We snaked our way up a long narrow path to the top of a steep hill, following behind Ralph and Chris, our pilots, as we geared up to paraglide off the side of a cliff in Mürren, Switzerland. Murren is a small mountain village of roughly 450 people, tucked on the ledge of the Swiss Alps, 5,413 feet above sea level. The village is car-free; residents and travelers take a cable car to travel between Mürren and the Lauterbrunnen Valley below– or in our case, a parachute. The juxtaposition of Mürren’s adaptation to the modern world of gondolas and cable cars while retaining its identity as a small Swiss mountain village was intriguing to me; how had people settled and flourished in Mürren before this transportation technology?
“It’s your first time flying?” Ralph asked. “Mine too!”
My husband and I glanced at one another.
“Who will be riding with me?” Ralph asked. They unpacked their parachutes and began the painstaking process of untangling the gossamer-thin ropes that attached the parachutes to the harnesses.
Our destination was the Lauterbrunnen Valley, roughly 2300 feet below us. Mürren sits on the west side of this valley, and its history can be traced back to 1384. For hundreds of years there were no transportation systems connecting Mürren to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, so if a farmer needed to bring their cattle down from their grazing in the mountains, or if a villager simply needed to get from Mürren to somewhere else in Switzerland, they needed to hike. Depending on the weather conditions (snow meant a longer hike) the hike 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 town to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Most travelers to and from Mürren utilize this system, and locals still use it to transport goods and supplies.
“We walk, and then, we run!” shouted Chris. I was now tethered to him, standing behind me, parachute ropes in his hands, ready for take-off. He said we’d walk, and then sort of leap – pushed and pulled by the parachute catching in the wind – literally, off a cliff. My heart was in my throat.
Mürren’s perch in the mountains gives adventurers, hikers and skiers 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. Locals 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. 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.
As we flew over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, unease gave way to incredulity and then, simple joy. I felt the tight harness keeping me in place, the rough feel of the ropes clenched in my fists. There was 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.
“Smile!” Chris said. He extended a GoPro camera above us as we slowly zigzagged down, occasionally sprayed by the waterfalls that dotted the mountainside.
The topography of the area lends Mürren an authenticity as a small mountain village in the Alps, even in the face of the modernity it has adapted. There is no town doctor and no police force; residents call down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley if they need help. The Swiss 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 Swiss Alps, 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 linzer torte, a jam-filled pie with a lattice top and soft, nutty crust.
“Feet up!” shouted Chris. I kicked my legs out in preparation for our landing. Touching down, they felt as if they were racing of their own accord, comically trying to catch up with the speed at which we landed. Once we were both safely on the ground, my husband and I looked up at the mountainside we had just flown down from, incredulous that people hiked from here, in the valley, up to Mürren for hundreds of years before the construction of the cable car in Lauterbrunnen and the gondola in Stechelberg. We said our goodbyes to our pilots and started the three mile hike from Stechelberg to Lauterbrunnen, where we would take the lift 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.