Perched above the jagged peaks of central Switzerland, Europe’s highest suspension bridge is an alpine walk like no other. As Alison Rourke found out, the Mount Titlis ‘Cliff Walk’ is not for the faint-hearted.
In the Middle Ages the vast glaciers that helped carve Switzerland’s alpine ranges struck fear into the hearts of people living in the valleys below. Ancient tales told of fertile pastures disappearing under ice masses as punishment for villagers’ sins; avalanches warned of the power of the mountains.
Standing at the base of Mount Titlis in central Switzerland, it’s not hard to see how people might have attributed supernatural powers to this mountain. With its serrated stone peak piercing the sky at 3,228m, the massif is surrounded on three sides by glaciers.
In winter, Titlis is a mecca for skiers, but its snow-laden peak is also a magnet for those who want to venture across Europe’s highest suspension bridge. At 3020m above sea level, the ‘Cliff Walk’ is an extraordinary feat of engineering. Built over five months in 2012 at a cost of $1.5m, its one-meter-wide, steel pathway appears to float above the valley below. Those who suffer from vertigo need not apply for this adventure.
The 40-minute ascent to the ‘Cliff Walk’ involves three cable car rides, a journey almost as spectacular as the walk itself. The first cable car starts in the picturesque village of Engelberg at the base of the mountain. In the 19th century the town became an international tourist resort when its hotels offered spa treatments, fresh air and mountain ‘cures’. Today, it’s less than an hour by train from Lucerne or Zurich, one of the reasons why it’s the most popular holiday destination in central Switzerland. In summer, hiking and mountain biking replace skiing as its main draw card but the ‘Cliff Walk’ is open all year round (weather permitting).
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As we ascend from the town in a six-seater cable car, we cross a forest of snow-laden pines, their branches drooping under the weight of winter. A few traditional chalet buildings with wooden, pitched roofs sit waist-deep in snow.
Above the tree-covered slope is Gerschnialp. At an altitude of 1262m, it’s the first point for skiers on this mountain. A century ago a cableway connected it to Engelberg for the first time; that 100-year anniversary was the inspiration for the ‘Cliff Walk’ to be built at the top of the mountain.
The second stage of the journey passes over a huge rocky cliff face to an area known as Trübsee at an altitude of 1800m. Alpine herders have grazed their cattle in the summer pastures here since the 12th century. Today the tracks of marmots (Alpine squirrels) criss-cross their way through the snow.
The final ascent to the ‘Cliff Walk’ is aboard the world’s first rotating cable car, Titlis Rotair. Its internal rotating platform gives 360° views across the central Swiss Alps. On the slope below, the Steinberg glacier, with crevasses 10m deep, carves its way down the north face of the mountain.
At the top of Mount Titlis, the air is noticeably thinner; each footstep takes more effort than in the valley below. It’s a clear, sunny day with blue skies, a gentle breeze and a temperature of 1°C. The snow under foot is crisp and dry; it squeaks with every pace.
A few minutes walk across a cleared, snowy path brings the ‘Cliff Walk’ into view. On the sun-drenched south face of the mountain, its steel cables glint in the light. They attach the suspended walkway from the main part of the mountain to a craggy outcrop, 100m away. Below the bridge is a 500m sheer drop to the valley floor.
Each of the 150 steps it takes to cross the meter-wide path triggers a faint shudder of movement. The vibrations work their way up your shins and thighs; walkers’ fingers are firmly gripped to the handrails.
The country’s second highest peak, the Dom, fixes the gaze of some to the horizon. Others peer over the safety fence, decorated at one point with Tibetan prayer flags, or through the meshed, metal floor to the icy depths below. It would be impossible to fall off, but crossing this bridge is more about psychology than logic.
The Alps cover two thirds of Switzerland’s land mass and it’s easy to see why they are so ingrained in the country’s psyche. From the viewing platform at the end of the bridge, 44 peaks are clearly visible, ranging in altitude from 2900m to 4545m.
After a pause to drink in the view, all that’s left to do is muster the courage to walk back, only stopping to capture the feat on the mounted camera at the end of the pathway.
The writer was a guest of Switzerland Tourism.
The ‘Cliff Walk’ is free once you have paid for the return cable car journey from Engelberg (CHF89 or $AUD112). If you are planning to ski, the cable car ticket also gives you access to all the lifts on the mountain. Other winter activities on the mountain include free tobogganing (next to the Trübsee Alpine Lodge) and a trip on the ‘Ice Flyer’ chair lift, from where you can see the Steinberg glacier. There is snow on the peak all year round and in summer there is a ‘Glacier Park’ at the top of the mountain, including snow-tubing, tobogganing and sledding. There is also a glacier cave that descends 20m below the surface.
IMAGES: Copyright Engelberg-Titlis Tourism and Alison Rourke