Interlaken, Your Starting Point For Canyoning, Base Jumping, Skiing or Hiking in the Bernese Oberland

Interlaken is a main town in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland.  It is conveniently located on some flat land between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. The best reason to go there isn’t the town itself, but its proximity to the lakes, storied mountains like the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, fabulous valleys (like Laterbrunnen) and stellar views like that from Schlithorn.  As such, it is a convenient starting point for many outdoor activities.

The town has been a tourist hub since early in the 19th century.  Interlaken has an assortment of cute old buildings. With a few exceptions, they have been able to keep many older buildings and retain their impressive mountain views (we find the views from areas further back town the mountains even better).

The Bernese Oberland Railway and the Jungfrau Railway made Interlaken a convenient transportation hub.  It remains one and Interlaken generally seems more diverse and cosmopolitan than most of the smaller mountain towns.  We saw Indian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and many other diverse restaurants.  At breakfast, we heard a plethora of languages.

Paragliding, base jumping, skiing, hiking, canyoning, whitewater rafting, kayaking, etc. are available from the area.  If they aren’t your speed, you can sit down at a café and watch others shop for supplies or land in the park at the center of town.  Although we didn’t pay them a visit, we walked past the casino and an adventure park.

 

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Les Incompetents Vol. 9 – Whimps In An Alpine Snowstorm

Last weekend, we went to bed in Gimmelwald, Switzerland (accessible mainly by cable car) with this view of the Lauterbraunnen Valley in the Bernese Alps.  It could have been clearer, but it’s still a pretty sweet view.  We woke up to this.

And it kept falling.

And falling.

We’re from Michigan, so we’re pretty hardy and decided that even though we were fighting off colds, we could do a few hours of hiking… in a snowstorm… on a mountain.  Yeah.  I know.  We’re geniuses.  Neither of us wanted to be the bigger baby and complain so we kept going.

And going.

Finally, the wind convinced us to turn back.  We decided that it was getting so windy that if it got much worse they might shut down the cable cars and be stuck up there that night.

Note the pitch of the flag and the temperature of -2. Balmy. Especially when I forgot to pack a hat and gloves.

Thankfully, we were able to get down to our car.   We even gave a couple of Aussies (whose paragliding trip had inexplicably been cancelled) a ride to the train station before setting off to see more of Switzerland.

Clearly the weather was ideal at lower altitudes. We ended up having a great time though. I swear, I will tell you all about it.

 

Chamonix, Skiing In The Death Sport Capital of the World

Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, so it was a no brainer.   We knew we had to go check it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about it. The day before skiing Chamonix, I did a bit of research to figure out where to go.

Chamonix is a valley and there are many different places to ski.  Unlike, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, or La Clusaz, there are separate ski resorts, each with their own characteristics and character.

Here’s more or less what I learned about them:

  • Grands Montets – This is one world’s most renowned ski areas with runs for all levels. It is located on the southern side of the valley (translate that into it’s not too sunny).  It is also means that its north face has good snow.  It is one of the Chamonix’s most famous resorts.  It has a snow park with a skier/boarder cross course with various tabletop jumps and rails.  It is open all season.   People go hard and fast here, really hard, really fast.  Experts enjoy the lift that heads 10,820 feet (3 297.9 meters) to some of the world’s steepest, most technically demanding runs.  We’re not that good yet, maybe next year.
  • Les Houches – The upper part is sunny, glorious in the afternoon and good for beginners.  The lower part, below the tree line, doesn’t receive direct sunlight, shielding skiers on windy days.
  • La Flégère – Its location on the northern side of the valley ensures plenty of sun, attracting people on colder days.  Its northern location also yields astounding views of the valley and Mont Blanc.  This is a haven for snowboarders (freestylers will be very happy) and has great natural terrain for it.  It has skiing for a variety lf levels and is a great starting point. The pistes are the valley’s best maintained.
  • Le Brévent – Le Brévent is on the northern side of the valley above downtown Chamonix. Its southern face lots of sunshine and spectacular views across the valley to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.  It has something for all levels of skiers and boarders.  While it is not large, there is a cable car link to La Flégère.  We skied both.
  • L’Aiguille du Midi/La Vallee Blanche – The Aiguille du Midi is on of the most famous runs in the world, Valley Blanche. It is 10.5 miles (17 km) long with a decrease in altitude of 12601 feet (3841 meters) into Chamonix.  The real star is the incredible alpine scenery.   While this epic run isn’t appropriate for beginners, advanced, or even upper intermediate skiers who very fit can ski this piste.  While guides are not required, they are recommended in this potentially dangerous environment to avoid danger.  Snowboarders should seek advice on equipment before attempting this.   You don’t want to be one of the ones that goes over the edge.
  • Le Tour – Snowboarders (especially freestylers) go for its sunny, wide-open slopes that are well above the tree line, with varied terrain and have great powder.  There are also runs for beginners and families.  It is popular with locals.
  • It was hard to get good information about Le Levancher (although it is slang for avalanche), Les Tines and Les Praz.  Sorry.  Perhaps someone will post it comments about them.

