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.