28 November 2020

Säntis: the mysterious mountaintop

We may refuse to acknowledge it but we are sometimes blind to the things closest to us. That could be a metaphorical sentence but in this case, I’m referring to the peak of a mountain I can see from where I live in Switzerland for the past 12 years. Granted, it’s located 43 km away, which means the angle of view is less than 3 degrees, even just one degree if you take into account the hills in the foreground. Notwithstanding, I could always clearly distinguish the everlasting snow-white top of the mountain, especially every time I would skateboard back home from the lake. If not snow, then I simply thought the mountain peak was made of light-coloured stone. How mistaken I was, either way.

Zoom in on the peak of the mountain, you’ll spot the transmission tower – and not what I initially thought was snow.

In reality, an observation deck is sitting on top of Säntis, the highest mountain in northeastern Switzerland at 2,502 metres above sea level. I could technically have been correct, for the exposed position of the mountain results in very cold and wet conditions: in fact, climate data reveals that it snows every month of the year, while it also boasts one of the highest rates of lightning strikes in Europe. Electric! How do we know all this? Because weather reports are diligently maintained… except on the 21st of February 1922, almost a century ago, when those reports went missing. Mysterious!

Transmission tower and observation deck on top of Säntis
Gondola station 2,000 metres below. France and Germany are hidden in the horizon.
Weather station on top of Säntis: cute but dangerously mysterious

The mystery would only be lifted after a search party was sent to the mountain. What did it find, I hear you impatiently ask? The rescuers discovered… the bodies of the weather station keeper and that of his wife. A shoemaker was a prime suspect but alas he committed suicide soon after. To this day, we still don’t know the motive for the crime. I can imagine a few possibilities only: the station keeper’s wife was very pretty; or the shoemaker was drunk and mistook them for bears; or the shoemaker had nothing to do with all this, it had to be aliens.

I can tell you’re politely smiling at that last proposition. While I’m no proponent of conspiracy theories, I cannot but believe in UFOs when the observation deck eerily reminds me of the intergalactic spaceship on which I landed on Earth some 2,000 years ago. Check out the photo for yourself:

Observation deck of Säntis – looks more like an alien invention to me (other guesses from my team at work were a stadium or a gigantic headrest).

It was a Saturday when we visited the mountain. Not that aliens prefer weekends but the name Säntis is a 9th-century abbreviation in Romansch, one of the four official languages spoken in Switzerland (by 0.5% of the population, mind you), which means “the one born on Saturday”. Ah so maybe the shoemaker was upset because the weatherman wasn’t born on a Saturday?! (You never know with the Swiss, they’re sticklers for discipline, law and order).

Panorama from Säntis
Not me climbing
Not me in a flying coffin

There’s actually not much to do up there, once you’ve taken the (naturally expensive) gondola (no way I would opt for free climbing, I’m not that insane) but the panorama is sufficiently breathtaking that a few hours (hum, four or five) passed quickly. It was a clear day but some clouds were lying low on the horizon so we couldn’t quite see all 5 of the countries in the distance (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France, and Italy). Trying to catch the best pictures of the various aerial vehicles also proved to be quite entertaining.

Two hot-air balloons gently evolve above the mountains and through the hazy clouds which create a magical and mysterious atmosphere.
Small plane flying around the top of the mountain

I was surprised at how close the hot-air balloons or the small planes would get to the mountaintop, so close that I could hear the sound of the burners.

Did you notice the person in the bottom left corner of the picture?
Another hot-air balloon coming up close (by the way it’s the first time I noticed that half-open flap right above the burner – I suppose it’s for protecting the flame from any wind)
3 balloons, that’s pretty!

And just like pretty much in every mountainous zone of Switzerland, paragliders were enjoying themselves in a ballet of gliding colours. I envy the sensation of flying but the uncertainty of wind currents so close to sharp rock edges makes it much more enjoyable for me to live vicariously. I’m perfectly comfortable snapping a few shots of them above ridges, as if they would forever stay suspended in air, away from everything else, away from all troubles. Sometimes it’s pleasant to dream and ignore some of the things closest to us.

Flying away