We snaked our way up a long narrow path to the top of a steep hill, behind Ralph and Chris, our pilots. Ralph dropped the paragliding gear to the ground and said, “It’s your first time flying? Mine too!”
My husband and I glanced at one another, with nervous laughs. We had already signed waivers acknowledging we were participating in a dangerous activity that could result in death, essentially exonerating our pilots before we even started kitting up.
“Who will be riding with me?” Ralph asked. He and Chris began the painstaking process of untangling the gossamer-thin ropes attaching the parachutes to the harnesses.
I had gone paragliding in Murren six years earlier, and wanted my husband to experience the same thrills: flying through the air, wind whipping your face, eye to eye with the Alps. Seeing Switzerland from a different perspective could broaden and enhance our experience.
Our landing site, the Lauterbrunnen Valley, stretched out roughly 2300 feet below us. The valley was like a long canyon carved out between the mountain ranges to the east and west of it, anchored by the Weisse Lütschine river. Steep limestone precipices lined the valley wall, and several waterfalls – some as tall as 900 feet – spouted from the rock formations. The village of Mürren, our take-off site, sat on a mountain ledge.
Mürren is car-free, and for hundreds of years there were no transportation systems connecting it to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. If a farmer needed to bring their cattle up and down the mountains for their grazing, or if a villager in Mürren needed to visit a relative in another part of Switzerland, they needed to hike. Depending on the weather conditions (snow means a longer journey) the trek ranges from one to three hours, one way, with a minimum 2000 foot elevation change. It wasn’t until 1891 that the Lauterbrunnen-Mürren mountain railway, a combined system of a funicular (replaced by a cable car in 2006) and mountain train, was built to connect the village to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Most travelers to and from Mürren today utilize this system, and locals still use it to transport goods and supplies.
Mürren’s adaptation to the modern world while retaining its identity as a small Swiss mountain village was intriguing to me; how had Mürren flourished before this transportation technology?
“We walk, and then, we run!” shouted Chris. We were tethered together on top of a cliff, and Chris held the parachute ropes in his hands, ready for take-off. On his count, we walked, then leaped skyward; pushed and pulled by the parachute caught in the wind until we flew, literally, off the side of the cliff. Simultaneously exhilarated and panicked, my heart leapt into my throat.
As we flew over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, unease gave way to incredulity and then, quiet joy. I felt the tight harnesses on my shoulders and legs, the rough ropes clenched in my fists. There was the pure glee of seeing Switzerland from such a unique vantage point, and a protective urge to spot my husband and Ralph, who had flown ahead of us. The sunlight illuminated the Alps and the pinprick farms, homes, quaint hotels, gondola station and livestock that dotted the valley below.
The topography of the area lends Mürren an authenticity as a small mountain village in the Alps, even in the face of modernity. There is no town doctor and no police force; residents call down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley if they need help. The Alps create a panoramic view in every direction you look, whether you’re walking through the center of town, at a café enjoying your morning coffee, or riding the gondola up to the Schilthorn. It’s common to see cows and sheep grazing along hiking trails and throughout the valleys of the Alps, with cows taking up residence during the summer while farmers make cheese from their milk. Local farmers set up self-service snack shacks along hiking routes for hungry hikers to pop in and grab fresh cheeses and regional sweets, such as linzertorte, a jam-filled pie with a lattice top and soft, nutty crust.
“Smile!” Chris said. He extended a GoPro camera above us as we slowly zigzagged down, occasionally sprayed by the waterfalls that dotted the mountainside.
Mürren’s perch in the mountains gives hikers, skiers and adventurers remarkably easy access to the Swiss Alps, so it’s not surprising that the village’s primary industry is tourism. Hiking enthusiasts swarm to Mürren in the warmer months for spectacular hiking opportunities ranging from 2.5 miles to over 10 miles. Skiers flock to the area in the snow-covered months for events like the Inferno, one of the oldest and longest amateur ski races in the world. Triathletes descend on Mürren every August for the famously grueling Inferno Triathlon, a race in which participants swim, road bike, mountain bike, and run through a 96 mile course with an 18,000 foot elevation gain. Village residents work at ski and hiking shops, as well as run a myriad of bed and breakfasts, farms, restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, laundry services, and even a sports center catering to their active visitors. When they need to refresh their supplies, they have items brought up via cable car in Lauterbrunnen or the gondola in Stechelberg, another small town in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
“Feet up!” Chris shouted. I kicked my legs out in preparation for our landing. Touching down, they raced of their own accord, comically trying to catch up with the speed at which we were landing.
Safely on solid ground, my husband and I squinted up at the mountainside, at the sheer rock face of the ledge we had just flown down from. Roughly two-thirds the size of El Capitan from base to summit, the ledge loomed over us, tamed only slightly by the gondola cables and gondolas running to and from its impressive height. We were incredulous that people hiked from here, in the valley, up to Mürren for hundreds of years before the addition of the cable cars and gondolas.
We said goodbye to our pilots and started the three mile hike from Stechelberg to Lauterbrunnen, where we would take the cable car and mountain train back to Mürren. As we walked, light-headed from flight, we felt ourselves tracing the hundred-year-old paths of the village’s residents.