Base Jumping In Lauterbrunnen

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I’m in for the night. I’m on the valley floor. From my balcony, the view matches the 19th-century etchings I enjoyed earlier today. The bright moon gives the cliffs an edge. New floodlighting sparkles on Staubbach Falls — a waterfall tall as a skyscraper that bursts over the cliff. The arc of water, so riled up from its trip down the mountain to this climax, seems to go in slow motion as it flies gracefully away from the mountain and tumbles to the valley floor. Ever since I was kid, I’ve imagined I could follow an individual drop.

At the foot of the falls, just beyond a smooth cone of land built by centuries of rocks hurled as if the river loses its grip on earth, the only bar in town glows with activity. Its old-school neon sign says “dance.” This is Lauterbrunnen Valley’s only spit-and-sawdust pub. It’s also a gathering point, famous throughout Europe, for the ultimate daredevils — the guys who make Johnny Knoxville look like a pansy: cliff-leaping base jumpers. While farmers slump at the bar, base jumpers from around Europe share stories and lessons learned.

All week I’ve nodded my head sadly in agreement with locals who rail against the crazy base jumpers who come to this valley to own the cliffs. This is beyond thrill-seeking. This is foolhardy playing with death…just asking for a “road kill” joke. It’s a nuisance when they keep dying upon landing in the otherwise peaceful farms (as if it traumatizes the cows).

Realizing I need to get out and experience this base jumpers’ bar, I shut the lid on my laptop, put my clothes back on, and went over for a beer. Angie the wiry bartender drew me a local draft and walked me through the photos around the room showing off the best departure points. Outside, a guy in a “bat suit” (wind suit) spread his arms and legs to demonstrate the aerodynamic webbing that let him actually fly rather than fall.

I met Pauli from Finland. Frank is his base-jumping name, but I wanted his real Finnish name. (He’s a data systems engineer in Tampere, north of Helsinki.) After 25 years of skydiving, now he spends his vacation base jumping. He’s here for a week, and will probably make 20 jumps.

When Pauli said something interesting, I’d pull out my notebook and jot it down. A couple from Oregon interrupted to get my photograph, and Pauli realized I had a following among travelers in the US. He explained about this international fraternity of base jumpers. Their common passion transcends any cultural and language differences. Lauterbrunnen offers about the best jumping in Europe. It’s legal (more and more places are saying no), the access is quick and easy (allowing 3 or 4 jumps per day), and jumpers from all over congregate here at Hotel Horner. Base jumpers respect host communities. Here, in a valley busy with helicopters shuttling material to remote construction sites, they are sure to be in good with the pilots. After all, if you jump into a helicopter…end of vacation.

In the last three years, “tracking” pants and jackets — which fill with air in a way to give the jumper more surface for a slower flight with more control (or “tracking” ability) — have become popular. Pauli plans to learn tracking…but you do your learning from an airplane first before cliff jumping. The bat suits are a completely different skill. He’s not going there.

Pauli was a bit shy. He was pleased I knew about the great ski jumpers of Finland. I didn’t get the bravado I expected in this bar. For many jumpers, it’s a personal thing.

Pauli agreed jumping is never completely safe. “When you are no longer nervous, you should quit. There are uncontrollable risks. It’s a matter of risk management. We say, ‘Shit happens.’ We also say, ‘Angels don’t protect you against stupidity.’”

He shared his log book. Each jump over the years was logged with an assessment (great tracking, rough landing, and so on). As I left, Pauli asked me to sign his log book. He joked that if he survived this adrenalin-seeking stage of his life, this book would be a great conversation piece for his grandchildren. I signed it, hoping he was right. Walking back to my hotel, I was thankful I had left my balcony an hour earlier.


12 Replies to “Base Jumping In Lauterbrunnen”

  1. The Launterbrunnen Valley is so gorgeous. I’ve read about base jumping but you provided more insight. Thanks! Question (for your next round of responses): I’ve been back through your 2007 blog and it appears some are missing. I remember one about you getting off at the wrong train station and had to get back on. I can’t find it now. Do or someone go through and delete some of your blog reports?

  2. It must have been refreshing to meet someone who not only wasn’t a follower but didn’t even realize you had a following!
    You’re in one of my favorite places in the world. Enjoy!

  3. This time last week we were in Lauterbrunnen, maveling at the extreme sports there- I am glad that you left your balcony and met Uri! His love of base jumping- not so much bravado or thrill seeking as just a means of filling that impulse to be completely immersed in the moment- seems so in sync with the energy of the Alps, that drive to be fully alive. Thanks for blogging!

  4. Four cable cars, the longest aerial cable way in the Alps, are needed to climb the Schilthorn, just a few miles from Lauterbrunnen. These cable cars climb from Stechelberg, past waterfalls on sheer mountain walls to Mürren, then Birg, then on to Piz Gloria, to a round building where the James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was filmed in 1969. Most times cable cars go from station to station, one up, one down, passing exactly half-way up, or down. For the first cable car, the top station is high above, and a little to the right of the lower station. The half-way point is a concrete ledge used as the transfer point, hung on the edge of the mountain cliff. Each car leaves its station at the same time, headed in the same direction, towards the transfer point. At the half-way station, everyone gets out of their car onto a small concrete shelf hung on the side of the cliff, transfers to the other car, then the cars return to the station they just left.

  5. Rick, How we wish we were there. We were in Wengen and the Jungfrau in 2000 and it was a dream come true. We hope to go back to Switzerland in 2008 meanwhile we follow you each week on PBS. Thanks for all your hard work.

  6. Were it not for your television show and guide book I would not have “discovered” Lauterbrunnen,Murren or Gimmelwald. They were some of the most beautiful places that I have been to! Thanks.

  7. I had an interesting experience today related to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I noticed that someone had removed my picture of the ‘Times Square’ intersection from the Wikipedia article on Gimmelwald. When I asked this person, who had previously said that he ‘was very familiar with the area’, why he had done this, he replied that it was not a picture of Gimmelwald, but rather Murren. I restored the picture and gave this person the email address of Gimmelwald’s school teacher and told him he could confirm the authenticity of the picture with someone who lives just down the road. This seemed to take care of the problem.

  8. Wow, base jumping sounds like our bunge jumping. Hope “Frank” has safe jump and returns soon! Happy travels! Like the photos. :)

  9. We stayed at Staubach hotel recommended by Rick in his guide book, located right next to the fall in Lauterbrennen, our then 5 year old son, Jason was so in awe with the waterfalls, he became so passionate about waterfalls ever since. We went back again last year, and he could still remember how tall it is, made a really impression on him. He swear he’d want to move to Lauterbrennen. We find the Swiss are indeed friendly, kind and quite passionate about their punctuality. Our Swiss friends who now are Americans living in the States, have family living in Thun, would always take us to places and extremely hospitable. My friend, Annette’s mother would wait up on us late into the night before arriving , and had a pot of spaghetti with meat balls on the stove.

  10. Hey Rick, Im Joe, currently dodging bad guys in Southern Iraq. Im doing my homework into Ski base off of Mount Asgard, Baffin Island. As well as getting info for that expedition Id like to find the highest cliffs in Europe that I can ski base. Id like to avoid Kirag in Norway if I can purely because of the LZ there. If you can help with any info Id be grateful mate. Cheers Joe Davidson Terrorism, tourism and all ism’s covered :)

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