Fear is a powerful thing.
With my pulse racing and my heart in my throat, I peered over the edge of a 50 meter straight cliff face from one of the many precarious mountain roads dotting the Swiss Alps.
There was one way down into the Grimsel Canyon and only one way out.
Life’s an adventure, am I right?
As soon as I planned my time in Switzerland this summer, I knew that I wanted to pencil in some time in the Alps around Interlaken to do some adventure sports. As you might grasp from its name, Interlaken is a little town snugly wedged between two of the most beautiful blue lakes you’ve ever laid eyes on. Surrounded by the soaring Alps, Interlaken is the place to be if you ever come to Switzerland.
I’m a mountain girl through and through. Give me some snowcapped peaks and lush valleys filled with wildflowers and I’m as happy as can be. With pure mountain air and well-organized hiking trails as only the Swiss can do, I’m in bliss every time I visit this rugged part of Switzerland.
And if it couldn’t get any better, Interlaken is also the adventure capital of Switzerland.
I got my first taste for Interlaken and all its adrenaline-pumping activities 5 years ago on a long weekend away from Spain where I went canyon-diving, where I voluntarily flung myself off a 300ft cliff ledge and swung up and down an icy canyon. Who knew that weekend would begin the proverbial and quite realistic slippery slope down to what would develop into a deep love for Switzerland.
Since that wintery day jumping off a cliff, an inexplicable interest in adventure sports has grown within me. Give me some rope, a safety release form and my GoPro camera and I’m good to go. But the one adventure activity I’ve been dying to try for years is canyoning. Ever heard of it?
Not as well-known as bungee jumping, rappelling or hang-gliding, especially here in the US, canyoning as you might guess, involves a canyon of some kind or another. High in the mountains, usually a glacial stream runs down to some lakes, carved between the rocks and boulders creating waterfalls, gorges, pools and rapids.
So what is canyoning exactly?
Simply put, canyoning is getting from top to bottom on your own. All you need is a wetsuit, helmet, water shoes and some courage. Ok, you also need someone (one someones) who know what they’re doing.
Cue French Sylvain and Kiwi Heath from Outdoor Interlaken.
Driving an hour up into the mountains, I dozed with my forehead against the van window. Is there any place more beautiful than the Swiss Alps?
Eventually we pulled off on a narrow mountain road quite literally perched on the edge of a cliff. Hauling all of our crap out of the van, we began to undress (oh la la) and put on our full wetsuits, lifejackets and gear. Nothing like getting familiar with your guides as they help yank a rappelling harness on you while wearing a wetsuit.
One of my favorite little touches was back at the office before we left, we all got to pick out our own helmets from a giant bin, each labeled with a different name so our guides knew what to call us out in the wild. I chose “Lips” (I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to why), though I wish I had been able to record the 5 minutes where I spent trying to explain to one of the guys from Korea why the fact that his helmet read “Spock” was funny. Take a minute to imagine this scenario. You’re guaranteed a laugh.
Suited up like penguins, we waddled over to the metal barrier on the edge of the road and proceeded to watch the guys rig up ropes and fling them over the side. With looks of horror mixed with excitement, we realized we would be rappelling 50 meters down into the canyon below. In wetsuits. First time for everything!
For the sake of brevity (and not to embarrass myself anymore than I already will in this post), I’m going to gloss over the little incident of me slipping while hopping down the cliff and sliding upside down for a few feet while screaming bloody murder. Let’s just say I had to make an entrance and lucky for me, the guys cut that episode out of our video (at the end of the post). Phew!
Shaking it off, we started to work our way down the canyon, climbing over big boulders and rocks and wading through beautiful glacial pools – thank god for the thick wetsuits -brrrrr!
By the time we reached the first jump, I realized my confidence was shaken and I wasn’t my normal self anymore. In April when I was in Jordan, I fell off a running camel and landed on my back and head so hard doctors thought I fractured my back (full story coming soon – I swear!) It was my first big travel injury to date, and until that day in the canyon, I hadn’t realized how much it actually had effected me, you know, mentally. If I wasn’t mental enough already.
In fact, the day after The Great Camel Incident of 2013 (which it will henceforth be known as) I was supposed to try canyoning for the first time in Jordan. I was devastated that I couldn’t go, but I suppose it was understandable given that I couldn’t sit down and I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Popping my canyoning cherry would have to wait a few months til Switzerland!
