If I could share the Alps with my father again

Locked down in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Scott Haas can still see as clear as day the mountain peaks surrounding his second home in the Swiss Alps. They are what inspire the writer and clinical psychologist.

Scott Haas is a writer and clinical psychologist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Braunwald, Switzerland.

When it came time to start the ascent of Mount Pilatus, my father said he was afraid of going into a cable car, afraid of going to the top of the mountain. This made the trip for me even more desirable.

It was sensual and immediate yet framed by the magnificence of perpetuity suggested by the mountains

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Anything my father feared or disliked, I wanted to do. It’s still that way even now with him gone for so many years. What would he think of me having a pizza with anchovies, which he hated? What would he think of my e-bike, even if I told him it was made in his native country, Germany? Probably not much. Too fast! Not safe!

Why was he so afraid of going up the mountain? I was 13 years old when we were in Switzerland on our first visit. We had entered the country from Germany where we got to see the Bavarian village where he had spent his childhood.

From my lofty cable car perch, I could imagine my father far below, walking along the Reuss river, then crossing the Chapel Bridge to the old part of town, passing time until we returned.

The Ascent

Up I went with my mother.

I was exhilarated as the cable car climbed higher and the treetops were suddenly below us, at sharper and sharper angles. When we looked down on Lake Lucerne, I felt what I hadn’t before: I was at one with nature, but also gifted with a perspective high above from what I was seeing. As if I was a hawk, swooping, and still part of what I was seeing, what I was hunting. The awareness of belonging yet not part of nature started then, and each time I am in the mountains, it returns with enormous force. It was my first time in the Swiss Alps.   

Once out of the cable car, we stepped into a wintry landscape, and had a lunch of spaghetti Bolognese on the cold verandah overlooking distant, snowy peaks and, closer at hand, skiers. Their skis made a sound of shush. Their laughter and rosy complexions could not be hidden behind tinted goggles.

All of it created a new atmosphere for me, a child from the flatlands. It was sensual and immediate yet framed by the magnificence of perpetuity suggested by the mountains. 

Nowadays, when I stand on the balcony of my little flat in Braunwald, looking at the Alps of the cantons Glarus, Schwyz, and Uri, facing southeast or southwest, some of what I remember feeling that first time comes back. It’s not nostalgia, but a reimagining of what I remembered from the past

It’s strange and ironic: Seeing what I think of as my mountains; from the first mountains I saw to the last, from those I only observed to the ones I walked on, from Pilatus to the peaks above the resorts of Mürren and Vals, and the valley of Lötschental. Each memory shifts, is never static. 

The Alps reinforce memories and force a reconsideration of each experience I have had in them, from walking through alpine meadows and beside a herd of cows to snowshoeing to the small mountain inn, the Ortstockhaus, for a lunch of homemade quiche.

Of course, each mountain has a name: Selbsanft, Tödi, Hausstock, Ortstock, Höchturm…

The names enliven the peaks, lending them an allure. Not exactly a personality, but an identity. And they identify those of us who call Braunwald home. When I give my address to a local who asks where I live, they look puzzled until I tell them the name of my little building that houses four units: Selbsanft, in honor of the spectacular view of the mountain with the same name.

The best time to view our mountains is…any time.  Waking up to a day of snow falling, the fog obscuring them, and then clearing until they emerge, as if to say: We have always been here, we will be here centuries after you are gone.

Alpenglow

But I can say that two of my favorite times are: Alpenglühn, when the sunlight is reflected off the clouds and turns the mountains purple and pink. And a summer storm with crashing thunder and lightning when things go black and then white or golden. 

So stunning and powerful that it is better than any work of art, whether a movie, painting, or theatrical production.

The Alps - in all weather, all seasons and times of day – let it be known who is in charge, declaring loud and clear:

You do not matter, not at all. 

I think this is what my father was so afraid of. His unimportance, his helplessness in the face of nature. As a political refugee, it was the terror of an uncaring, powerful authority that defined him. 

Embracing what the Alps are capable of inspiring in me is also highly personal. I love the feeling of letting go, of surrendering. The passivity I feel when I am in them makes it more possible, ironically, for me to create, to write new things. Because I know that what I write matters not at all. Nothing I observe of nature during walks in the mountains high above Braunwald leaves any doubt as to its purpose. The eagle is just there, the brook is just there, and if I allow it, I am just there.

That feeling of being connected is painfully missed when I return to the valley. 

But I always see the Alps of cantons Glarus, Schwyz, and Uri, I picture them, especially when I feel stress. It’s not a romanticizing or idealizing of these mountains, it’s an involuntary awareness that just happens - it’s just there, in my consciousness, unwilled. 

I know that my father, now long gone, would have loved to have seen them from the safety of my balcony in Selbsanft, and that perhaps he would see them, as if for the first time.

Scott Haas

Scott is the author of:
Why Be Happy? Japanese Ways of Acceptance” (Hachette, 2020),   
Back of the House” (Berkley/Penguin, 2013), and 
Those Immigrants,” (Fingerprint/Prakesh, 2017), among others. 

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