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A Leap Of Faith

Bungee Jumping, Canyoning and Rafting in Switzerland’s Jungfrau Region

Don't look down.
Very deliberately my eyes focused straight ahead, on the jagged, severely glaciated walls of the Lauterbrunner Breithorn, a distant, snow-burdened mountain in the Jungfrau Region of the Alps in Switzerland.

Easier said than done. My toes were hanging off the edge of the gondola's open door, the ground more than 600 feet below.

Mountain Valley
Courtesy: Adventure World
Courtesy: Adventure World
Most hours the Schilthorn gondola transfers tourists between Stechelberg, a valley village, more than 1,000 steeply vertical feet to a transfer station at Gimmelwald, a small hamlet. But late afternoons the cable car only glides part-way when most of its passengers exit by head-first dives. It's called bungee jumping.

When Peter Balmer, a co-owner of Adventure World, asked if I'd like to bungee jump and try other of his adventure activities, I had figuratively jumped at the chance. Now it was time to, literally, jump.

I had waited as others had taken the plunge at a height of 100 meters, or 330 feet. Then the gondola moved higher. High enough that jumpers would rocket 180 meters, or 594 feet, before the bungee cord would fully break the fall. I was the first out.

"Nervous?" asked the jump master, grinning wickedly.
I wagged my head. Nervous, no. Anxious, yes.
I concentrated on the Breithorn.
I dove, trying to soar up and over the Breithorn. And, for hundredths of seconds that seemed like minutes, it felt like flying.

Gravity Prevails

Then gravity prevailed. In an instant my view was the rapidly enlarging valley floor. Time seemed to stand still even as my outstretched arms sliced the air and the hair on my head blew with the force of thousands of blow dryers. Jumpers reach speeds of up to 95 mph. And while a 594-foot fall takes only about 2.8 to 3.2 seconds, it seemed like hours.

Fear wasn't a consideration. Either the system -- a harness attached around my waist and chest, and bungee cord fixed by ankle straps -- worked, or it didn't.

Lee jumps
Lee takes the plunge from the world's highest bungee gondola.
Courtesy: Adventure World
Lee falls
Nothing but air!
Courtesy: Adventure World
It did.

A gentle tug and Whoosh! I propelled up, almost back to the gondola. A photographer, who makes a living hanging out of the gondola and taking pictures of the dive and upward rebound, had urged us to wave and smile on the first, most powerful rebound. I tried, but the speed, rush of wind and, I realized, falling rain made it hard to open my eyes. Like a yo-yo I reeled up and down in gradually smaller rebounds, trying to prolong the experience by pointing straight as an arrow on the dives and standing tall on the upthrusts. Touching the earth felt good. Now I could look up.

The Safest Activity

"Safety-wise," Balmer had assured me earlier, "the bungee jumping is the safest activity we have."

True words. As part of a special Triple Challenge package, I'd spent the morning canyoning and early afternoon river rafting. Accidents, from teeth slapped silly by wayward paddles to separated shoulders and broken feet, happen.

Potentially body damaging, yes, but the most dangerous activity this day was the drive from Adventure World's office to a gorge that carves its way through the Saxetene River.

Canyoning is an activity foreign to the lawyer-burdened, litigation-happy United States, but wildly popular in Switzerland and many areas of Europe. We were outfitted in full wet suits, helmets, spray and life jackets, harnesses and booties. We waddled downstream, working through waterfalls and rapids, sometimes by diving, jumping, swimming or sliding through narrow, spectacular gorges. Our guides tossed us into washing machine-like swirling waves, pushed us through exploding waterfalls into caves, and pointed to landing zones reached by jumping or diving over steep watery drops where the squeezed gorge was only a few feet wide.

Courtesy: Adventure World

Paddling The Lutschine

A few hours later, still wearing all the gear but the harness, I joined a group of paddle rafters at the Lutschine River. The Lutschine, with its closely spaced rapids and chalk-like color, is a river unlike any in the Pacific Northwest.

Courtesy: Adventure World
It looked more threatening than it was. Depending on the water level, the Lutschine's frothiest rapids can be rated up to Class 4-plus. None were that extreme this day, but several rapids got the blood pumping.

The trip came in two parts. After several miles our armada pulled ashore. We carted and reloaded the rafts onto flatbed trailers and drove downstream, around life-threatening rapids and a fish hatchery, and unloaded and reboarded for the final several miles down the Lutschine to the shores of Brienz Lake.

* * *

"How was your day?" politely asked the hotel receptionist.
"Great. Dove over some waterfalls, paddled down a wild river, jumped out of a gondola."
She answered with a smile and ha-ha chuckle.
Unbelievable? Better believe it.

Unbelievable Balmer

Don't ever dare Balmer. He looks unimposing. Fit. Smiles a lot. Balmer smiles because business is good. His business is Adventure World, a company that offers a range of adrenaline-rush activities: river rafting, canyoning, hiking, rock climbing, paragliding, mountaineering, mountain biking, unusual speciality activities...and bungee jumping.

Balmer knows about all the sports, especially bungee jumping. Last summer the 31-year-old mild-mannered Balmer jumped 1,400 feet.

"That was pretty cool," he said in classic understatement. "Nice and smooth."
Imagine 1,400 feet - nearly a quarter-mile.
"Everytime I go bungee jumping it scares me, even if I know that I've done it many times," confessed Balmer.

Heights, obviously, don't bother Balmer. Growing up in a region surrounded by some of Switzerland's most spectacular Alps, he learned early on to be part of his environment. He's climbed difficult routes on the Eiger, Matterhorn and fabled peaks in Europe and South America. He also paraglides and thrives on water sports.

Bungee jumping
Courtesy: Adventure World

When he and a team of partners started Adventure World 10 years ago, they quickly discovered the demand for adventure activities was waiting to be tapped. Clients fall into two categories: young people in or just out of college, and tourists, often Americans, taking advantage of package deals offered through hotels.

Courtesy: Adventure World
Last season, more than 20,000 people participated in one of the company's hair-raising offerings. That demand has created a staff of 38, including 28 seasonal guides.

The variety is unending, and always changing. "We're always open to new things. One of our advantages here," he believes of the Jungfrau region, "is that in 15 minutes driving you can go canyoning, bungee jumping or rafting. Everything is very close. I don't think that many people around here realized all the things we could do."

Balmer oversees a finely tuned operation. "If you don't have an efficient system it is a bad service. But you have to find a good mixture between being pushed and being efficient. I like to be at the front so that I know what's going on. Safety is the most important thing in our industry. If you're out there, you know what the problems are."

Earlier in the day Balmer had guided one of a fleet of paddle rafts. "As long as I can go rafting, canyoning, rock climbing, bungee jumping, it's more interesting."

Click here for details to plan your own Switzerland adventuring trip.

                  Lee Juillerat

Lee is a freelance writer-photographer who lives in Southern Oregon. He is also the regional editor of the Klamath Falls Herald and News. In addition to having written two books about Crater Lake National Park, he has had stories and photographs published in a variety of books, magazines and newspapers.

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