Friday, 23 December 2011

Mt Pilatus - Day 4

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The burst of sunlight the previous afternoon left us in doubt if we had made the right choice to swap our plans to visit the Verkehrshaus instead of Mount Pilatus. However, any lingering doubts were immediately cast away when we woke up in the morning. Hastily grabbing our cameras, we were treated to a breath-taking view of Pilatus Kulm being bathed in the soft glow of the morning sun against crisp blue skies from our balcony.

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After exploring the limited number of eateries that were opened in the early hour at the bahnhof, we settled on the Bodega snack and takeaway café located at the basement. The quality of the freshly made tarts and beverages from the self-service counter was very decent and resolved to patronising the café before boarding our early morning train to Interlaken on the next day. Apple Tart and small orange juice: CHF 7.40
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Mt Pilatus Golden Round Trip

The Golden Round Trip is a very popular package amongst visitors to Mount Pilatus. The tour begins with a cruise on Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad, followed by a ride up to Mount Pilatus by cogwheel railway, and the descent is by 2 seperate cable car systems to Kriens to connect a trolleybus back to the city centre. The tour can also be done in the other direction but we felt that the cogwheel railway is best ridden uphill. For visitors who are on a tighter schedule, a Silver Round Trip option is available to experience both forms of mountain transport in a shorter time by taking an S-bahn train between Lucerne and Alpnachstad instead of a lake cruise.

The Swiss Pass entitled us to a free ride on the boat and 50% discount on the Mount Pilatus cogwheel railway and cable cars and we only had to fork out CHF33 (1 CHF = S$1.4) per person for the golden round trip. Thanks to the integration and partnership between various operators for the convenience of commuters, we were able to pay the fare for the entire Golden Round Trip to the boat operator, SGV. However, it will be certainly be hard to imagine the administrative work required by SBB (issuer of Swiss Pass)and the participating operators to share the revenue!

Ferry to Alpnachstad

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The 80min cruise from Lucerne SGV to Alpnachstad SGV encompasses a total distance of approximately 22.1km and is operated by SGV, or Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees (Lake Lucerne Navigation Company). The company takes its name from German name of Lake Lucerne, Vierwaldstättersee. This name can be literally translated as the Lake of the Four Forested Cantons which refers to Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (albeit now divided into the Cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden). In addition to its Lucerne-Alpnachstad route as being part of the Mount Pilatus Golden Round Trip, SGV also operates a beautifully restored paddle steamer during summer for the cruise portion of the famed William Tell Express.

As we boarded only a few minutes before departure, all the available second class seats within the cabin had been taken up. The bow was also filled by a group of school children on an excursion and there was just enough space left on the benches for us to put our belongings.

View of Lucerne old town bathed in the early morning sunlight as our ferry departed from Lucerne SGV pier which is conveniently located outside the Lucerne Hauptbahnhof.
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As the ferry transversed across the irregularly shaped Lake Lucerne, the undulating mountainous landscape and the picturesque headlands provided ample photographic opportunities for the passengers.
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Kastanienbaum is one of the several charming lakeside communities that are served by the SGV ferry service.
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The station-master of the Bürgenstock funicular railway came out to receive the large group of school children as our ferry docked at Kehrsiten-Bürgenstock SGV. We certainly heaved a huge sigh of relief that the raucous group would not be following us for the entire ascent to Mt Pilatus! Surrounded by the lake on its three sides,Bürgenstock had gained popularity in recent years for its spectacular views of Lake Lucerne from the resorts at the top of the plateau. In addition, visitors can also access the summit by using the Hammetschwand Elevator which also lays claim to being the highest exterior elevator in Europe.
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Idyllic lakefront residences and lush green slopes of the countryside beckon to weary city dwellers. Lake Lucerne has a total area of 114 square kilometres and is the fifth largest lake in Switzerland.
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Kehrsiten-Dorf SGV. The distinctive dome of the community church's spire indicates that it is a Jesuit church. The prehistoric lakeside stilt-house settlement at Kehrsiten is also considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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Our ferry pulled into the village of Stansstad located in the canton of Nidwalden after an hour into the cruise.
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The final part of the cruise brought us into a branch of Lake Lucerne known as Alpnachersee after the ferry passed under the 190m-wide Acheregg Bridge shortly after leaving Stansstad.
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MV Titlis berthed at Alpnachstad SGV. Built by SGV's own shipyard in Lucerne, she first entered service in 1951 and underwent a rebuilt fifty years later in 2001 which saw the reconstruction of her superstructure and installation of new systems. Straddling a length of 43.51m with a beam of 8.25m, she could carry 96 passengers on her twin decks at a stately cruising speed of 29km/h with her twin MAN four stroke diesel engines.
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Pilatus Bahn