Now, I love adventure sports! When traveling, I’m always trying to test myself and try out as many crazies activities as possible. Incredibly impulsive and not one to think about the repercussions of my decisions beforehand, I say yes to just about everything. Literally I jump, dive, take the plunge without a second thought because as soon as you start to think, fear creeps in and makes it that much harder.
I also think indulging in some adrenaline pumping activities can turn a good trip into an unforgettable, that’s-the-best-thing-I’ve-ever-done kind of trip.
While I don’t have a fear of heights at all, I do have a fear of falling on my back again, and when you are jumping in the canyons, you have to sort of canonball jump holding your knees up and trying to land on your back. Because the water is shallow, you can’t just pin drop down into it because you’ll sink much deeper. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for me, but that day in Grimsel Canyon, my courage was sorely tested. God damn camels.
Somewhere between the 2nd rappel, the 3rd jump and 4th slide, my normal bubbly confidence was gone. I was enjoying the slides and rappels but the jumps off the waterfalls were freaking me out. By the time we arrived at the tallest jump, I was having a little meltdown.
Hanging on the edge, I looked over at the water below rushing between two narrow rocks – It looked like a 50 foot drop when in reality it was probably only 10 feet. Could I jump that? And then I did the worst thing you can do when doing an adventure sport. I told myself I couldn’t, that I was afraid, and I started thinking. I was staring over the edge and thinking there was no way I could jump that far out without hitting my back on the rocky cliff.
If you take any advice away from this piece at all, it’s be bold and don’t think. Just jump when they tell you to.
And then I did the one thing I’ve never done before. I turned around, and said I couldn’t, choosing to rappel down instead of jumping.
As soon as I unclipped myself in the water below and looked up, I was furious with myself. Everyone jumps off that rock without a problem, and I chickened out. I hate having regrets and boy do I ever regret letting some stupid fear get the best of me. Crap.
Floating in the pool below, waiting for everyone to pass through, I gave myself a pep talk. This was no time to be a chicken shit. It was time to stop worrying about my back and enjoy this incredible experience. How often do you get to slide down a canyon in the Alps?
Are you an adventuress or not?!
Luckily Outdoor Interlaken saved the best for last: the zipline.
And not just any old zipline either. Outdoor Interlaken has rigged a huge zipline over the last, tallest waterfall. With a short rope knotted through the clip, you hold on tight with both hands as you glide out over the waterfall and when Sylvain yells “let go!” you let go and the rope unravels and you fall down into the pool below.
As it came closer and closer to my turn, all I could think was what if I let go too soon? What if I was too heavy to hold on, and dear god why did I eat all that fondue for lunch (and dinner the night before)! I mean, I have about zero upper body strength. But as each person in front of my zipped out and splashed down in the water below safely, I realized this was going to be fun.
When I stepped up to the ledge and Sylvain strapped me in, I was determined to not be afraid and think about it, trying to just enjoy the moment. I held on, kicked my feet out, and weeeeeeee! Splash!
Popping up in the water below, I was exhilarated. That was definitely the best moment of the day, and I was happy I didn’t let an earlier fear keep me from enjoying the moment!
With a smile on my face and my spirits lifted, I swam over to the other side of the pool and climbed out. A few slides later and we bid farewell to Grimsel, heading back to a grassy field under the mountains to yank our wetsuits off and have a beer and lunch. The perfect end to a great day in the mountains.
Once we piled back in the van to head back to Interlaken, all I could think about was when I would get to try this again!
Anyone really can do the Grimsel Canyon, you don’t need to be an expert at anything, or even be in serious shape. All you need is some courage and an open mind. You have to trust the guides that they know what they’re doing and all will be well if you follow instructions.
Also go to the bathroom beforehand because you can’t pee in a wetsuit and it’s a long way out of the canyon.
So yes, fear is a powerful thing, but it’s easily conquered by not giving it the time of day. So if you find yourself standing at the edge of waterfall in the Swiss Alps wearing a wetsuit and helmet that says “Spock,” be sure to close your eyes and jump when you’re told; I promise you won’t regret it!
Have you ever been canyoning? How was it? Is this something you would want to try? Want to come see what Interlaken has to offer?
Many thanks to Outdoor Interlaken for letting me join in on their Canyoning Grimsel excursion. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own (like you could expect anything else from me).