Surfing the Matterhorn; TRAVEL
Sunday 13 August 1995
themselves into raging mountain rivers, leap down
canyons and bungee-jump from cable cars - that's what.
Doug Sager abandons his Tyrolean hat and joins them
GEARING up for summer in the Alps used to be a simple matter - just grab the alpenstock and the crumpled Tyrolean hat out of the hall closet, and go. Strolling through the edelweiss, Sound of Music-fashion, still attracts a good many tourists, and hiking in the Alps in hobnailed boots remains a relatively cheap and very healthy holiday. More and more, however, the summer scene across the Alps is shifting - to wide-screen, hard-core action and adventure.
Screaming out of the blue on a hang-glider or paraglider, tearing up the turf on a mountain bike or dropping out of the sky on a bungee cord, summer tourists in the Alps are out for action - and maybe some blood. Traditional tourists aren't amused by the new trend, but Alpine resorts currently in the grip of the summer doldrums have eagerly seized upon the burgeoning adventure scene.
Resorts overloaded with staff and facilities for peak winter ski periods are desperate to attract younger, higher-spending clientele. Many of the new adventure sports - like rap jumping, canyoning and river rafting (described in detail below) - have been adapted to appeal to corporate groups and school parties. The marketing is directed at sedentary types, persuading them that they too can face challenges, under more or less carefully supervised and more or less "safe" conditions.
At the root of all adventure sports is the lure of terror in controlled circumstances. Fear of falling slams us in the pit of the stomach, and the rush of adrenaline pushes us over the top. It's a primitive cycle, all the more impressive among the peaks and ravines of the Alps.
A RAFT OF IDEAS
Alpine rivers have gone with the flow of white- water rafting, which erupted in America 15 years ago, and spawned a native version called hydrospeed. It does away with the boat, enabling wet-suited swimmers equipped with only a flotation device in their hands to navigate streams too narrow or too turbulent for rafts.
The speed and dynamics of rivers in the Alps vary according to the volume of water deposited by melting glaciers. The Aosta valley has stretches of world-class rapids, but rafting is generally a family outing on rivers like the Rhone, where any fear is at least partially generated by the raft guide's alarmist patter.
The Sarine river in the Swiss Alps is never wider than a motorway, but our guide, Guy, drove us into rocks and played up the drama as much as he could. One London landlubber got knocked out of the raft as a result. Even on the Sarine, helmets and lifejackets prove their worth: on some passages over rock, we had more water inside the raft than underneath it.
TAKING THE RAP
Rap jumping is so new that even Alpine action men have to ask what it is. They are here to see for themselves. The scene is the inauguration of Europe's first and so far only rap jump venue. The promoter is mountain guide and adventure addict Thierry Gasser, a Gallic heart-throb with cigarette- ad outdoor looks and a determination to introduce ordinary office-bound folk to free-flowing adrenaline "in relative safety".
Thierry works winters shepherding movie stunt men around helicopter skiing locations in British Columbia, as well as closer to home on the 4,000m peaks of French-speaking Switzerland. He is acknowledged as the European master of canyoning, teaching dozens of instructors each season in the ravines around Marecottes.
Adventure junkies, Thierry's clients are always looking for a new fix. Like bungee jumping, rap jumping originated Down Under - but in Australia rather than in New Zealand. It has, mercifully, nothing whatsoever to do with rap music, though baseball caps worn backwards are a frequently observed fashion accessory. In fact, rap jumping is an Alpine version of rappelling (or abseiling) turned back-to-front. Turning his back on the classic position, the rap jumper faces forward into space.
Thierry's jumping platform is the near- vertical 55m face of the Toules dam, not far from the St Bernard pass between Switzerland and Italy. Gearing up with gloves, helmet and substantial hang-gliding-type harness in the hot sun, I feel little fear. Having skied and been canyoning with Thierry, I know he isn't going to underestimate my ineptitude. And I appreciate that, with the safety rope harnessed at the back, there is no way I am going to fall flat-out down the dam wall to the rocks below.
