“WE GOING ON THAT?”

Attillah Springer goes to Switzerland and conquers her fear of heights

Illustration by James Hackett

Let me make one thing clear from the beginning. I’m from a small island where the highest peak is a lowly nine hundred metres, and taking a hike is something you can do in rubber slippers and short pants. Our mountains are dread green and imposing, but not insurmountable, and having overcome my hiking phobias a couple years ago I was ready for a little adventure.

In fact, when I planned my trip to Switzerland I was boldfaced enough to threaten to hit the ski slopes, provided I found myself a hot pink ski suit with a matching (insulated) head tie. This was purely for the purposes of posing, mind you, given that I am deathly afraid of heights, and the thought of speeding down the side of a mountain on two planks of fibreglass made my knees go a little wobbly.

So when Chris, my Swiss host, said to me, let’s go to the mountains, I had a picture in my mind of a non-strenuous ramble in some low-lying hills, the kind on which Heidi might have frolicked with mountain goats. In truth, I still wasn’t too sure if the Alps were really real. A trip to Lucerne the weekend before left me with the sensation of being in a moving postcard. Impossibly high icy peaks set to a deep red blaze at sunset can do that to you.

We made our way closer to the mountains on a sunny afternoon. Between the blue of the lake, the green of the hills, and the endless spring flowers coming up all along the banks of the autobahn, I was lulled into a false sense of security. I thought it would be a similar experience to my half-hour walk in a little patch of forest in Zurich, where I had been pleasantly surprised to find the trees growing in neat lines, as if even nature is organised in Switzerland.

So when we turned off the main road and into a car park with a picture of a cable car at the entrance, I knew something was terribly wrong. To confirm my suspicions, a cable car was making a slow descent down an alarmingly thin wire.

“So, ahhrm, we going on that?” I asked, hoping that I was doing a good job at disguising the hysteria lurking in my throat.

By now we were in the ticket office, and I was looking at a map of Rigi, which rises six thousand feet into the clouds.

I decided it would be undignified for me to run bawling as if blue devils were in hot pursuit, not to mention a little rude to my host, who was only attempting to show me a little bit of Switzerland, given that I knew little or nothing about this small landlocked nation of yodelling bankers and watch-makers.

Taking the final walk to the pink and blue vessel with glass sides, I started to call down all manner of prayers to sundry saints and deities. A nearby church bell rang, and I said to myself, self, this is it.

I was scandalised to discover that the cable car had no seat belts, so I positioned myself close to a pole and held on to it for dear life. We got off to a lurching start, and I closed my eyes as the pit of my stomach made a speedy descent to somewhere near the vicinity of my toes.

I seemed to amuse the conductor as I winced at the wobbling caused by the wind, and while he might not have understood every word, I’m sure he understood the sentiments of the oaths sworn in a variety of Caribbean creoles.

Jeezanages, this cable car business is pressure. I closed my eyes and said, Lord, I coming. It was worse than being a little tipsy in the back seat of a Land Rover speeding up narrow Paramin roads.

We get to the first ridge and the cable car took a dip, and it was all I could do to stop myself from bawling out Jesus Mary Joseph and mih deceased grandmudder.

At some point I started to feel a little uncool, not to mention I was getting a headache from squeezing my eyes closed.

Slowly I opened them, and discovered a beauty so unreal it was like so many dreams I had had of flying within touching distance of miles of ancient trees. The whole valley stretched out before us, and I held my breath, not out of fear, but total awe at little waterfalls and trees holding on to rocks and the fact that even from this high up you could hear the cows’ bells, like some kind of Swiss engine room down in the valley, in time with the dudups rhythm of my racing heart.

And before I could think, a-a, this is not so bad after all, we were slowing to a stop in a little village high in the mountains. I stepped out of the cable car, into bright sun and brilliant snow, a survivor. A conqueror, ready to plant a little red, white, and black flag on the mountain top.

Pity the shops were already closed. I might have gone and found myself that hot pink ski suit after all.