Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pleasantville, Switzerland

Interlaken, Switzerland - Small village town in the heart of the Alps located between two lakes - Thunersee and Brienzersee. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Got into town around 8 pm where I met up with Jaybird, my traveling mate for the balance of the trip. After a lonnnnng day of trains, I enjoyed a nice stroll through town marveling at the magnificent backdrop. Jay and I then enjoyed some libations down in the beer garden on the ground floor of our hostel - the famous (infamous) Ballmers Herberger. After a beer or two and some catching up, the beer garden closed just as we were recruited to join a bunch of college kids who were playing drinking games around a long table. I must say, during our two day stay, even I felt a bit old (poor Jay)…just as we expected and you kinda just had to go with it!

Next day - bright blue sky and a brilliant early morning sun. I was back to the train station by 7am to book our trip to Munich before getting on a bus for our “extreme” excursion. If you’ve never experienced Interlaken you might, like me, be unaware of the duality that the word canyon can have - both noun AND verb. If you have enough curiosity (substitute stupidity if you like) and close to about 200 big ones, you too could leave Interlaken with a more thorough understanding of this. And so it was that at 8am on Tuesday morning, Jay and I set out to learn for ourselves the manifestation of the word’s use as a verb...

Our guides were both native English speaking guys from opposite hemispheres. Stan - a big ol’ dude with a long pony tail, an easy smile and a South African accent. Steve - a little, jacked dude from London who’s spends his winters in New Zealand and has a giant, purple scar running up the left side of his face from the eye to the temple counterbalanced by other permanent scars and indentations on his right side. “Steve, how’d you get that scar, dude?” He answers, “Para-gliding accident”. Right. Sure it was. And a “canyoning accident” for your para-gliding clients who ask the same question? After a brief intro, we geared up - full wetsuit, life jacket, helmet, shoes, etc - and headed up the mountain. After about an hour’s drive into the alps, and on the side of some big mountain, Stan pulled the van over to the side of the road. “OK, it’s go time. Let’s move!”. Huh? Where are we going? Stan, you must be confused dude. Maybe you’ve made a wrong turn or something. There’s nothing here but a 150 meter drop into a stream of glacier water and sharp rocks…kinda looks like a… Oh God…it’s a canyon. 2 minutes later they are going over the rules of how to rappel down the side of a mountain. Strap in. One hand on the rope; the other out for balance. Lean back. Back horizontal to the ground. Feet perpendicular to the wall. It’s easy. Just start walking down the side of the wall as if it were the ground. Don’t screw up though. Because, as Steve promised, “You will not survive this fall”. Thanks Steeeeeve for those useful words of caution. We had a group of 9. Jay and I were the 8th and 9th to go. A couple of steps down, it starts to get a little easier. They let more slack in the rope and you’re forced to go a little faster. 150 meters is further than you think. Halfway in with building confidence, I look down. Bad idea. Instant vertigo. Whatever confidence that was building just evaporated. Miraculously, everyone makes it down without incident. Once in the canyon, it’s about an hour of jumping from ledges, sliding down rocks, climbing up moss-covered walls and doing other crazy Man v Nature stuff. The water temp makes Mem Day in NJ’s Atlantic Ocean feel like bath water. I think he said somewhere around 40 degrees. Instantly numbing the moment your hands and face hit the surface. Refreshing. Invigorating. Stupid cold. At first, some smaller jumps and slides. Then some larger ones. The hairiest part - climbing halfway up a wall to make the 35 ft jump into a pool of water. “Make sure you hit the target. If you miss… it will hurt”. At some point during the second half of this thing, we’re told to stop and wait for everyone to catch up. Then we get a minute’s tutorial on zip-lining. “We’ll tie you in. Hold on to the rope. Sit back. Slide forward. And let go when I tell you to. It’s a special knot that will release you into the pool below as soon as you drop it. If you go too early or too late, it won’t be good. Let go when I say LET GO. Got it?” No problem. I went first. Awesome. Next guy - no problem. Third guy….Stan yells, “Let Go!”…he lets go…nothing happens. He keeps sliding. Toward the wall. Faulty knot. Stan engages the safety rope and stops the kid from sliding into the wall. Both guides now shouting instructions as he dangles from the zip line. After some nervous fidgeting, he wrangles loose and drops into the pool…never good to see an “Oh Shit“ look in the eyes of your guide. After emerging from the canyon without any injuries in the group, someone retrieved the van for a picnic of beer, bread and cheese. A thrilling experience and a great time. Overpriced? Yes. But a memory that will not be soon forgotten. To canyon - verb. Got it.

That afternoon Jay and I took a hike up to some water falls near a neighboring village of Wilderswil. Later, we ate some dinner at a place right around the corner. Pretty low-key night for us on second night at Balmers. Early morning for travel to Munich…

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