Nevertheless, standing at the lip of the dam and looking down, my sweaty hands refuse to release their rigor mortis grip on the abseiling rope. It takes a phenomenal effort of will to jump out on to the wall. As I do so, I have the distinct feeling of being overbalanced, top- heavy and likely to flip forward into a sky dive. More acrobatic rap jumpers actually perform this manoeuvre deliberately.
I am gradually reassured that it takes considerable force, pulling on the rope in front of me with two hands, to generate enough loose rope to fall any appreciable distance. Leaping out from the dam wall is fun - but my knees are so weak I can hardly tell when I've made contact with the solid concrete underfoot.
At the bottom of the dam, looking up, the gleaming white wall is impressive. Oddly, just as Thierry said I would, I feel right away that I'd like to do it again - only next time with a bit of elan. Because there is a queue of other debutante daredevils behind me, I don't.
It's only half an hour's drive from the dry dam wall at Toules to the glacier-fed ravines of Diablerets. Here, the high summer sun - glinting off the placid surface of Lake Geneva far below - is all but extinguished inside the region's ice-cold, shoulder-width, rocky canyons. Canyoning - leaping down these near-vertical gulleys - is a booming business, with tens of thousands of satisfied customers screaming its praises since the sport was first launched five years ago.
Among the shouts of exhilaration are some voices of criticism, however - not least that of a Swiss journalist who broke a vertebra last July attempting a leap of 14m near Chateau d'Oex. He claims rescue efforts were so inept he could have died, and that he made the jump because the guide in charge insisted there was "no risk".
These thoughts were running through my mind as I stood on the brink of what looked like Switzerland's version of the Niagara Falls. Enveloped in a thick neoprene wet suit, helmeted and puffed out in a lifejacket, it was too late to doubt. Our guide, Jean-Francois Blaser, was the epitome of mountain cool, standing in a knee-deep pool at the edge and lowering cringing members of our group into the abyss.
"It's only a 20m drop," he shouted through the spray, snapping shut the carabiners on my harness. Looking ridiculous in yellow plastic nappies, worn to protect the wet suit from abrasion, we slid through chicanes of sheer rock and abseiled down a series of waterfalls, dropping thankfully into the turbulent pools below.
Celebrating over bottles of Swiss wine, suitably cooled during our descent in water at a temperature of just 10C, we all agreed: we were scared to death, and yes, please could we do it again? Jean-Francois claimed to have taken down a four-year-old boy from Neuchatel the week before, but I'd suggest more mature persons from the flatlands take a long look at specific canyon routes before they leap.
ON A CHUTE AND A PRAYER
The same warning applies to parapente, the Alpine version of paragliding. It appears effortless and irresistibly attractive when viewed from the ground. Bright as butterfly wings, the chutes soar soundlessly and slowly across deep blue skies to land in a flutter in verdant meadows scented with wild flowers.
Claude Ammann's parapente school in Verbier was one of the first in the Alps. The site of several world events, Verbier's geological open bowls are ideal for parapente and hang- gliding. The best introduction to either is a "bi-place" flight as a passive passenger with an experienced pilot. Enrolling in a course of lessons allows solo flying, with guidance from the ground, as early as the first day.
I took my first lesson with Claude a decade ago. Instruction is uncomplicated: haul the chute over your head, run until you take off, pull left or right to turn and pull down hard on both brakes to land. In ideal weather and under cautious tutelage, no skill is required to make an uneventful flight of 2,000 vertical metres. Sitting in the sling under the winnowing sail above is peaceful; landing is another matter. One second the ground is merely scenery, the next it's a smack in the face - but landing into a good wind can be like stepping gently off a step. More often it's a free- fall of a metre or more, running like hell over rough ground to bleed off landing velocity. With a few weeks of experience, pilots can spiral up thousands of metres in thermal lifts and prolong their airtime by hours.
