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As I embarked on my first experience of canyoning, one of the cheaper options available from the activities desk at my hostel in Interlaken, I was still unsure as to the specifics of the sport. But it had seemed I would be a fool not to try something new when the opportunity was right here, amongst the breathtaking scenery of Switzerland's Jungfrau region. Aside from a brief skiing session at the Milton Keynes indoor snow-dome that ended in my being asked to vacate the slope before I hurt myself, I had not previously taken part in any kind of extreme sports activities. But I was here in the middle of Europe and I was ready to try anything.
Around a dozen of us assembled outside the hostel, where we met our two expert guides, a young Spaniard and a grizzled Swiss man. It was an international crowd, consisting of myself, five Americans, an Australian, a couple of Germans, a shy petite Korean girl and a French couple with their young son. We were led to the equipment area, and were kitted out with wetsuits, heavy-duty boots, life jackets, helmets and harnesses, before clambering into a waiting minibus to make the twenty minute journey up through bumpy mountain roads to Saxeten.
The tiny village of Saxeten is the starting point for a number of hiking and canyoning routes, and in 1999 it hit the worlds television screens when eighteen tourists and three guides were killed by flash floods, while canyoning in the nearby Saxtenbach gorge. Such freak occurrences were, we were assured, extremely rare.
After disembarking on the outskirts of the village, we climbed up mountainous forest paths, something that seems far from natural in a wetsuit. The air was fresh and it felt good to be in the middle of nature, even if I was a little nervous about what might follow. Myriad butterflies fluttered here and there amongst the summer flowers and ripe berries that decorated the dense foliage.
Eventually we reached the rough rocky terrain of the canyon, and there ahead of us was a turbulent mountain stream. Massive boulders were strewn across the water and along the sides, as if shattered from the canyon walls by tempestuous giants. Here our Swiss guide, Alessandro, outlined the cardinal rule of our canyoning experience. You pay attention and you do exactly as we do and youre going to have a good time. You walk around doing your own thing... youre going to end up with an expensive helicopter ride out of here.
This pretty much summed up the relationship between the uninitiated and the expert guides leading us. They knew exactly what they were doing, they knew the terrain and they were confident in this mountain wilderness. Myself and the others were being led through an experience which, though exhilarating, was like a rollercoaster ride in a theme park, where the illusion of risk and daring takes precedent.
The first canyon navigation technique we learned was sliding, which Alessandro eagerly explained. What you want to do, is sit yourself down on that rock there in the water, just lay back and let the water carry you off. Nervously, I perched myself on the submerged rock and, against all my better instincts, lay back in the water as instructed. Immediately, I was carried off by the current at considerable speed and found myself propelled into a series of rocks, each one harder and more jagged than the next. The cold water penetrated my wet suit and lapped over my face as I floated off feet-first downstream. At first I tried to control my movements, but soon learned that I was at the mercy of the current. After several more attempts I eventually succumbed to the will of the water and just tried to keep my softer parts out of harms way.
I would describe the technique as human rafting, and it was, at first, quite a leap of faith. However, what was even more of a leap of faith was the abseiling that would follow.
After watching several others disappear over the edge of a cliff I stepped forward and looked down. What I saw was a sheer drop of around thirty feet with nothing but hard rock at the bottom. I looked back up and saw my guides casual cheerful face as he hooked a rope onto my harness. Ok, now just turn around and lean backwards.
I looked at the crazy man for a few seconds, then back at the cliff edge, the bone-breaking rocks below and back to the grinning face. Lean backwards?! I parroted.
As someone who is generally more at home in pubs and cafes than hanging around precipices, I was having trouble comprehending this simple command. To me this was a cliff, and you dont just go around stepping back off cliffs, do you? I looked down once more over the edge, then back at the guide, whose expression suggested that this really was the only way, and could I please hurry up so he could get back for some hot coffee and biscuits. So I turned around, took a deep breath and leaned backwards...
...and dropped six foot before slamming into the side of the cliff. I jolted to a sudden stop as the slack was taken up on the rope and I tried desperately to somehow steady myself against the cliff. My stomach lurched uncontrollably as I chanced a glance at the rocks far below. I tried to place my feet against the rock face to walk down it vertically, as I had been told. However I couldnt quite seem to get the hang of this and instead fell in lurches of several feet interspersed with frequent knocks into the cliff wall, bruising my arms and legs. Terrified, I eventually made it to the bottom and quickly removed the rope from my harness, lest the guide pull me back up to relive the experience.
As the others came down, I tried to recompose myself, and, despite being a little shaken and battered, I have to admit I was buzzing. Adrenalin was still coursing through my body as we reached the next challengejumping off another cliff into the surging water below. One of our guides pointed out the correct patch of water to land in, in the shadows. Remembering the earlier comment about expensive helicopter rides, I fixed this firmly in my sights. Nervously I stepped forward and assumed the correct stance, arms close against my chest. I took a deep breath and jumped.
Time slowed down as I plummeted through the air and crashed into the cold water below, submerging completely. Shock first, then panic. My first thought was whether or not my lifejacket was functioning properly. Panicking, I began swallowing water, before a welcome hand grabbed the back of my jacket and hauled me to the surface. Spluttering and coughing up river, I thanked the guide and managed to half-swim half-stumble over to the shallows, dare I say it, like a fish out of water.
The whole canyoning experience lasted around two hours and left me bruised yet exhilarated. It also gave me a strong appreciation for the role of the expert guides who lead the inexperienced through the tiniest sample of the life they lead everyday. Their acute knowledge of the terrain and its hazards allow them to traverse what to most people would be an impassable landscape, and, for a tidy price, they had taken us along for the ride.
Its not difficult to see why so many people leave Interlaken with considerably less money than they entered it with. Once in a lifetime experiences are all there for the taking, seducing the weary traveller with their sultry whispered promises of dizzying elation, adrenalin surges and great stories to take home. And for those with the will not to part with their money so readily, or lacking the nerve to hurl themselves over cliffs or from aeroplanes, the surrounding Jungfrau region offers miles upon miles of breathtaking scenery, quaint Swiss towns and rugged peaks.