Frothy water churned beneath me as I teetered at the edge of a rain-slicked ravine, inspecting the rocky canyon walls below. “I can do this. I can do this.” I mumbled to myself. “Wait, why am I jumping off of a perfectly good ledge?” The guide gave me a look and gently said, “Why don’t you take your hand off the rope first? All right, 3…2…1…JUMP!” I closed my eyes, tucked in my knees and threw myself into the water. It was just a bit after 9 am.
Just a couple days before, Britton had been clamoring about going hang gliding in Interlaken. Waving a fistful of brochures for the dozens of extreme sports agencies in the area, she wanted to follow up her skydiving experience from two weeks earlier with hang gliding in the Alps. You can also do things like parasailing (flying with a parachute rather than rigid wings), whitewater rafting and even zorbing (rolling down a hill in a giant plastic ball – no joke). Then we stumbled upon the sport of canyoning, where you have to get through a whitewater filled canyon using a variety of climbing, jumping and swimming techniques. Without thinking about it for too long, I agreed to sign up, and soon we were carted off to the Grimsel canyon, about an hour southeast of Interlaken.
At the foot of the mountain, we changed into wetsuits, boots, jackets, life vests and helmets. Outdoor Interlaken kindly labels all of their helmets, so that you can distinguish people from each other. Mine was labeled a fairly innocuous “Digi-Bo,” but Britton’s was labeled “Stu Pitt,” and the other labels included “Harry Balzac,” “Master Bates” and “Ewok.” Our band of intrepid adventurers included about ten Americans and That Guy with Dreadlocks who hailed from New Zealand.
The next thing I knew, I was climbing out of the van at the side of the road, overlooking a cliff. “All right guys, we’re going over,” said one of the guides with a smirk. The group laughed in response. Wait a minute, they weren’t joking. The guides began pulling out ropes, and demonstrating to the neophytes how to rappel down the 50 meter cliff. “Just lean back and step off the edge, it’s just as easy as walking backwards!” I tugged at my carabiner and looked at Britton with trepidation. “Tell me again, why are we stepping off of a perfectly good cliff?”
As it turned out, the rappeling was the easy part of the morning. Once inside the canyon, we were instructed to climb our way through the rocks and whitewater, slide down the canyon walls and jump into pools of water. There is some technical skill required to canyon safely, but our guides were meticulous about making sure everyone’s jumps were safe. For one descent, we zip lined over a waterfall, then let go of the rope to plunge into the basin below. If you think jumping off from heights is intense, try doing it 5 or 6 times over the course of a morning. And the thing is, you have to force yourself to jump every time, whereas with skydiving, you are jumping in tandem with a partner who will push you out of the plane even if you don’t feel like it.
By the end, I was completely drained and yearning for flat land. I consider myself to be in decent physical condition, but swimming is not my forte and my height was working against me. My taller compatriots were able to scramble up rocks and out of water, while some of the provided footholds were uncomfortably out of reach for me. We finally stumbled out of the base of the canyon and changed into warm clothing, then devoured the provided bread, cheese and beer.
Did I mention that the scenery was Gorges? I was too busy struggling against the current to really relax and take in my surroundings, but canyoning definitely provides a unique perspective of the Alps that would never otherwise be accessible to you.
Conclusion: Canyoning Rocks.