The Pilatus Bahn is arguably the most exciting portion of the Mt Pilatus Golden Round Trip as passengers would be able to experience a ride on the steepest cogwheel railway in the world with a maximum gradient of 48% (or a rise of 48m over a horizontal distance of 100m). The line was the brainchild of Eduard Locher who proposed a radical idea to build a track with a gradient of 48% that would cut the distance required by half and hence providing a decent opportunity to turn a profit on the operation of the railway. The line was opened on 4 June 1889 using steam traction before the line was electrified in 1937. It is also noteworthy that the line was built entirely with private capital and had remained financially viable since its inception.
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We were directed to a queue and were issued the actual barcoded ticket by Pilatus Bahnen upon showing the ticket that was issued by SGV. It is interesting to note that the price printed on the ticket was listed as CHF0.0! Due to single tracking limitations, the Pilatus Bahn operates at an interval of 40-50mins with a few railcars deployed together in a convoy.
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One of the most unique and defining features of the Pilatus Bahn is the usage of a Locher rack system. In a typical cogwheel railway, the cogwheels of the trains are meshed with the vertical toothed rack to allow operation on steep gradients. However, the gradient of the Pilatus Railway is much steeper, which increases the risk of the cogwheel “climbing out” of the rack. To overcome the problem, Eduard Locher designed two horizontal cogwheels revolving in opposite directions on the horizontal toothed rack, which firmly locks the train onto the tracks even in the presence of severe crosswinds. For the engineering marvel, the railway was named a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 2002. Unfortunately, the complexity of the system meant that conventional switches cannot be used and a transfer table is used to slide the entire railcar across to the adjacent track at the base station.
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We managed to secure ourselves seats at the front of the railcar for the best views as most passengers seem reluctant to climb the additional steps and generally filled the seats from the back. Even with prior expectations, we were still very impressed by the actual steepness of the railway as the railcar started to ascend the track.

The first portion of the journey passed through lush forests at lower altitudes. The 800mm narrow gauge rail is directly secured onto the hewn rock ledge without the need for any ballast using high strength iron ties.
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The PB Bhe 1/2 electric railcars were purpose built by SLM and MFO for Pilatus Bahn and run on 1500V DC drawn from the overhead cables. The electric motors connect to the gears driving the rack while the wheels only act as a support. Moreover, the sides of the railcar are only tapered at each end on the mountain facing side, while the other side has no taper. The railcar has a maximum speed of 12km/h during ascent and 9km/h downhill.
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The thick forests soon gave way to wide open plains as the railcar continued to climb above 1000m. The steep turns along the line and the drop down windows provided opportunities for passengers to lean out and photograph the surrounding scenery.
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Crossover siding at Aemsigen station located at an altitude of 1355m and approximately halfway along the line. A transfer table allows railcars to cross to the adjacent track and descending railcars are held in the siding while the ascending cars clear the bottom half of the line.
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A small cow farm near Aemsigen station and we were able to hear the distinctive cow bells up close for the first time during our trip.
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Passing through one of the seven tunnels along the line. The tunnels were chiselled out manually in the 19th century and the rough masonry was a stark difference from the smooth concrete walled tunnels that we were used to. (ISO 12800, 1/20s, f/5.6)
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The final portion of the ascent saw the grasslands gradually giving way to the bleak tundra landscape that is characteristic of higher altitudes above 2000m. The crosswinds also noticeably picked up during this sector.
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In around 30 minutes, the train climbed a vertical distance of 1629m over a distance of 4.8km and after negotiating a final turnout, the train pulled into the Pilatus Kulm station which is located at the lower levels of Hotel Bellevue at an altitude of 2073m. Upon stepping out of the railcar, visitors are welcomed by a large dragon motif on the ceiling of the station. According to legends in medieval times, dragons were said to live in the mysterious, rugged clefts and crevices above Lucerne; today the dragon has evolved into the symbol of Mount Pilatus and is widely used in promotional materials.
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Pilatus Kulm

