The descent of man

Queen of the mountains ... Rigi's cogwheel train climbs to 1752 metres.
Queen of the mountains ... Rigi's cogwheel train climbs to 1752 metres. 

At the alpine playground of Rigi, Brian Johnston relives the exhilaration of childhood on an out-of-control toboggan.

It all begins with some dreadful heaving and puffing as I struggle uphill, thigh-deep in snow, sweating in cumbersome clothing. An exquisite moment of anticipation makes it worth the effort as I face downhill on my toboggan, before pushing off. As I gather momentum, pine trees and mountains become a blur past my watering eyes.

Then the toboggan is careering downhill like a runaway Olympic bobsleigh, flying over bumps. Adrenalin dances a jig in my stomach. Ice chips fly, runners hiss and someone whoops - after a moment, I realise it's me. Then my mouth is full of snow and I'm lying face down in the cold, gasping for breath, delirious and delighted.

Winter in Switzerland: just the place to rediscover childhood exhilaration. Time to do something slightly crazy - a long whoosh of descent, snow in my face - just to remind myself I can still be silly in middle age. And Rigi, sitting in a big snowy heap near Lucerne, is just the place to do it. I've already tested the toboggan run between Staffel and Rigi Kaltbad. Now I've graduated to the superb four-kilometre hurtle from Rigi Kulm to Kloesterli, which weaves past pine trees slumped under epaulettes of snow, before bursting out on a panorama of jagged Alps.

What's the point in being in snowy Switzerland if you can't rediscover the child within? I've given skiing a miss - with just four lifts and a few short runs on Rigi, it's strictly for beginners - but I've already taken a horse-drawn sleigh ride and enjoyed a spin on the ice rink at Rigi Kaltbad, where I dodge twirling, pompom-hatted five-year-olds. I must admit, I've even knocked icicles from chalet roofs and made a snowman, leaving behind deranged snow-rolling tracks across the hillside.

There are, however, more sedate pleasures to be savoured on Rigi, starting with the ascent by rack railway. The little red train lurches upwards from Vitznau on Lake Lucerne to 1752 metres, just below Rigi's summit. At the top, passengers leap from the train in delight, stomping their feet and grinning, breath following in cold puffs. Rigi isn't high by alpine standards but it provides one of the most famous views in Switzerland, a 200-kilometre horizon of sunny snow peaks often afloat in a sea of winter cloud below.

Rigi's cogwheel train first ran in 1871, making it the oldest alpine railway in Europe. Almost immediately, the mountain was famous. William Turner painted it in watercolours; Felix Mendelssohn admired the yodellers. Victor Hugo raved about the view: ''The horizon is unreal, the perspective is impossible; it is a chaos of absurd exaggeration.''

In 1880, Mark Twain wrote more amusingly in A Tramp Abroad about climbing Rigi; he so exhausted himself that he slept in at his mountainside hotel and missed the fabled sunrise over the Alps.

These days, hikers can still earn Twain's ''magnificent picture'' the hard way, even in winter. Most prefer to be hauled up by train, which makes the journey from lake shore to summit in just 30 dazzling minutes. But what I imagined to be a quick trip is turning into an all-day snow-fest. I expected to be corralled behind railings on a rocky outcrop but discover that Rigi, unlike many other alpine viewpoints, is a 50-kilometre ridge of forests and meadows, tiny villages and sun-soaked restaurant terraces.

Tobogganing and ice skating are the least of the winter activities. Nordic walking trails are busy with taut young women in lycra and wobbling retirees with determined expressions. Cross-country ski trails swish with long-shanked locals. The sports shop in Rigi Kaltbad hires gear and instructors from the tourist office offer tips on technique. Personally, I think pole propulsion belongs to gondoliers, especially when partnered with tight clothes that make no concession to last night's sausages and rosti. Fortunately, I discover 30-odd kilometres of ploughed walking tracks remain open all winter.

Tipped off that the 14-kilometre wanderweg between Rigi Kaltbad and Scheidegg provides outstanding panoramas, I start hoofing. I squeak and crunch across the hillside and it all seems easy enough until I step off the track and flounder in snowdrifts, thighs screaming in protest. Summer chalets are humped shapes in the snow, trees frozen into Swarovski sculptures. Beyond, there are enough mountains to make my spirit yodel.

Eventually I collapse on a restaurant terrace. Sitting opposite, a lone Japanese woman sports a well-tended hairstyle and sleek handbag. I've always envied the Japanese their immaculate propriety. I'm aware of my own thumbprint-covered glasses and dishevelled winter gear, begged from friends in Australia. I've forgotten my lip balm and my lips are chafed.

The Japanese woman, in contrast, is now tidying up her sashimi-pink nails with a pair of little gold clippers.

Oh well. A shot or two of Pfumli - a distilled spirit made from plums, with the kick of a wildebeest - keeps me happy. Has the Japanese woman found her inner child? I think not. Her leggings aren't encrusted with ice so they glitter like a 1970s pop costume. Jack Frost is hardly nipping at her sensibly booted toes. And I doubt that during her wanderweg she knocked branches of snow onto her own head.

Shifting into the restaurant's cuckoo-clock interior, I tuck into gratin and thick slabs of ham as dusk descends. By the time I slip outside, I find snowflakes plump in the air and moonlight on fanged mountain tops.

But I'm not done with Rigi yet: time for night tobogganing, to the flickering light of burning torches, on the run between Rigi Kulm and Staffel, right on the crest of the mountain.

My toboggan gets faster and faster and faster. The valley is whipping towards me and, for a moment, I feel I'm about to spin off into the light-twinkled town far below. I shift my weight, wrenching the toboggan over, screaming around the next bend like a badly shot pinball. Downwards I plummet, gulping in cold air and happiness in the snow-swirling, cheek-nipping darkness.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism and Emirates Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare for about $2030 flying to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Zurich (about 7hr). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. There are regular trains from the airport to Lucerne.

By train

Trains run up Rigi from Vitznau and Goldau; the Vitznau train is more scenic. There is also a cable car from Weggis. A winter day pass costs 45 swiss francs ($47) for adults and 22 swiss francs for children. See rigi.ch.

Staying there

There are numerous hotels and chalets on Rigi but accommodation is booked well in advance by the Swiss, making the more up-market accommodation in Vitznau, Weggis or Lucerne on the lakefront more convenient. Park Hotel Weggis rooms cost from 264 swiss francs a double. Phone Relais & Chateaux, 9299 2280, see relaischateaux.com.

More information

Switzerland Tourism, see myswitzerland.com.

 

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