When your outdoorsy friend wants a taste of adventure, better carry your harness, rope and ice axe. Stories of a journey to the top of Switzerland.
There is chaos on the streets. This ought to be an unusual sight in a seamlessly ordered country like Switzerland. The train stops in Lauterbrunnen, a convenient town for outdoor enthusiasts who like to bend the laws of nature.
Gaurav is visiting and he wants an adventure packed holiday. I bring him to Lauterbrunnen, secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of a wing-suit jumper in the midst of nowhere. It is a valley that has beautifully arranged itself along vertical cliffs and scattered waterfalls. I have planned to show him the top of a 3000 meter peak the old school way, put him on vertical cliffs with dead air beneath his feet and show him the isolation that I revel in. We get on a bus that takes us to Stechelberg. There is a line of para gliders, base jumpers and wing suit pilots. The three sports require a wide range of skills with the common denominator of a parachute that gives them wings to fly.
We wait for a gondola filled with these jumpers to disappear behind a massive 800 meter cliff. Minutes later there are human beings gravitating towards the earth. Canopies open up, perhaps one every minute. There is a golden yellow wing that looks like a moving sun with white colored mountains in the backdrop. A beautifully inflated blue one is painted in the clear blue sky, as if that is all one wants from life. A red canopy inflates and moves in a zigzag manner with a rocky cliff as its canvas making it difficult for my camera to pan or focus. While these free-spirited souls go up and down maybe fifteen times a day, we want to reach the peak with the next morning light.
Schilthorn is primarily a gondola driven mountain in the middle of the Alps. Numerous people from around the world come every year to witness astonishing beauty atop this 2970 meter dome. The hike ideally starts from Schilthornbahn, Stechelberg. From here it takes three hours to get to Murren, a village at 1650 meters, which is home to both outdoor veterans and first-time thrill seekers alike. Along the rocky, tree like trails, there are a few waterfalls that speak something of the intense splendor of this place. Speeding down-hill mountain bikers and elderly folk erratically appear at winding paths through the forest. The hike is long and rewarding. Upon reaching Murren, the weather breaks and leaves us with views of the most famous mountains in Switzerland. I only have one thought, somewhere in this village the jumpers are gathering and emerging into the sky.
In Murren one can enroll for a tandem paraglide, jump off a cliff (only advisable for ‘certified’ Base Jumpers) or try Via Ferrata (a mix of climbing and hiking) that leads slightly horizontally to the neighboring village of Gimmelwald that we left behind a while ago. Murren also acts as a lovely base for hikers who are aiming for the top, since camping is a strict no go on these foothills, or in general, in the mountains of Switzerland (unless there is a camp site around).
We are not carrying any camping gear, well because. Even the sports stores do not keep any. We reach Intersport hoping to figure something out. We are welcomed with a big smile by the owner of the store. A young, vibrant and engaging woman, with an immaculate English accent, helps us find an accommodation that is both cheap and luxurious. She is a godsend. We fist bump and go look for the jumpers.
The first exit called ‘High Ultimate’ is located to the left of Intersport, next to a tennis court. We walk down to the main exit where an old and tattered piece of rope is hanging. I quietly wait there till someone arrives. Jake is tall, well-built and has a golden brown beard that brags of his peaceful character. He walks up to me and changes into his suit. It seems to be from Phoenix-Fly, a company based in Slovenia that designs and manufactures modern wingsuits. Jake is as calm as one can get. I will later find out that he is fighting the adrenaline rush and getting ready to activate flow. In the midst of what I can only imagine being chaos and other emotions you and I ignorant about, he looks sideways and smiles at his friend. They fly away. There is a brave new world I do not know about. It has been eight years since I watched a man jump off a cliff somewhere in Norway, YouTube. To this day, I think of that moment and thank my parents for getting broadband. We sit in one corner to digest everything while other jumpers cross us and vanish into the bushes below. While walking up to our graciously arranged accommodation, I can see Gaurav being thankful for every second of this experience.
The hostel is located in Sonnenberg, an hour hike upwards from Murren. It is a remarkable place. People who go to the mountains to find solace may not be very lucky in Murren but Sonnenburg literally has a handful of houses. The owners are a really nice couple and offer to pack us lunch for the last leg of our hike the following morning. The hostel has a trampoline, a bar and a restaurant that offers a panoramic view to the The Eiger, Monsch and Jungfrau. Not many places in the world would offer you so much for so little. We get settled in the comfort of the trampoline, sipping Jim Beam from a bottle that Gaurav managed to fit in his backpack. In retrospect, it all turns out great.
After a comfortable but short night's sleep, we depart at five in the morning. It takes us another three hours to get to the absolute base of Schilthorn.
The path is full of rocks and snow caves. In the distance the sun is shining and the mountains are waking up, through a layer of mist. To our surprise, some snow patches welcome us that turn into snowfields as we get closer to the top. We start walking up the field, one step at a time and make our way across to the bottom of the ridge. The rope along the ridge is buried under hard ice and the rock is loose. I can sense the nervousness in the air and feel vulnerable for this is my first time without gear on a mountain that I do not know. There are lessons to be learnt.
We realize that we are not carrying ice axes to arrest any fall, neither do we have any rope to protect each other. The last hundred meters of the ridge are more nerve racking than the last exam I failed in the university. To the right lies a massive snow field that ends in a fifty meter fall onto a frozen lake. To our left is nothing.
I do not have enough alpine experience and Gaurav has none in climbing rocks. I count to ten and ask Gaurav to trust me. I jokingly tell him that a helicopter rescue would cost him at least ten thousand francs. I see a reassuring glimpse in his eyes and we start moving up. One step at a time, we follow the mantra of grab-check-climb-repeat.
A New Zealander couple applauds our effort to the top. Perhaps they were in the first Gondola up and we were the first that morning to reach the peak sans public transport. This journey has been more overwhelming than I expected. It is not an alpine style route but for average experienced hikers it is a challenge. We take about four hours to get back to Murren and try ‘via ferrata’ down to the village of Gimmelwald.
A via ferrata is a protected climbing route in the Alps. There is no need for climbing equipment such as ropes. One could use a via ferrata kit to secure themselves onto steel cables that run along the route. This one starts from close to where Jake and I had the pleasure to exchange a respectful glance of each other’s existence. We meet another jumper on the way, this time from the Flower Box exit well into the route. He seems more focused and stiff and is going through a drill to check his gear. He jumps and we track his entire flight, as this exit is more accessible than the last one. He steers left and flies close to the rock face, then over a tree cladded region, onto a farmland where the landing zone is apparently marked.
The trail is pretty much easy and needs no security until a point where we have to cross a thin steel cable over an eight hundred meter drop. I metaphorically zoom out and look at ourselves from across the valley thinking that we are probably the most inconsequential beings on this planet, the size of ants, enjoying a little bit of sun and bursts of adrenaline running in our veins from time to time. I snap back and while walking on this little piece of cable, I know this is what makes for most of my life. This is why I moved to Switzerland and this is why I ask so much of friends who visit me.
We scramble down and sideways and walk bridges of various widths (and lengths) till we reach Gimmelwald and close another sweet adventure.
Gaurav dreams of a long and much awaited dip in Sarnersee while I make a mental note, “He’s one brave soul”.