After 11 years of my panic attacks, you'd think my mountain-loving husband would have had enough of high-altitude high anxiety. But it wasn't until we moved to Switzerland -- three-fifths of which is alpine -- that John decided it was time to get to the bottom of my fear of heights.
That was all right with me.
When it comes to mountains, I can never get to the bottom fast enough.
Now, from Geneva, where we lived for three years, there is nowhere to go but up. Nearly every Genevois has friends in high places. Winter or summer, the chief objective of natives and tourists alike is the top of the nearest mountain. If they are not on the way up some mountain, they are talking about going.
So there we were in Diablerets, not far from Gstaad, in the chalet we had rented for the summer -- complete with three bedrooms, two baths and a 10,000-foot mountain. Of course, our first excursion had to be to the top, to see the glacier "where the Swiss ski team trains in summer" (or so we had read). It didn't matter that no one but a Swiss -- or would-be Swiss -- cares to go below freezing in the middle of summer. Or that we could barely see the top of the hill behind our chalet for the clouds.
Up we went -- for 35 minutes, in three cable cars, like refrigerated elevators, each progressively bigger and more frigid. Halfway up the cloud cover was so thick that the substantial cable lines vanished 10 feet away from the cable car platforms, the cars eerily appearing and disappearing in the mist. And the top of the mountain was completely socked in -- and freezing. There was no Swiss ski team -- no view of anything, except the blackboard menu in the cafeteria. So we went right back down.
On the way, emboldened by clouds as thick as fondue, I stole a look out the generous windows. I had the curious sensation of moving forward, not downward, across a frozen cloud field.
Having already been to the top of peaks at Wengen, Murren and Zermatt, I had by this time made peace with cable cars, which are no more turbulent than elevators. The trick, advised a Swiss friend, was to stand in the middle, clutching the center pole, and not to look out. With the view blocked by fellow passengers (Swiss cable cars vary in capacity from four to 150), you could forget you were miraculously hanging from a cable hundreds of feet off the ground, skirting sheer rock faces in a tin matchbox, on your way up to a mountaintop. Curiously, once up, I found I was not afraid. My fear of heights -- and falling therefrom -- depends on being close to the edge of a precipice.
Now, a few weeks later, we have decided to try again, sharing the ride up with a Swiss couple and their reluctant Bernese mountain dog, who has as little use for this exercise as I, and has to be dragged on at each stop.
Though the ascent is cloudy once again, this time we had seen from below that the mountaintop was clear.
We emerge to blinding sunshine, and to our astonishment, a whole perennial winter world. Just below the cable car station lies the glacier -- a vast white plateau -- laced with ski lifts. It is rush hour: Summer skiers and tourists in shorts and street shoes wait for the glacier buses. Parapontists with their gear head for the lifts, to make the leap of more than a mile, down to the village of Diablerets. Still no Swiss ski team, but ski buses jauntily colored little tractors in pairs -- transport ordinary skiers and sightseers across the glacier. The glacier here is user-friendly, essentially benign, unlike the killers at Mont Blanc or the Jungfrau, whose crevasses can swallow men whole.
Up from the cable car station a lookout point bravely straddles the top of the peak, with nearly vertical drops off either side. Taking the Great Wall-like stairway up, we move in slow motion -- as in a dream where your legs won't move -- dizzy and light-headed from the altitude. Despite their Nike airs, some fellow Americans are no faster.
From this perch is a breathtaking vista -- from Zermatt and the Swiss Alps to Mont Blanc and the French Alps. Below, through the cloud cover, the topography is clear. The top is all unforgiving snow, ice and rock; one layer down is ground cover and no snow. And below the tree line, at the Lake of Isenau, trees and flowers and people and cows flourish, not far from our chalet.
A chairlift ride down from the restaurant, the ski bus traverses what must be the highest bus line anywhere -- with the most eye-popping scenery -- across the length of the plateau and back. This is a panorama that ordinarily could be seen only from a plane -- just above the glacier cloud banks, and above, all around, more mountains. Some "20 peaks of more than 13,000 feet high" boasts the handout that accompanied our cable car tickets. In the distance are the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa and the other mountains, seen from a unique vantage -- from the neck up.
We rough-ride to the end, bouncing and vibrating along, disembarking where another restaurant is under construction, and the plateau drops off to oblivion. Some of us scramble up a hill, stare into the abyss and take photos. Some of us stay in the bus and cower.
The snow resembles the texture of meringue. And where it has melted, the ground is slatelike, slippery and muddy.
Waiting for the cable car on the descent, we watch Swiss boys prepare the traditional bonfires for Aug. 1 -- the national holiday -- meticulously bundling the kindling.
Tonight, from far below, they will light the sky like stars.
For more information about travel in Switzerland, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, (212) 757-5944.
Barbara Ann Curcio is a Washington writer.