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Swiss holiday exhaustive diary

Saturday, August 31st, 2019 at 3:13 pm Written by:

The dates were set by Becka planning to spend one night in Interlaken on Friday 2 August between four weeks on the CUCC caving expedition in Austria and a one week caving expedition up a hill called the Sagistal to the east of the city, followed by a weekend at Sinterlaken the Swiss Caving Congress. This was then intended to lead into two separate week-long caving expeditions back in Austria (Plankamira and Datchstein), capped by a caving holiday down in the Ardeche in early September. However, I said: “Could we do something together that’s fun for me, because you ought to have got enough caving done by then?” and so, at great sacrifice, a canyoning holiday was scheduled.

I drove out to Interlaken on my own with my hang-glider on the 30 July, booked into Manor Farm 1 at £28/night for a narrow slot, and showed up the next morning at the Landplatz Lehn where I knew there was an english professional tandem pilot employed by hang-gliding interlaken to fly tourists off the hill at the rate of up to six flights a day, which is a heck of a lot of work.

Their van took me up to their favourite Amisbuhl takeoff between the trees (the taxi rate is 7Fr), helped me over the tedious 15 minute carry up a private road, and took three complete rounds of passengers airborn in the time it took me to set up and stand on the edge gibbering about doing a nil-wind takeoff. I have an experience of completely screwing these up with two crashes on take-off at Ager last year.

They say they have 300 flyable days at Interlaken, which is true because there’s enough shelter that they can fly in almost any condition, between bands of rain and cloud. They’re not all good flyable days.

I flew down in ten minutes and almost screwed up the landing due to getting the wind direction wrong. Normally you trust the wind-socks if you can see them, but then a large tandem glider below me seemed to be planning to land downwind according to the sock, so maybe I was reading it wrong. But then it did a sudden wingover close to the ground and parked in the other direction. The secret with these big and more primitive gliders is that they are more maneuverable because of their inefficiency, like long racing skis vs short planks. But having made this mistake I was now at the wrong end of the field at the wrong height to approach it in the right direction. Luckily it was a very big field.

I spent the evening cycling up to the start of the Saxetenbach Canyon (site of a disaster in 1999), which was miles up a steep road. There was too much water flowing into it to plan on doing it, and I got back to my tent in the dark with no lights.

On 1 August I did one flight from Amisbuhl straight down, and then another from Hohwald a bit higher up the hill with a very shallow take-off just to really freak me out now that I’d gotten used to the steep slope at Amisbuhl. This was pushing my luck, I thought, but the higher take-off was supposed to make it possible to stay up. The Lehn landing field is the perfect place to meet, pick sites, and share cars. You get to meet the hang-gliding bums, “local locals”, retired Swiss-Germans who live in nearby flats and hang round when there’s something to watch, and who know everything. I’d taken a random Japanese pilot in my car who’d just come for a few days after the World Championships down in Italy. He had wanted to fly at Fiesch — one of the most legendary spots in the Alps — but had been told that the wind was too strong, so had been sent over to the safer area of Interlaken. He stayed up circling in a weak thermal and got high from just below me when I went down chasing another thermal that had two birds and a paraglider in it.

Complaining as I did about the scariness of nil-wind shallow takeoffs, and planning to go to a park in Bern where I’d heard that training was done for some practice runs, one of the local hang-gliding bums, who is also an instructor, persuaded me to run up and down on the flat field as fast as I could controlling the glider from lifting itself off and stalling. I completely knackered myself out following his instructions as he watched. Then, during the fireworks in town for Swiss National Day I could barely keep my eyes open.

On 2 August (Becka’s arrival) it rained all morning. I did an afternoon flight where I failed to stick into a small thermal with a paraglider at the west end of the ridge above my campsite facing the lake. I spoke to him after he landed, and he said he was hoping that I would keep up in the thermal and show him where it was as his vario wasn’t working. He had a long history of flying in the area because his father had been a hang-glider pilot in the old days and had helped to build the Neiderhorn ramp.

I dropped Becka off on the morning of 3 August and met the folks in the Lehn landing zone with the idea of going to this famous Neiderhorn place for a change. But Bernie, the proprietor of Hanggliding Interlaken, said don’t go there if it’s blowing NW, which it was according to the website.

So I drove up with four gliders on the car, one belonging to a Swiss-German pilot called Ralf, and two belonging to a couple of Israelis who had washed up in Interlaken having abandoned and driven away from their hotel booking in Fiesch. There’s quite a high fall-out from this legendary Fiesch place, I thought. Their problem was the size of the landing field, which they didn’t dare attempt when they had families, children and a long flying career ahead of them.

