Sunday, April 4, 2010

Interlaken Extreme

There are many kinds of natural beauty—deserts, forests, oceans—and they are as comparable as Hindus and hamsters.  Still, I can say that Interlaken, Switzerland is the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

Imagine two crystal-clear white-blue lakes. Imagine a river winding between these two lakes. Put a city on the banks of the river. Nestle that city between two pine-covered mountains, and then behind those mountains put the permanently snow capped peaks of the Monch, the Eiger and Jungfrau. That's Interlaken, and it's that kind of beautiful.

Interlaken was an interesting mix of the pastoral and the progressive. The pastoral was embodied in the century-old cottages with huge vegetable gardens that lined its streets, the progressive in the internet cafes, youth hostels and extreme sports companies that were interspersed amongst them. The cottage about 20 meters from our party-hard youth hostel had sheep grazing in the backyard. Maybe the people that lived in those cottages wished to preserve the traditions of their ancestors. Or, perhaps it was because the only way they could afford to live in Interlaken was to grow their own food (much like my grandmother's approach to living in Miami).

Interlaken was expensive. While in Interlaken, Robynne and I spent more money in two days then we had in the past two weeks. Every thrill and beauty was available to us in Interlaken, at a price. Want to stand on the highest point in Europe reachable by train? You can, for $110. Feel like bungee jumping off a gondola strung between two mountains? $130. Feel like free falling down the face of the Eiger before parachuting onto a field at its base? $330. Or how about a scenic flight over the mountains, stopping off to have a champagne lunch on top of a glacier? $450. After a long, hard look at our budgets, Robynne and I decided our twin poisons would be paragliding and canyoning, for a total of $205 a person.

Since those activities would be the next day, we thought we would opt for a free Swiss experience: hiking in the Alps. This, we found, was anything but free. After deciding on a trail, we had to pay for the train to the trailhead. After an amazing two-hour hike past glistening glacial rivers, abandoned farmhouses and several waterfalls, we had to pay for the cable car up the mountain at the end of the trail, pay for another cable car down to a lower town on the mountain and then pay yet again for a funicular to get back to the train station that would get us back to Interlaken. Oh yeah, and then the train back to Interlaken. Our "cheap" day cost us about $40.

Still, we came back to the hostel very excited about the extreme sports we planned on partaking in the next day. That joy became waylaid when I jumped off my bunk, forgetting that my feet were still wet from showering. I slipped on the floor, slamming my right foot into a wall. Robynne took a look at the red welt now shining on my middle toe and pronounced it bruised. I went to sleep. The next morning, I awoke in pain, and Robynne took another look at my toe, which was now completely swollen and a purplish-blue color. New prognosis: broken.

Now, a broken toe is not cause for an emergency room, but it certainly grinds to a halt your X-sport planned day. Robynne gave me IB Proffen, and I propped my foot up while sitting on the lawn chairs outside the hostel. Actually, a day off in Interlaken can be just as good as a day spent sporting. We were staying at Balmer’s Herbage, consistently ranked as one of the best hostels in the world.  It has a concentration-camp style approach to beds (forty people packed into co-ed room, but plenty of women walking around in their underwear), a club in its basement (where all the soon-dressed-up women go to sweatily dance), and a huge outdoor chess set (where you can watch women sunbathe while you play).

After two hours of hobbling around the chess set (beating a Swiss guy but getting my ass royally kicked by a Russian), the pain had subsided enough I could comfortably walk, and that meant we could salvage the afternoon. Although we had time for paragliding in the late afternoon, we had already missed the canyoning trip for that day. Luckily, we had not yet paid for it, as they had a nice big sign that stated: NO REFUNDS.

I was 4,000 meters up on a mountain. I was in a harness hooked into a man with limited English named Tom. A parachute was spread out on the grass behind me. What the hell was I thinking?

Paragliding is, as the name suggests, gliding using a parachute. An OCU professor of mine once described paragliding in Interlaken as one of the most amazing experiences of his life, comparable only to backpacking the Grand Canyon. I had already backpacked the Grand Canyon, so it was time to do this.

Robynne was ahead of me in the takeoff queue, and I watched as she and her pilot ran down the slope. Within a few steps, the parachute behind them was filled with air and they were aloft, an updraft pulling them up into the sky.