At the bottom of the valley, there are some slopes for children and beginners that present virtually no challenge.  They include:

  • La Vormaine
  • Les Chosalets near La Tour
  • Le Savoy in Argentiere
  • Les Planards in the center of Chamonix by the cable car to Le Brévent

Chamonix is an adorable town.  In addition to skiing, it is a mecca for extreme sports like mountain climbingice climbingrock climbingextreme skiingparaglidingrafting and canyoning.  Mountain climber Mark Twight christened Chamonix  “the death-sport capital of the world” because of its base for the large number of dangerous sports practiced there.  The less adventurous can take a cable car up, sit and enjoy the view.

Paragliding, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

French, Germans and Swiss are paragliding enthusiasts.  In this adventure vacation paradise, paragliding is huge.  Many weekends (in summer and winter) we see paragliders soaring over valleys… from the (relative) safety of a mountain.

When we were skiing in Chamonix, we saw paragliders jump off the mountain!  They soared over the valley next to Mont Blanc.  We watched them from the cable car all the way down into town.  Someone even landed down there wearing skis!  It was impressive (sorry I couldn’t get a picture).

Paragliding involves a manual launch, in other words, you run off the mountain!  Paragliders have “flown” off almost all the US and Europe’s major peaks.  A couple of paragliders have even launched off Mt. Everest!

The paraglider, also known as the pilot, sits in a harness, manipulating the fabric wing made of rip-stop nylon to soar upwards on currents of air.  They maneuver Kevlar suspension lines and to control the pressure of the air entering the vents to catch air currents to gain height and change direction. They can stay aloft for hours (the record is 11) and travel long distances (the record is 186.4 miles/300 km).

We saw an introductory, tandem launch.  Beginners must learn to launching, turning and landing to fly by themselves.  Paragliders risk their lives by running off a precipice.   As such, pre-flight is of paramount importance.  They research the site, the weather forecast, and carry out pre-flight checks to their gear is in perfect condition and ready to deploy.   The maxim “it is better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air rather than in the air, wishing you were on the ground” reminds paragliders to abort takeoff if their flight is compromised.

Other popular paragliding spots include:

Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps

Him and Mt. Blanc/Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco

Mt. Blanc, Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco all refer to the same mountain.  It has so many names because of its strategic location.  It in France, viewable from Switzerland and forms part of the border with Italy.  The French and Italian names mean “white mountain.”  Other names for it include La Dame Blance and Il Bianco.

Aosta Valley – From behind the protective tape and snow fence on the slopes

It lies in the Alps between Italy’s Aosta Valley and the Haute-Savoie region of France .  The 11.6 km (7.1 mile) Mt. Blanc Tunnel has connected the two since it was built in 1965.

courtesy of EnlightenedTraveler.co.uk

The trip around the alps is long and so the tunnel was an instant success, becoming one of the major trans-alp transport routes.  It costs about $60 roundtrip for a car to use the tunnel.  That does not include the fine you will pay if you speed over 70 km/hr or do not leave sufficient distance between you and the car in front of you.  They are militant about this safe driving because in 1999 there was a fire in the tunnel that killed 39 people.  We felt a bit more at ease traveling through the tunnel knowing that when the tunnel reopened in 2002, it contained additional safety features.

courtesy of railsystem.net

Mt. Blanc’s height is 4,810 m (15, 782 feet) tall.  It has year-round snow.  Its Bossons glacier comprises the largest ice fall in Europe.  It made the news in 2007, when it grew 6 meters!

It is a center for alpine outdoor activities including: skiing, snowboarding, heliskiing, paragliding, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, trekking, hiking, mountain biking and everyone’s favorite pastime of warming themselves in cute cafes.  All of this activity is not without danger and Mt. Blanc averages 100 fatalities a year and many more severe injuries.  Recently, a Russian couple froze to death while attempting to climb Mt. Blanc, a body was found on a black run (he must have snuck in some night skiing), and an avalanche killed a man.  Looking at a video of a Mt. Blanc avalanche on YouTube, helped me to understand their power and danger.

Courmayeur Piste Map courtesy of winter-sports.com

The Aosta Valley, where we spent the weekend, is a paradise for off piste skiing.  Some of our group went off piste.  Having skied a whopping three times in the last fifteen years, I was happy to stick to the reds.

Please note that these pictures are from the Italian side.  Mt. Blanc’s peak is not visible as it is obscured by a lower part of the mountain when viewed from this angle.