Schilthorn 007 Bond's Peak
"When a talent scout saw the unfinished revolivng restaurant crowning Schilthorn peak he proclaimed: `This is it!'"
HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER
The Murrenbach waterfall descending like a fluttering, lacy veil.
THE Swiss take their miracles lightly: as we learnt on our Swissrail journey to Interlaken. Whenever our speeding train encountered a deep valley, it raced across it. Swissrail's amazing bridges are supported by tall pillars soaring up from the dark bottom of the valley. And when it met a high mountain, it plunged through it. Their die-straight tunnels pierce the most awesome rock barriers nonchalantly. The Swiss seem to shrug and say: "It had to be done, so we did it!"
That's exactly how Ernst Feuz tackled the problem of Schilthorn. Feuz lived in the village of Murren, sitting snugly 1,638m up in the mountains. It's a car-free little place full of flowers and chalets and magnificent views of the great, snow-covered, peaks above. For many years it served as a stop-over for mountaineers determined to climb the white and glittering peak of Schilthorn, towering at an altitude of 2,970m. From that high peak they could get a panoramic view of 200 other peaks including the formidable Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. But this was a bonus that only dedicated climbers could earn. Then, in the early 1960's, Ernst Feuz had an impossible dream. He wanted to build a cableway to the top of the mountain so that ordinary tourists could also experience the mountaineers' high ecstasy.
Man versus Nature
The logistics were daunting. The mountain, and the slopes leading up to it, are covered in snow. Everything, every single nut, bolt, screw, girder, steel cable, had to be lifted to those heights by helicopter, and winched down. So, too, had the workers and technicians. They had, then, to anchor the pylons supporting the cables on rocks frozen under deep drifts of snow, working in freezing temperatures, buffeted by needle sharp winds. But, it had to be done, so the Swiss did it. By 1967 the cable car had reached the peak, giving awed tourists a view that only a few hardy mountaineers had ever seen. Feuz, however, wasn't happy with his achievement. His dream had grown. He now wanted to build a revolving restaurant on top of the peak! Sadly, this turned out to be too high-reaching for even the determined Feuz. He ran short of funds. The crazily ambitious restaurant project seemed doomed. But then a strange thing happened. The world, at that time, was teetering on the edge of nuclear catastrophe, walking the tightrope between the western powers and the erstwhile USSR.
Bond to the rescue
Clutching at straws, it had found solace in a fictional hyper-achiever. A retired naval officer's creation of a ruthless spy was the fantasy that the western world now clung to. James Bond, with his licence to kill, had become the cult-hero in super-hit, super expensive, movies. Talent scouts were scouring the globe to find a location for the latest 007 thriller: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". It called for a place high in the mountains, accessible only by cable-car, as the lair of the arch-villain Ernst Stravo Bloefeld. When a talent scout saw the unfinished revolving restaurant crowning Schilthorn peak he proclaimed: "This is it!" Within an unbelievable 24 hours the contract between Feuz and the producers of the Bond epics was signed. The Double-Oh-Seven makers would complete the restaurant and, in return, they would have the exclusive use of the locale for three uninterrupted months. The rest is thriller history. In nail bighting sequences, full of biff!-bang!-bang!-bashing, and more glass-shattering dishum-dishum! than Bollywood could dream about, Commander Bond destroyed Bloefeld's Piz Gloria headquarters, made mincemeat of the Opposition, evaded murderous skiers and helicopters down the snowy slopes of Schilthorn and, as always, rescued the damsel in distress!
And so, 36 years later, we drove 20 km out of Interlaken, into the narrow valley of Stechelberg and waited for the cable car to reach the Talstation at an altitude of 867m. Of the many waterfalls that plunge down the cliffs here, the Murrenbach is the prettiest. It descends like a fluttering, lacy veil from Feuz's village of Murren. In winter, it freezes and groups of adventure-sports enthusiasts climb up the ice-fall confident that it won't turn to cascading water under them. When we boarded the first section of the cableway, it was still a roaring torrent and we soared above it, swung slightly, and came to rest in Murren at 1,638m. As clouds seemed to be building up over the high mountains, we decided to take a brief break here and stroll around this little mountain village of 300 inhabitants. The wooden chalets reminded us of the houses in Himachali villages with the upper floors projecting beyond the ground-level ones. In Himachal Pradesh, we had been told the animals were housed on the ground floor. Their body warmth heated the upper floor where their humans lived and, if the snows of winter and the snow-drifts off the roofs piled up very high, the farmers could still shovel their way down to their snow-bound herds. It was an interesting explanation for the similarity of architecture between two different mountainous regions of the world.
A brisk wind had cleared away some of the clouds when we boarded the cable-car again. Riding a Swiss cable car is an experience in itself. The great, chill, glistening peaks seem to reach out and embrace you as if they want to pull you down. But the car evades their grasp by a hair's-breadth and soars over the next valley filled with roiling, milk-white, mist and rises to challenge the next jagged peak and the next and the next. Our scenic car, with its wrap-around windows, swung up to Birg at the junction of two, huge, mountain ridges. We were now at 2,677m above sea level and the cold had been honed razor-sharp on the ice. It was a world of glittering white relieved only by black, wind-scoured, rocks thrusting out like the teeth of hungry ogres. Birg was a terrifyingly beautiful place. We hurried into the next car for the last stage of our journey up the mountain. Now the snow-quilted valleys seemed to become more gentle, more welcoming, as if they felt that we had proved that we were worthy of them. And then, slowly, at the far end of our gossamer thread of steel cable, the massive, steel-and-glass-enclosed, doughnut of Piz Gloria began to emerge. We were elated when, with a slight thud, our car nudged into the warmth of the terminal station. We had reached our 2,970m goal. Our journey up had taken only 30 minutes from Stechelberg, more than 2,000m below.
We walked out on the viewing terrace, feeling insignificant against the great peaks encircling us. We felt we could reach out and touch Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, gazing down frostily at us like aloof, white maned, wizards. We relived the Bond adventure in a glassed-in auditorium. Then we had a James Bond breakfast of scrambled eggs, cheese and champagne while the solar-powered restaurant completed its panoramic revolution every 55 minutes. We were quite, irrevocably, spellbound. All this had been achieved by a simple location-for-restaurant barter deal: no money had changed hands between Bond's producers and Ernst Fuez who had always believed that his impossible dream would become reality. Clearly, the Swiss take their miracles lightly ... .
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