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Scared Shitless in Switzerland

Updated: Mar 1

When my wife and I were in the mountain village of Murren, Switzerland back in 2015, I discovered that the local sport shop offered guided via ferrata tours. Now, for those who don’t know, a via ferrata is a specific type of hike where the individual wears a harness with two bungee cords and fasteners, and remains “clipped in” to a steel cable that runs the length of the hiking route, often across treacherous, otherwise deadly terrain, such as sheer cliff faces. Sometimes, at such vertical avenues, there will also be iron footholds for your toes. At over 2,000 feet in elevation, I had zero interest in this stupid activity.

 

Fast forward to 2023: we were returning to the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, this time making our home base in the village of Wengen, just across the valley from Murren, and now with my brother joining us. From the airport in San Diego, he’d texted me. He said he had his Switzerland guidebook on his lap and wanted to know specifically where we were going in Switerland. Reluctantly, I told him we were heading to the Jungfrau region. A pit knotted my stomach as I said it.

 

Sure enough, when I saw him later that night, he said: “That via ferrata looks pretty cool.”

 

I was fucked.

*

 

In his Switzerland guidebook, travel writer Rick Steves claimed that he himself had done the via ferrata, merely so he could give it an honest review for his guide. He wrote that it was “terrifying,” but I had paraglided off the cliffs of Torrey Pines and run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, plus Rick Steves, let’s face it, has a bit of the nerd gene in him, so if he called it terrifying, then maybe I’d find it just a little less terrifying. Maybe even not so bad.

 

But, no, that wasn’t the case. And perhaps the worst part was, not only was it truly terrifying, but I also found it utterly and completely exhausting. Twenty minutes in my legs had gone so rubbery that I didn’t trust them to hold me up, didn’t trust them to place my feet where they needed to be on the precarious edges and ledges and narrow footholds half a mile above the town below. It was very much a physical battle as much as a mental one.

 

In all, the via ferrata took three hours. Three grueling, heart-pounding hours. While some of the trek brought us through wooded trails—nothing dangerous or scary there—much of the route brought us down impossibly long metal ladders that overhung pretty much nothing, or the infamous cliff walk across iron rungs barely big enough to hold the toes of my shoes, nothing but the village of Lauterbrunnen two thousand feet below (some of those iron footholds, if I remember correctly, sort of moved when I put my weight on them). There were two janky walking bridges across gorges, the second one so ridiculously long and so ridiculously wobbly that I felt like I was in the climax of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, bracing myself for an epic fall into a craggy abyss. The zip line, about halfway through, felt like an oasis in comparison: all I had to do for the next couple minutes is sit in a sling and let gravity take me across a towering chasm. To me, it was nothing more than a much-needed rest.  

 

*

Afterwards, I had what might have been the best, most deserved beer of my life. With my skin sticky and clammy with drying sweat, my muscles both cramped and jellified at the same time, we sat on the deck of the Hotel Pension Gimmelwald, drinking the local dark brew, Schwarz Mönch, out of large beer steins. The mug felt heavy in my tired arm, a slight shimmer in my wrist each time I tried to pick it up. In front of us, the green valley swept toward the cliffs, the craggy face of the looming Eiger staring at us from across the abyss. The landscape was peppered with the dark wood of Swiss chalets, each abundant with colorful flower beds. Jeff and I recounted our tale, finally a smile on my face—of pride, of relief, of accomplishment. Jeff, incredulously, said, “I thought it was going to be worse.”  

 

Christine listened and asked questions, looking at me and touching my arm. She could see the drained, worn toll the hike had taken on me. She knew Jeff had led me, again, out past the deep end, in over my head, and that I had struggled mightily.

 

But we’d done it. I’d done it. And this beer. Holy mackerel, this beer.

 

  *

The next day we took the gondola from our home base in Wengen up to Männlichen, where we then hiked the afternoon to Kleine Scheidegg, the sun warm on our necks, the sky blue, the ever-present mountains of the Jungfrau capped in impossibly bright summer snow. The air was thin but felt good, replenishing even. But my legs were so stiff and sore that I could barely walk with a normal gait, my body tipping left and then right, gritting my teeth as gravity pulled me down the path toward the Eiger. Still, after the previous day’s via ferrata, the day felt celebratory.

 

We finished our week by returning the next day to Murren—the scene of the crime—and taking the gondola to the summit of the Schilthorn, the highest peak in the Bernese Alps. It reminded Christine and me of the summit of Mont Blanc over on the French side, with its dizzying views of the endless Alps, everything white and gray and blue. At the summit, Christine ordered a coffee out on the deck in the thin air, some 10,000 feet up, and waited for my brother and me to do a “quick” hike to a lake we could see off in the distance. The guidebook said we could get there and back in 40 minutes, but we made a few miscalculations and missteps and were gone nearly two hours. My body was still reeling from the via ferrata a couple days before, and here I was on the verge of trouble again. Christine stood at the railing, where she’d been for an hour, scanning the vast and snowy landscape canvas for any sign of us. She said she’d been on the verge of calling in a Swiss rescue team. Once again, my face looked drained and depleted, my body slunk and weak. Switzerland had kicked my butt, no doubt about it. And we still had another leg of the trip ahead of us in Scotland. But damn if this adventure wasn’t one for the books. I had nothing left in the tank. Nothing at all. As it should be.




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