Tom checked our harnesses and said, "okay, we go." After a few steps, awkward like those of a two year-old, I felt something pulling hard on my harness and I realized that my feet were no longer on the ground. We were up in the air, the houses that we had just stood beside receding, looking like those belonging to a model train set.

It was the kind of view you get from an airplane, only I wasn't in an airplane, simply hanging beneath a few yards of fabric. Still, I wasn't afraid. If anything, I was serene. The view was beautiful. I was finally able to see the lakes, the river, the city, the mountains in full view, all in one tableau sparkling in the afternoon sun. Soon, the rest of our group was aloft, their red and yellow parachutes looking like graceful birds floating in front of the pine-green mountains.

Tom seemed to be more excited then calm about the experience, letting out wild whoops and yelling joyously to other pilots as we passed them, destroying my tranquility. In hopes that he wouldn't get bored and set us down too soon, I let out a few half-hearted whoops myself. I took pictures of the scenery, and then Tom swung us close to Robynne and her pilot so I could photograph them, too. She looked surreal, hanging there with a grin on her face with nothing below her but air.

Maybe it was the result of too much MTV, but after about fifteen minutes of floating there and looking at the same scene, I became bored, wanting to go lower or hook around a mountain to see something else. Maybe Tom sensed my boredom because he asked "you have strong stomach?"

I said "yes," and he yanked hard on a cord.

We were suddenly whipped out, spinning in a circle nearly parallel to the ground. The g-forces shoved me back hard into my harness and we spun around and around. But when I saw that we were nearly horizontal, the parachute no longer completely filled with air, I felt a sudden surge of fear. Surely we were about to break a law of physics and pay for it with a swift plummet to our deaths. We didn't even have a backup parachute! The adrenal glands started churning and my fear and elation became one long--and this time sincere—bellow of ecstatic joy. Around and around we spun, thousands of meters above the ground, nothing but air pressure holding us aloft, both crowing until our throats were parched.

Soon, Tom brought us back to vertical.

"You stomach good?" he asked.


Tom dropped us lower, in over the city. He extended a camera on a monopod and snapped pictures of us hanging there. With a little maneuvering, he even managed to get Robynne in the background. After another ten minutes of admiring the new view, Tom brought us into another tight series of circles, spiraling us towards the ground. Over a park in the middle of the city we straightened out and, in a few quick steps, were on the ground.

On my face was a Cheshire cat grin


The next morning, we went canyoning.

Canyoning, for those who have never heard of it, has a pretty simple goal: follow a river down a canyon. But you don’t do this by boat or kayak or raft. You do this all by yourself.

Since water tends to find its way around or through things, the only obstacles one has to face in canyoning are the sudden drops. Canyoning is really pragmatic about how to deal with these: if the river flows down at an angle, you slide; if the water below is deep enough, you jump; if it is not deep enough, you rappel. If none of these work, you take a zip line down.

Canyoning requires quite a bit of gear. At the base camp, we donned wet suits, booties, life jackets, climbing harnesses and helmets. In all her gear, Robynne said she felt like a turtle.

We were driven to the top of the canyon with our two guides, a quiet Swiss I didn't catch the name of and a psychotic Australian named Bernie. Both managed to successfully act like this was the first time they had been to this particular canyon, which heightened the danger factor considerably.

Added to this was the very real danger of low water. Water that should have come up to our chests now only came up to our knees and the result was that we were jumping off cliffs into pools no longer deep enough to do it safely. Despite the danger, we jumped, slid, rappelled and forded the briskly-cold, briskly-moving water. It was an amazing, adrenaline-soaked hour, especially when I was looking off a 20-foot cliff at a pool of water only waist deep, Bernie yelling to land on my butt or I would break my legs. Robynne opted to take the zipline down on that one.

I, of course, jumped.

Despite the fact that we were haggard by the end of the trip, my body managed to find a couple hidden sources of adrenaline to deal with Bernie's driving on the way back. Hyped from the trip, he drove us at high speed down the narrow mountain roads, bouncing in the front seat in his red helmet, a maniacal grin on his face. He repeatedly slammed on the brakes and then immediately slammed on the gas, yelling "I keep getting the foot sticks mixed up!" while the other Australians in the back, gripping whatever handholds they could find yelled back "you mad bastard!"

That we arrived safely at the bottom is a miracle the Catholic Church should take note of, and I will bring it to their attention when we get to Rome.

1 comment:

  1. great pics, there's a couple there I haven't seen before. I still feel bad for those poor South Korean girls!