Monday, September 17, 2007

Destination: Switzerland

Although I’ve been climbing for three decades, I had never climbed in Switzerland, where the mountaineering tradition is older than just about anyplace else. So, when an invitation to join a media tour in the Swiss Alps in early September suddenly appeared, I leapt at it. I hoped that a gambol around the Bernese and Vaudoise mountains would improve my sense of Alpine geography, which is woefully inadequate and confused. Like most non-European climbers, the Alpine peaks I could easily recognize were limited to the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, the Eiger, and perhaps a few other giants. For example, I’ll bet most American climbers could not name the lovely pyramid in the photo above. Until this month, I wouldn’t have been able to either, but now I can: It’s the Schreckhorn , said to be one of the most difficult 4,000-meter peak in the Alps. And now it's on the long and seemingly ever-growing list of peaks I want to climb someday.

First stop on our tour was Grindelwald, the lovely green-pastured town at the base of the Eiger (and the Schreckhorn). Like most mountain resorts, Grindelwald has expanded its sport menu far beyond traditional skiing and mountaineering, and so our crew of five North American journalists was treated to a whirlwind of alternative “extreme” sport offerings. Our morning outing was led by Yeti, aka Beat Hutmacher, an affable bergführer (mountain guide) from Interlaken. I had to laugh as we roped up as a team of eight and marched into a gently sloped woodland to approach our first adventure. But soon we were descending along exposed ledges, clipped into via ferrata cables, with a guide at either end to hold the rope. Our goal was the top of the Glacier Express, a steel-cable zip line that starts from a clifftop about 50 meters above the Lütschine River and swoops 350 meters (nearly a quarter-mile) to a platform at the far end. We would hit speeds of 40 kilometers per hour (about 25 mph) during this run, and it wasn’t at all clear how we would avoid smashing into the trees at the cable’s end. But as I flew toward the woods, screaming involuntarily, the answer was revealed: A guide stood ready to apply the brakes with a climbing rope snubbed around a belay stake in the ground. I coasted to a stop right on the wooden platform, breathless.

Having survived the zip line, we hiked back to the top of the Glacier Gorge, the tight-walled outlet for the Lower Grindelwald Glacier, for a bit of “rappelling.” In fact, the "Spider Highway" turned out to be a series of lowers rather than rappels. Like most climbers, I don’t much like rappelling, and I hate being lowered, in part because I once was dropped to the floor while lowering in a gym. And so I was almost as gripped as the non-climbing journos as we set up at the top of 250-foot-deep gorge. (I counted my blessings that we weren’t going for the bungy jump or pendulum swing into the narrow canyon—launching platforms protruded diving-board-like from the canyon rim.) The guides lowered us each in turn down the overhanging limestone cliff: around 30 meters to a platform bolted to the wall, and then a second lower of about 45 meters, through a hatch in the platform, to another wooden ledge just above the river.

We still had to cross the river to reach the trail on the far side, and the route was a tight-rope walk across a steel cable; we clipped into another cable overhead for safety, with a third cable for a much-needed armrest. Totally safe, but surprisingly difficult and exciting. The zip line, the canyon lower, the cable traverse—these are the sorts of pseudo-adventures that "real" climbers routinely scoff at. But once you try them, they're a blast.

With the extreme stunts out of the way, we sat down for a lunch of rösti—a sort of hash brown—to fuel up for more traditional Alpine fare in the afternoon: gondola-powered hiking.

I’ll be posting frequent reports from my Alpine sojourn over the next couple of weeks. Come back tomorrow for the next installment.

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