A stuffed Alpine Ibex was the centrepiece at the lobby of the Hotel Bellevue. The driver of the Pilatus Bahn had pointed out a brief sighting of this magnificent creature during the final part of the ascent but we were unfortunately unable to catch a glimpse of it.
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Excited about our first visit to a high-altitude Swiss mountain, we headed straight to the vantage point at Hotel Pilatus Kulm. This is one of the two hotels at Pilatus Kulm and visitors can expect to pay a hefty premium for the privilege of spending a night at this historic hotel. The outdoor seating area provides and excellent vantage point for visitors as well.
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The vantage point also provided a good location to obtain decent photos of the Pilatus Bahn railcars together with the distinctive rotunda of the Hotel Bellevue. It is also noteworthy that the pantographs are folded down during descent as power is not drawn from the overhead cables and the onboard electric engine is used instead for dynamic braking.
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Although it was significantly cloudier at the higher altitudes, the slightly misty condition contributed to the overall atmosphere and it was a most enjoyable experience to stare at the mountainous landscape while soaking in the ambience.
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A helpful plaque is also mounted on the railings to aid visitors in identifying the different mountain peaks, but it was hopelessly shrouded in clouds during our visit.
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A busker dressed in traditional Swiss costume entertained visitors with his Swiss Alphorn and yodelling. Sporting visitors are also invited to have a go at blowing the traditional woodwind instrument.
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Such was the unpredictability and volatility of high altitude weather that a huge bank of clouds moved in quickly and completely obscured the view at the vantage point. We decided to retreat back into the comfort of the heated hotel complex and spent some time browsing through the souvenirs at the shop. Trinkets featuring the Mount Pilatus mascot, PILU®, proved to be very popular among visitors. PILU® is described as the “friendly fire-red Pilatus-Bahnen dragon”, which is “just as red as his great-great-great-great-great grandfather featured on the Pilatus trademark”, but “not too big and frightening like [his] forefathers in the Pilatus myths” on Pilatus Kulm's website. There were also other souvenirs based on the Swiss cowbell and the indigenous St Bernard dog. Prices start from a rather hefty CHF 9.90.
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We decided to have different main courses at the restaurant but unanimously opted for Rösti instead of the all-too-common fries. This Swiss dish is made of rough grated potato which is pan-fried and shaped into a patty. The surface was crispier than normal fries while the interior retained the succulence of potato. Bratwurst + Rösti : CHF18.50
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The clouds cleared significantly after we had lunch, and we were greeted with a panoramic view of Lake Lucerne from the viewing platform outside the restaurant.
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A sign at the viewing platform shows the elevation of the highest point of Mt Pilatus - Tomlishorn at 7000ft or 2132m above sea level.
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After a fruitless 15 minutes wait for the skies to clear up over Lucerne city, we decided to climb up the Esel peak for a better view. Esel peak is the most prominent peak on Mount Pilatus although it is not the highest at only 2118m. Our efforts were rewarded with spectacular panaromic view at the summit and we were treated to a more expansive view of Lake Lucerne and the environs.

Hotel Pilatus Kulm and another popular vantage point, Oberhaupt at 2106m / 6913ft.
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The urban sprawl of Lucerne City located to the east of Mt Pilatus.
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An overview of Alpnach airstrip from Esel peak with a height difference of approximately 1,600m.
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The summit of Esel peak is marked with a simple metal hut which is rather curiously ringed with Tibetan prayer flags. With the surrounding snow capped mountains, one could well be forgiven if one thought that he is in Tibet instead! The sporadic chime of the cowbells from the valleys below further contributed to the surreal ambience.
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The summit of Esel peak afforded a clear view of the six lakes which includes Lake Lucerne, Rot, Hallwil, Baldegg and Sempach.
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The improved visibility compared to the morning allowed us to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Mount Titlis.
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Aerial tramway between Pilatus Kulm and Fräkmüntegg.
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Before long, the peak was again shrouded in thick clouds and we decided to make our way down to catch the aerial tramway and head down the mountain. The trail between Pilatus Kulm and Esel peak overcomes a height difference of 50m and has a difficulty rating of medium which really only means that one has to exercise caution especially in low visibility conditions!
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Aerial Tramway to Fräkmüntegg

