Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Eiger Sanction: Part Deux

Do you feel lucky, punk?
Day Four
Today is a day of peak experiences, pun intended. We keep saying, nothing could top this. Then the next thing tops it. We got high. 1,300 feet, to be precise. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...

Today is the day we go to the Eiger -- yeah, the big, scary Swiss mountain where Clint Eastwood filmed that movie with George Kennedy. It's nearly an all-day trip. We get on the real railroad train, then on a cogwheel train, then a funicular. At last we arrive -- and head to this installation at the top of this mountain. How did it get there? Funny you should ask. Here's the story, pieced together from the Internet and our helpful guide.

It starts with two crazy dreamers.

Back in the late 18th century, Lord Byron (the poet) started vacationing in Switzerland. Until that point, the sensible Swiss had assumed that mountains were to be avoided because mountains wanted to kill you. Lord Byron thought they were pretty. He wrote poems. He told his friends. Various poets and British aristocrats started vacationing in Switzerland to get a glimpse of the pretty Swiss mountains. This was a big deal back then, because tourist infrastructure didn't exist. But these people were rich, so they came anyway. The Swiss thought they were crazy Brits at first. After time, the crazy Brits became a source of income. Crazy tourists started coming from other countries. The Swiss changed their minds about the mountains.

Back in the 19th century, a Swiss millionaire named Adolf Guyer-Zeller was on vacation in the Alps and got a good look at this mountain. Judging by his response, he would've made a great Bond villain. You or I would look at a big, scary 13,671-foot mountain and say, "That's a beautiful mountain -- but it's a big scary mountain. I'm going to stay the !@# away from it." Guyer-Zeller looked at it and thought, "We must built a railroad to the top of this mountain! And a tunnel through the mountain! All must see this mountain!"

Guyer-Zeller brought in a bunch of poor Italian laborers to do the job. For the next 15 years, they're blasting holes in the mountain with dynamite. In their spare time, they wrote their mothers back home. "Mamma I miss you. I make a lotta money blowing holes in the mountain. If I survive with both my arms in the right place, I come home and give you a big hug." Pardon the Super Mario dialect, but you get the idea. Today, there's a wall memorializing the ones who died.

Mad scheme. But it worked. The Italian sacrifice for Swiss tourism was not in vain. Guyer-Zeller opened up the Eiger. Just as he had envisioned, tourists came in droves to behold its beauty. And still do. Not just rich poets like Byron. Ordinary travel writers like us. They come to see the mountain.

Strictly speaking, there are two mountains: the Eiger and the Monk. Collectively, they're called the "Jungfraujoch." Jungfrau = young girl = virgin. Joch = yoke. There's a dirty pun in there somewhere, but I don't get it. Perhaps a chastity belt reference.

At any rate, we get off the train and go through a tubular tunnel the length of a football field cut through solid ice.

We wind up in a restaurant cut into the mountain's rock wall. I had my first beef -- some of the most delicious steak I've ever had. Sometime later, we all wind up on top of the giant mountain.

The top of Europe. That's how they advertise it. You can do more than look at it. You can stand on it. We do. The experience further confirms my earlier observation. The Swiss are not big on safety.

Because -- you're up at the top of this mountain. A more or less level expanse you can walk on. Some of it has a railing, some of it doesn't. It's not snowing but it's covered in snow. At the edge of it, there's an observation platform and a flat rock. There's no railing here. If you were a fool, you could run right off the mountain and fall the length of a skyscraper. Nothing would stop you. Various tourists and members of my party were standing on this rock going "Ayyy" and clowning around. They don't fall. But it's their responsibility.

A Swiss guard might say, "Protecting your life is your responsibility in this life. We will not tell you not to jump off the mountain. If you are so stupid as not to understand the forces of gravity and fall to your death it is not our fault you are so stupid."

They might. If there had been a guard.

To further complicate matters, we start getting giddy from oxygen deprivation . At one point, Rod Millington starts laughing. His laughter resembles the Joker on the original Batman TV series. My laughter is more like the Jack Nicholson Joker. His laughter makes me starts laughing. That makes Cindy Cockburn start laughing. We're on a mutually reinforcing laughing jag.

Here we are, laughing our asses off in an improbable, nature defying installation at the top of a mountain.

I like our species.

Poets named Byron have great taste in vacations.

Erdinger Weissbier

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