On this flight I finally got up high to the clouds and had an adventure, which included a trip to the Neiderhorn where I looked down at the famous ramp until I got sunk out, and was soon back over Amisbuhl going down over the nose at the west end of that ridge. I didn’t want to go down, and kept myself going back and forth in a bowl near the sloping ground full of trees and buildings and getting horrifically kicked around as I saw a tandem glider set up below me ready for take-off. What kind of crazy idea does he have to deliberately take off into this turbulance? I wondered. Can’t they see what a miserable time I’m having? But it flew straight out towards the lake and was soon soaring above me. It turns out there’s a ridge out in front that catches the smooth air and is great for staying up. I must have been flying around in the lee of it. The locals know when to pick their moment between the gusts, and it’s convenient because they don’t have to carry their glider any distance from the car to take off.

On Sunday 4 August we all got a ride up the cable car to the Neiderhorn, guided by the local hang-gliding bums who knew the drill.

It was pretty busy up there. Unfortunately I faffed around a lot, and then spent some time talking the Israelis off the scary-looking ramp as they were quite freaked out about it. In the end I was the last one off at 3pm, and went down. At least I wished I’d gone straight down. I ended up on the narrow rocky ridge at Harder above Interlaken dodging about 30 other paragliders in a cubic hectare of space for about an hour before giving in. There was no way up from there if you didn’t manage to get above the hill at the start, like Ralf did, who was still flying 3 hours later while I was fetching my car.

On 5 August I wanted to go back up the Neiderhorn and get it right, but it was too windy again and one of the locals told us to go to Marbach in the next valley to the north and about an hour away where there was a good ramp that it would be safe to fly. Subject to a near car-crash on a roundabout when one of the Israelis unexpectedly tried to talk politics, we got there safely, checked out the landing field and got a lift up on the cable car.

Remembering the previous day’s mistake, I took off first and went down. The other three soared around the valley for three hours while I went back to fetch the car and got an ear-bending from the farmer for all these hang-gliders landing on his silage crop.

In the evening a girl who owns a bunch of plots in the Manor Farm 1 and rents them out with fixed tents wanted to chat about hang-gliding because she’d seen me for so long on the campsite with my glider. She persuaded me to go flying the next day, even though it wasn’t my plan, because she was driving the car for a tandem glider and she was sure I could get a ride up for free.

This flight was potentially the most disastrous of the trip, because I went round the west end of the ridge where one always does to get thermals or lift, but I didn’t take account of the fact that it was an east wind. So there I was in the air, trying to get back, descending at 3 m/s straight down over the camp-site with my heart in my mouth and running out of ideas. At about 200m altitude normal gliding resumed and I flew into the landing field. One of the hang-gliding bums, said, Yeah, that happened to him once, and he had to park his glider in a tree.

I drove to Fiesch, taking a nap on the way just after the Grimsel Pass, before rolling in to the traditional Eggishorn Campsite by the landing field.

This field was indeed horrific, full of donkeys, fence-posts, water spigots (they spray water on all their fields even when it’s raining) and falling down barns. For your overshooting options you have the choice of a railroad with overhead electrical wires, a deep river canyon, or down the main road between houses behind a blind bend.

I spent all of the 7th August on my bike in the rain going up and down the valley between Niederwald and Lax and checking out all the possible alternative grassy fields that I had seen on google earth the month before. Every single one of them was bad when seen from the ground, with horrendous slopes, trees, high tension power cables and sheds on stones. This was a disappointment as usually there are safe alternatives that the locals don’t bother with because they can’t be bothered to walk when they have no problem with the convenient field. But after a day of hunting, the official field started to look pretty good and I could imagine myself landing in it without freaking out like the last time I descended into a too-small field near Lake Garda (the instructor watching it said it was like seeing a fly buzzing around a piece of shit).

Not that I was really kidding myself; my intention was to get up high enough to escape to the next valley (Goms) and land by the massive disused airfield by Ulrichen, and then catch the train back. I’d heard old stories that you could take your glider on the train, which has sadly not been true for decades.

I got a huge boost from a local pilot called Benjamin whom I met in the morning at the local flight school before he started making the runs of tandem tourist paraglider flights.

The cable car with glider cost 30Fr, and Benjamin lead me to the take-off mound beside the foundations of the original hang-glider ramp that had collapsed under the weight of the snow one winter. It used to be a very tall and high off the ground, he said. People were scared of it and would fall off the side or hit the avalanche barriers down in front of it. It was a bad ramp. This dirt slope is much better. Just make sure the wind sock is blowing towards you and not from the side from behind that house, he said.