The upper section of the Mount Pilatus cable car is an aerial tramway, which most of us had not ridden before. Unlike the gondola lift which we are more familiar with, aerial trams shuttle back and forth on cables instead of having cabins suspended from a continuously circulating cable. The grip of the aerial tram is permanently fixed onto a propulsion rope, while one or two stationary ropes (“track cables”) are used for support. Therefore, the system is similar that of a funicular, with the weight of the descending cabin helping to pull the other cabin up.
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Upper station of the aerial tramway at Pilatus Kulm. Due to the non-continuous operation, the cabins usually have high capacity and the larger ones can even carry over 100 people.
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The five minute long descent to Fräkmüntegg took us down an altitude of 650m and below the heavy cloud layer. Once clear of the clouds, we were able to spot the herds of cows that were the source of the cowbells that we had heard at Pilatus Kulm and Esel peak!
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The aerial tramcars are built by Garaventa Systems, Switzerland. It is also noteworthy that the bright red paint of the tramcars are sponsored by a prominent Swiss light aircraft manufacturer, Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. The Stans based group produces a series of single engine acrobatic and trainer aircraft such as the PC-21 and had also derived its identity from the mountain.
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Fräkmüntegg Restaurant.
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Switzerland is also well known for its excellent hiking trails and they offer an alternative to the cable cars for the more adventurous visitors. It takes 2hr 10mins to reach Pilatus Kulm by foot and a warning advisory is bolted onto the sign that states visitors are advised to use the hiking trail at their own risk due to falling rocks.
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Fräkmüntegg had been marketed as a destination for adventure sports and visitors can have a go at an obstacle course or flying fox at the Pilatus Rope Park which is the largest of its kind in central Switzerland. We had contemplated riding on a toboggan (the longest of its kind in Switzerland), but eventually backed out as it seemed that we had to walk quite a fair distance uphill.
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Cable Car to Kriens

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We continued our journey on the gondola lift on the lower half of the cable car ride down to Kriens. Due to the light loadings, we decided to spread ourselves into two cabins for a more comfortable ride.
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Coniferous forest dominated the scenery along the cable car line, particular between Fräkmüntegg and the intermediate Krienseregg station. At Krienseregg station, service personnel and signage reminded passengers heading for Kriens / Lucerne to remain onboard the cable car.

For the final portion of the 4.9km cable car ride, passengers had a view of Lucerne city and the northern suburbs as the cable car approached Kriens station.
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A stone castle set amidst lush green meadows against a mountainous backdrop and the enthralling sounds of the cowbell - Indeed it is my kind of Switzerland!
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A neat row of spare cable cars at Kriens station.
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Visitors are bade goodbye as they exit the cable car at Kriens station with 6 different languages.
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Kriens station sits at an elevation of 1694ft or 516m above sea level.
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A double deck Setra S431DT coach belonging to Walliser-Reisen AG at Kriens station waiting to pick up tour group passengers returning from a trip to Pilatus Kulm.
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Trolleybus back to Lucerne City Centre

Clear directional signs are placed in Kriens cable car terminal building and at every single intersection along the way to guide passengers to complete the final part of the Golden Round Trip with a ride on a service 1 trolleybus back to Lucerne city centre. Even though there was a bus stop just outside the cable car terminal, we noted that the next bus would arrive 40 minutes later and the Service 15 only operates within Kriens. As such, we followed the signs to the main road served by trolleybus Service 1 and had little difficulties finding the bus stop. As the bus stop is frequented by tourists, there is a prominent sign in English which informs commuters the estimated journey time and frequency of Service 1. It is virtually impossible to get lost and take a wrong turn during the 10 minute long downhill stroll!
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While specially waiting for a NAW, we kept ourselves occupied by taking photos of a few passing buses which included fleet number 278 that looped back and brought us back to Lucern Hauptbahnhof.

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Next Post: Lucerne City - Day 4

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Lucerne - Swiss Transport Museum (Verkehrshaus) - Day 3

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing photos.