succeed in making a positive step towards it.
Kath and I joked about moving to the area and living among the farmers who work the lower slopes of the mountains. We are not the sort of people who believe that sort of move is a realistic proposition – for us, Switzerland will always exist basking in a hot summer (we gave little consideration to the harsh realities of a long winter!). Even so, I looked out over the land of William Tell and considered what it would take to make such a bold step.
I imagined leading the life of a writer and photographer, for I have never felt so strong a desire to capture portraits of the people around me. I saw greater and richer detail in the lives running parallel to my own; so many more nuances of being both a native and a visitor.
The thoughts were nothing more than broad, vague strokes. They lacked serious intent, and mainly I just wondered if it was possible to get bored of the scenery. That was enough though, for in trying to understand that much about myself, I began making a mental transition: toward a freer way of living, no longer another member of the herd.