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The third installment in this Switzerland series covers Queen Victoria’s trip to Pilatus. This took place just a few days after the Rigi venture, in fact today (31st August) is exactly 150 years since the Queen made her ascent of Pilatus. There’s very little said about the Queen’ ascent. Reports of the time say she did it in a day and that is the short of it. People exaggerate anyway. Some have claimed she was carried by mules more or less half way, the rest being by sedan chair carried by burly Swiss farmers.
There are claims the whole trip to Pilatus took three days! The book written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pilatus railway asserts this too although it cites several days rather than a specific number of days. One wonders where the source has came from for the Queen staying at the summit of the mountain. Upon reading the Queen’s journals, its clear all these assertions can be disproved.
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The Queen’s entry in her Journal for 21st August 1868 on Pilatus
The Queen’s ascent of Pilatus was by way of Alpnach. Her steamboat, the Winkelried, was made available once again. The steamer was used to send the Queen’s ponies (including her favourites, Flora and Sultan) ahead to Alpnach, where they were then provided for the ascent to the summit of the famous mountain. The Royal Party itself took road transport instead and met the steamer at Alpnach. Those participating were, besides the Queen herself, Louise & Janie E., Arthur & Colonel Ponsonby. John Brown, the Queen’s Highland servant was in the party, as too was Hoffman, the guy who looked after the ponies and horses. The Queen barely mentions these people throughout her entire Swiss holiday journal so it is not known which excursions Brown and Hoffman actually went on. We however do know both of these men joined the Queen on her Pilatus trip as this is one of the rare occasions the men are mentioned.
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Illustrated London News report on the Pilatus trip
Compared to the Rigi, the Queen’s influence upon Pilatus was far more muted, the simple reason being this mountain was not so easily accessible in those days. Its a longer slog and a much greater height than the Rigi. Just four people were encountered on the trek up Pilatus. Unlike the Rigi, Pilatus proved to be a headache for anyone wishing to build a railway up to its summit thus the popularity with which it is known these days took much longer to realise.
Below: Lovely image showing the summit of Pilatus with the Bellevue Hotel in 1875, just seven years after the Queen had visited it. The hotel remained in use until the 1960s when it was replaced by a new building of the same name. Source: Swiss Info
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In regards to the ascent itself, the Queen doesn’t say which route was taken in her journals but there are some subtle clues and its most certainly not the popular Ämsigen route. For a start that path would have been far too hard for the animals used to carry the party to the summit.
Victoria gives a major clue, and that is the path she used was not particularly steep, unlike that on the Rigi. There are few paths up Pilatus that really fit into this, especially if they were less arduous than the Rigi. Most importantly Alpnach is mentioned as the starting point thus it can only mean one route and its one following much of the Meisibach river. Clearly the Queen ascended via Lütholdsmatt and Frakmünt (a different one.). In those days as the guide books tell, Lütholdsmatt had chalets that provided refreshments for those ascending Pilatus. The path in question is far easier than at many of Switzerland’s other mountains and the most important factor is that guide books of the time say this was the only route which animals could fully be taken right to the summit.
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View from Lütholdsmatt, showing the lightly graded mountain roads
Lütholdsmatt today offers a restaurant and in fact a good amount of the distance to the summit of Pilatus is publicly achievable by car to a height of 1200m (Schybach.) Its not the way the Queen went however. From Lütholdsmatt a route via Denneten was taken which brings one out by the Meisibach. There’s a private metalled road as far as Frakmünt (1600m) and its a gentle ascent almost all the way to Pilatus Kulm.
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Frakmünt – nearly halfway up Pilatus, gradients still quite generous however
In the 19th Century roads up into the mountains had begun to be built in earnest, and then came the French Road, so called because it was built in 1833 by a Frenchman called Franzose Cellard. He adopted the old mountain paths in order to exploit the extensive forests on the lower slopes of the mountain. Little is known of this however the road was so well made oxen and horse carts could easily use it as far as Lütholdsmatt. Eventually the foresters got so savvy they built a wooden roller conveyor – the Holzrollbahn or Rolling Railway to transport logs down the mountain! Quite a few Swiss/German books of the time detail the French man’s attempts to tame the mountains, however its a history that’s barely been written into the English language. Here’s a link to those early attempts to tame the mountains (in German.)
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The roads up Pilatus had been built by 1838 – convenient for the Queen!
Anyhow we can deduct Queen Victoria and her party fortunately had a ready made road practically half the distance up the mountain therefore a fairly rapid ascent up Pilatus could be made because it was mostly of quite gentle ascent. For example on the section below Chilchsteine the difference in height is just 265 metres, totalling over 2km of gentle ascent. The Royal party’s animals could have easily gained a trot along this section as indeed other sections too.
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Map showing the Queen’s route. The Pilatus railway’s route is on the right marked in red
The Lütholdsmatt (or French Road) route gives the first stage of ascent, then a traverse across to the Meisibach at Denneten takes one even further up to the summit. The path eventually meets the Ämsigen route at Chilchsteine, about 1865 metres above sea level.  From Chilchsteine its just just 208 metres ascent to the Hotel Bellevue, a total of 1km walking via zig zag paths (the actual distance is 200m as the crow flies.) This final bit is a little more arduous and steep in places. Not to denigrate that its a lazy person’s route, it does have its merits. Its a good route for those who might not be able to take the more strenuous ascents – plus the views towards the Bernese Oberland are most stupendous.
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Chilchsteine – where the Meisibach and Ämsigen routes meet for the final ascent to the top of Pilatus
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View from Pilatus Kulm showing the paths. The Ämsigen goes sharp left down whilst the Meisibach route is straight ahead
Where did the queen stop whilst at the summit? The old Hotel Bellevue had been built in 1857 so there was a ready made dwelling where the Queen could take a rest. She and her party signed their names in the Bellevue’s guest book – under the assumed titles they had adopted.
Most of her party ascended to the very top of the mountain, the Essel peak, in order to see the extensive views taking in a huge part of Switzerland, that can be got from this summit, while the Queen, along with Janie E. & Hoffmann, stayed at rest by the Bellevue. On the first part of the descent, the Queen held Brown’s arm. I would think this was as far as the bottom of the zig zags, where she then rejoined her pony for the remainder of the journey.
It certainly was a very long day. The party had left Alpnach at probably 10.45am and returned by 19.30pm. They stayed at the summit just a short while and left by 4pm. The timings show the ascent was somewhat slow, not at all surprising as quite a few breaks were taken . The descent was quite rapid, possibly helped by the fact most of it was fairly easy grade and the newly built road from Lütholdsmatt to Alpnach. It was dark when they had returned to the Pension Wallis in Lucerne.
Just over one week later the Queen left Switzerland to return to Britain. She immensely enjoyed her stay and said it would be sad to leave, but admitted she would be more than happy to return to her own Highland home, Balmoral. She saw the Swiss mountains just once more, and this on a trip passing through. The train stopped at Lucerne en route and she met briefly some of the people she had got to know during her long Swiss vacation in 1868.

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