He did his flight and was soon back up top and behind me with a new tourist customer as I was still dithering about whether I could go. There were no other hang-gliders, and the paragliders out front didn’t seem to be going up. Benjamin said, Those guys are bad pilots. Don’t pay attention to them. You will go up if you don’t leave it too late.

That was a very good one. I got high enough to see all the glaciers, and then jump the Bellwald ridge into the Goms valley. There you could cruise up the gulleys and ridges on the north side (the side catching the sun which generates thermals), and no matter how high you got there was still more ground above you. I reached the clouds at 3200m and was looking down over the lakes in the Grimsel Pass.

Then I got tired and decided to land and flew to the middle of the valley where I was swept back up to 2800m so fast I was looking around for the storm cloud that must be sucking me up. But there was none. It was still sunny. I saw a couple of sailplanes circling close in to one of the gulleys and wondered, What are they doing trying to thermal over there? Why don’t they come out here where it’s easy and all the air is going up. (It was due to convergence lift of the Grimsel snake air coming down the valley colliding with the valley wind coming up the Rhone.) But I was getting really tired and realized that the only way to get down was to go into one of these side valleys and fly down close to the ground to get under the lift, and that’s what the sailplanes had been doing.

I landed at the wrong end of the disused airfield, right by some houses at Ulrichen, and trampled all over the farmer’s silage crop as usual. A local paraglider who lived in the block of flats at the end came out and told me so. Then he put my glider on his van and drove me back to my campsite in Fiesch because he’d promised a hang-glider who had given him a lift down the hill from Griefenburg a year ago that he’d return the favour by giving a ride to another hang-glider in the future. Now he had a chance to fullfill his promise.

On 9th of August (still not into double digits on the date) I packed up my tent, parked the car below the cable car station, and did my best to repeat the experience. Conditions were much much harder (once Benjamin passed by and reminded me not to leave it too late). I got as high as I could, cruised over Bellwand where there was no lift whatsoever, and then on and on along the Goms valley until a spot where I maintained altitude for about an hour above this massive half-kilometer wide land-slip of Gluringen.

There were not a lot of paragliders flying around to help me out and guide me as to where to go. The sailplanes were out in force, being towed up from their airfield at Munster by a cute little plane whose wings were painted red with orange flames. I watched as the gliders were released hundreds of metres below me as I got thrown around in the turbulence of the mountains.

Eventually I was forced down pretty early in the day, and for some reason I forgot that it was important to land into wind. Thus I ended up in a heap with my glider upside down. What a way to finish the trip.

It took over 50 minutes and 103 cars to go past before I hitched a lift back to Bellwand at the top of a footpath down to the cable car station. Then I drove back to Interlaken where it was raining again and pitched up in a crap campsite in a waterlogged soft-dirt field reserved for the Cavers Congress, but at least it was cheap.

All the talks were in German and we’d economized on the tickets by not booking any meals, which was actually where most of the social fun was had.

Becka got into a tangle on the assault course which began with a dunking in a trough of muddy water before taking you through a tyre tunnel, a sack hopping race, and then up the rope hanging from the crane. She still did it fast enough to win a 50m reel of rope. We relented on the conference meals on the last night and booked ourselves in for the raclette, which amounted to a some boiled potato and about a kilo of toasted cheese.

I approved of their bat-themed decorations, though.

On 12th of August Becka was off on the longest caving excursion that was offered by the conference program, while Brendan (a student from Leeds who showed up for the canyoning section of the holiday) and I sheltered from the rain and stuck it out in coworking interlaken situated in an upstairs room of the backpackers hostel. (Showing my age, I had originally searched for a suitable establishment under the term: “Cybercafe”.)

That night we escaped in the heaving rain and drove over the Sustenpass where we could see huge ribbons of raging white water everywhere in the moonlight. We joined our friends in an AirBnB just north of Biasca in Ticino planning to hit the canyons in the relevant chapter of a friend’s book.

On 13th August we made a somewhat optimistic attempt to go down Barougia, described in the book as: “often in condition when everything else is too wet. High water levels make an otherwise fairly ordinary canon quite sporting. In normal conditions the canyon is much easier and suited to less experienced groups.”

We aborted at the head of the turbulant 32m pitch and after Rob, our illustrious leader, had lost his glasses when he jumped into a pool without any means of retainment.

The next day we all drove an hour to the next valley to try Giumaglio before Rob phoned up the hydro-electric Dam control for permission and they said “No!”

Then we drove back and had a go at Cresciano Inferiore where we got mixed in with a guided tour group and an angry instructor who gave me a bollocking for using a Petzl Stop descender instead of a figure-8, which is less likely to jam on the end of the rope and leave you dangling and drowning in the full force of a waterfall.

