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Nature rules in the Swiss Alps – Chicago Tribune


Just south of Interlaken in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, in the shadow of Switzerland’s towering Jungfrau, I learned to respect the power of nature.

Avalanches are a part of life here, where modest but sturdy mountain huts are built on the downhill side of huge, protective rocks. Hearing the rumble of distant rivers of falling snow, hikers scan the edges of distant glaciers in hopes of catching a glimpse of ice movement.

Aiming for the heart of the Alps, I take my train from the belle epoche resort town of Interlaken south down a long, lush valley to the snowcapped peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. As I sit in my seat, I slide open the large window. The lush air, scented with the sweet, sweaty scent of freshly cut hay, fills my car.

Grassy banks dotted with alpine flowers remind me of my first ride on this train. As my girlfriend and I eagerly leaned out the window in a slow corner, stunned by the view, a railroad worker surprised her with a bouquet of alpenroses presented through the window.

Below me, an overflowing stream flows noisily through the middle of the valley, chattering excitedly about the wild ride it has just survived. I craned my neck to see what all the excitement was about. Slowly, we soar higher and higher towards the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a glacier-rimmed garden of traditional Swiss ways of life. This natural landscape kept me from exploring the rest of Switzerland. I don’t need anything better than the Alps.

The train takes me off over a grassy field opened by an avalanche. I remember bringing a tour group here. My group’s outfits included seven days of Italy. Not only had I lifted my spirits with the promise of self-service laundry for the entire day, but I had also promised that our helpful guide would do laundry for the entire group. Spirits were rising as we approached the corner where I would reveal Lauterbrunnen’s laundry. Then we saw it – or at least its freshly crumpled remains. Our laundry was buried under an avalanche. Everyone who participated in our tour – except perhaps the assistant guide – was heartbroken.

I head out of town, past the bare land where the laundromat once stood, and up the valley to a large waterfall.

For years I have admired the Staubbach Falls from afar. Today I climb up to take a closer look. Climbing a mound of glacial gravel as if trying to climb a sand dune, I eventually find my way to the roaring base of the waterfall. Amid the roaring storm, a black rock face rises 600 feet into the air. A river flows over the cliff into a galaxy of excited drops. The sun shines through the mist as wet and volatile color prisms transform into liquid fireworks.

I feel alone, drowning in the roar. Then I notice a gray silhouette (a man) on the far side of the rainstorm. Suddenly he grabs his head and falls to the ground. As I raced to help him, I realized that Staubbach Falls was throwing rocks (and that the little mountain of rocks that he and I were climbing didn’t come here by dump truck). I feel like I’m under attack.

As we help the injured man down the glacial gravel, we pass a sign that makes us both stop. He says in very clear German:“Caution: falling rocks.” He looks over the hand holding his injured head and translates to me: “Caution: falling rocks.”

A little further down the valley, Trümmelbach Waterfall, a waterfall within the mountain, expresses its purpose differently but with the same force. I buy my ticket and pass through a series of wet passages until I reach a tunnel deep into the mountain and an elevator that takes me closer.

The elevator doors open into a foggy cave. The river is roaring, busy with its work, cutting through the mountain like God’s thundering bandsaw. I try to film this view, shielding my camera from the angry fog. A guard in an orange raincoat warns me to watch my step. Last year, he told me, a tourist with a camera on his face returned to the Trümmelbach Falls. It was found in a log jam six months later. “His skin looked like wood,” says the guard.

As I walk down the gorges to the valley floor, I look back and notice a Swiss flag. While many flags signal conquest, to me this small red-and-white Swiss flag flying from the top of Trümmelbach signals surrender. When I see nature flexing its muscles, it seems determined to teach us that the best way to control it is to obey it.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places from the past two decades. You can email Rick at: rick@ricksteves.com and follow her blog on Facebook.)

©2024 Rick Steves. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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