Perhaps the ultimate in sheer stupidity for the sake of sensation is bungee jumping. First commercialised in New Zealand, the sport has been taken to extremes by a Swiss firm called Adventure World, which makes people bale out into space from a cable car.
Riding up to the James Bond-style revolving restaurant on the Schilthorn above Murren, we stop at mid point. There are only six of us in the huge cabin. Outside I can hear a waterfall roaring. A thick rope is fixed to my ankles. "Any last requests?" leers the rope wrangler, Kurt. We've been told in advance to bring our favourite cassette. So to the tune of "Jumping Jack Flash" I topple out of the door and down into the Lauterbrunnen valley 180 vertical metres below, the longest bungee jump in the world.
There are only two rules in bungee jumping: empty your pockets, and visit the loo beforehand. To add more excitement, the folks at Adventure World have contrived a kind of horizontal bungee jumping, called the Flying Fox. This is a morning event advertised "for the sporty person, irrespective of age".
Wearing a climbing harness, I clip on to a long line stretching - slightly high to low - across the precipitous Saxeten Gorge. The guide gives me an encouraging push, and like Indiana Jones I'm zipping through the canyon with the rock corridor getting narrower and narrower. The river is about 60m below. For the finale, we do a pendulum swing on another fixed rope around a massive outcrop.
ICE AND EASY
Climbing on fixed ropes is one of the oldest, and still most exciting, Alpine sports. Good ropes, good rock and a good guide are all that's needed. There are fewer venues suitable for the climber's ultimate summer cooler: ice escalade.
Chamonix's Compagnie des Guides is the world's most experienced mountain guiding association. So it was to Mont Blanc with Jean-Marie Olianti that I went for my first lesson in scaling ice walls. Feet bristling with needle- sharp front-pointing crampons, a sharpened ice axe strapped to each wrist, I could have killed myself easily just by stumbling.
In fact, I found tacking up the sheer vertical glacier wall easier than anything I'd done on rock. There is no mental agony searching for hand or foot holds; you just kick in your toes, flick your wrists and watch the ice chips fly. For the first time, I discovered for myself what the climbing instructors had always claimed: you climb with the legs, not with the hands.
I'll never make a career of climbing, but it's a fantastic break from the everyday to take a flier on any of these adventure activities, if only for an afternoon. But a single sliver of ice, pluncked in lemonade out in the back garden or swizzled in Pimms on the beach, will suffice to keep me cool through the hottest summer to come.
Rap jumping: Evasion sur Mesure, Martigny, Switzerland (00 41 26 311 630). Mountain guide Thierry Gasser's centre for rap jump and canyoning. Both experiences cost SF80 (pounds 45), optional insurance SF30, all gear included.
Canyoning: Centre Paradventure, Diablerets, Switzerland (00 41 25 532 382). Jean-Francois Blaser's canyoning school, where descents cost SF80 (pounds 45) with all gear provided.
Paragliding: Centre Delta-Parapente, Verbier, Switzerland (00 41 26 316 818). Claude Ammann's flight school, where passenger flights are available from SF120 (pounds 68); full-day lessons, all gear provided, from SF180 (pounds 100).
Rafting: Rivieres et Aventures, Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland (00 41 29 47788). Rafting and hydrospeed centre, where descents of the Sarine river cost SF85 (pounds 48), all gear provided.
Bungee jumping: Adventure World, Interlaken, Switzerland (00 41 36 234 363). Centre for all mountain activities, from hiking and climbing to parapente, rafting and canyoning. Schilthorn cable car bungee jump, SF259 (pounds 145). Flying Fox horizontal bungee jump, SF145 (pounds 80).
Ice climbing: Compagnie des Guides, Chamonix, France (00 33 5053 0088). Mountain centre for hiking and climbing, for all levels of ability. Group lessons in ice climbing FF210 (pounds 30), gear not included but available for hire. !
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