On the 15th the three boys (me, Brendan and Rob) succeeded in doing the very long Cresciano Superiore, which involved a brutal 2 hour walk up the hill to get to the start. I quickly forgot it while bouncing through the canyon all white rock and beautiful deep green pools.

My new orange canyoning rope from Decathlon got shredded in three points on the way down, so we had to cut it. The remainder got badly rubbed later in the week. It was a bad rope.

The next day, as water levels dropped, we all went to Barougia again and completed it. Then the three guys did Malvaglia Inferiore while the women did the cooking. Becka did not find this gender divide amusing. But I had to counter with: Now how many times have I sat outside cooking your dinner and waiting while you’re off on yet another rufty-tufty caving trip? The numbers do not even come close.

Malvaglia Inferiore supposedly had a three person limit because the last 80m pitch is broken into two sections (since no one carries a 160m rope to do it all in one go and pull down after them), and the ledge that you stand on while you transfer the rope is too small. Turned out there was lots of room there if you do it right, so all of us (except Becka who went bike ride long enough to get saddle sore) did it the next morning.

Apart from the boring big pitch, there were some excellent tobogans and a big jump that I spent a long time at the top worrying about. I’m as bed with these as I am with take-offs.

There was no second canyon in the afternoon because everyone was lazy, so I stomped up the hill behind our village of Motto up to a settlement called Stabbio about 800 vertical metres up that seems to be serviced entirely by a cable.

On the 18th we got one and a half canyons in, beginning with Iragna Inferior where our canyoning guidebook was showing itself to be somewhat inaccurate. Otherwise it was a top-class trip with good jumps and very windy waterfalls.

We ended with another go at Cresciano Inferiore where there was a slow party ahead of us who were trying to let us past, but we misunderstood and walked out on the path and down early.

The sunny weather began to break on the 19th August. After sending everyone away, and doing a walk up Ri della Froda that we’d always seen spouting in cascades above Biasca, Becka and I hung around the AirBnB place till very late, then drove off to a campsite at Innerkirchen chosen because I’d spotted that it had a day-room for campers where we could shelter from the solid rain that was forecast for the following day.

That’s what we should have done. Instead we walked off and paid to go through the Aare Gorge into Meiringen (claims to be the originator of the merangue), and tried to find the walk up the Alpbach Gorge, which would be free, but by then I was getting pretty damn wet and miserable. We caught a ride back on the Shelock Holmes train. The town cashes in on the Sherlock Holmes story of the detective’s demise in the Reichenback Falls. I read the story on my phone on the train, and for a logical detective story it was ridiculous. The story ends with:

An examination by experts leaves little doubt that a personal contest between the two men ended, as it could hardly fail to end in such a situation, in their reeling over, locked in each other’s arms. Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless, and there, deep down in that dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation.

Look, given the number of trees, branches, rocks and dirt that gets carried down a torrent and into a waterfall over time, if it wasn’t all spat out the bottom then this caldron of swirling water would soon be full to the brim with solid matter.

The Innerkirchen tourist info told us of two via ferata/klettersteig scrambles in reasonable distance: one high up off the Sustenpass road called Tierbergli, and another called Talli for which you need to take a cable car to gain access. Each would take about five hours, and I could tell Becka would be disappointed if we didn’t do both in the same day.

Sometimes you just got to disappoint people.

We struck camp at 7am and drove into the next valley via a stop-over at Chli Schliere canyon, which we almost didn’t drive to because there was a line of shifty looking people standing at one of the junctions, who turned out to be some Swiss police waiting to do some dog training and we were blocking their way when we pulled over to avoid going past them. The path up the side of the canyon for tourist groups looks pretty good, but I felt that it was probably too full of water, after reviewing a lot of videos of it. I discovered from the canyon comments a webpage for the water levels, which could be good for future reference.

Our final klettersteig was Furenwand, which goes up 760m. We got to top and I walked down while Becka walked another 800 vertical metres to the summit.

Then we drove round in a traffic jam in Lucerne looking for some good takeaway food, failed, headed over to a felafal joint in sempach with a higher rating than the one I’d been aiming at, ate on a park bench while watching the sun go down, drove to a rest stop in Germany and decided to sleep there rather than drive through the night as I normally do because I’d had a recurring dream of falling asleep at the wheel and crashing. As a result we had a miserable over-hot sunny drive across the contenent and barely caught the 8pm ferry, which I hadn’t bought till that day, so it was a bit expensive. You never know when someone might need a last minute run up a hill. I do drive quite slowly, which meant we got from Luxembourg to Liverpool in a single tank of fuel.

We spent the next two days getting control of the garden that was escaping out the railings, now that the big over-hanging shady tree was gone.

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