Adrenaline, snow capped mountains, cosy chalets and some of the worlds finest chocolate. Bern, Switzerland’s capital city, is as warm and welcoming as any small mountain town. High prices can put some people off but regardless of your budget, Switzerland is a must visit. My most memorable travel experience took place in the Swiss Alps and that is what I will be telling you about today.
Switzerland was country number two on my tour of Europe. I travelled with Flixbus from Lyon to Bern for about 10 Euros. Flix became my favourite company to travel with, you can get all over Europe with them. Tickets are cheap, seats are comfy and wifi is reliable. You can’t complain. Especially not when you compare it to the megabus..
Unfortunately for me, I am cursed to always choose to sit on the side of the bus with the worst view. Despite this I still got to catch a few glimpses out the window on the other side as we were driving through the Alps. I felt as if we had driven straight into a postcard. It was like that scene in The Simpsons movie where they are driving to Alaska and Homer puts the picture of the map on the window. Everyone on the bus collectively turned in awe.
Couchsurfing is a free, universal platform connecting travellers from every country. Once you have made an account you can offer to host travellers in your home or you can use it to search for hosts when you travel.
I have stayed with fellow Couchsurfers quite a few times now and have had lovely experiences. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people and get a local experience of the city.
Switzerland is not a country that’s particularly budget friendly.. I somehow managed to spend £12 on a six-inch subway meal and a cookie. For my stay in Bern, I decided to look for some one that would put me up for a couple nights. This led me to meeting the wonderful Leon.
Whilst I was waiting at the train station, I was a bit nervous. When I told people I was planning a solo trip around Europe, I was warned everything from ‘that’s a bit dangerous isn’t it, have you seen taken?’ to ‘Don’t do that, you’ll get kidnapped and chopped up’. Fortunately for me I grew up with an incredible godmother who taught me to trust the kindness of strangers.
Stories of getting chopped up were still slightly playing through my mind.. but soon after meeting him, it felt completely natural and I knew I had nothing to worry about. However saying that, I think it is important to be cautious and safe when using Couchsurfing. I will make another post one day giving advice on how to use it.
Leon showed me around Bern, told me about the history and took me up to the roof of where he works (the city hospital) for the best view of the city. That evening he taught me how to make traditional Swiss fondue, then we played card games and Mario kart. He was a fantastic host, I could tell he really did love his city and was passionate about sharing it with travellers.
In the morning we packed our backpacks and set off for the day I had been looking forward to since I first started planning this trip. Hiking in the Alps!
The train to the Alps was full of tall Swiss families. All of them were geared up for a day of hiking under the chilled blue sky. I noticed how people who live in a landscape like this seem much happier. There was a really positive, sunny atmosphere filling the train.
Leon took me up Mount Neisen, a mountain that if you reach the peak in good time you will see how it casts a perfect triangular shadow over the lake.
We started the hike at 690m above sea level and climbed all the way up to 2362m. Although I am quite fit and have strong legs, my lungs act as if I am a lifelong smoker so I do struggle with my breathing sometimes. Leon was very patient, this mountain was just a casual day out for him so the speed I was moving at must have seemed ridiculous. Despite my feeble lung power, we made it all the way to the top where we shared an ice cream sundae and indulged in coffees.
The whole way up the mountain, Leon had been motivating me with the thought of the Swiss chocolate we can share when we reach the top. Chocolate certainly works much better as a motivator than ‘pride of a job well done’ does. Very uncharacteristically of me, once we reached the top we forgot all about the chocolate and only realised once we started walking down. The chocolate would now be our prize for reaching the bottom.
Our climb down Neisen was a bit more troublesome… the comforting thought is what goes up will come down, the not so comforting thought is you’re never guaranteed an elegant descend.
Leon taught me a saying in Swiss German- ‘Respektier dr Bärg und är respektiert di.’ which means- ‘Respect the mountain and it will respect you’. We told ourselves that quite a lot whilst also reminding ourselves ‘Was ufechunnt mues o wider abecho’- ‘What goes up must come down’.
The path that we were going to take had been completely snowed over and would not have been safe to attempt. Any sensible person would say ‘well why didn’t you hike back up and go down the way you came’. I however, hadn’t grown to be that cautious yet.
So we attempted a short detour from the path that would lead soon lead us back to it. Seeing the mountain in this way made me feel so connected to it. We got to walk through the untouched wilderness, admire the surrounding mountains from a whole new angle. I noticed how closely they resembled Fudge Mountain in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I wasn’t really nervous at all to begin with. Previously in my life I had barely left the UK. A country so small compact, you would really struggle to find a dangerous situation like this one.
On we walked, searching for the path again but time went on and we seemed to be no closer. Inevitably the danger started to loom on us. ‘After the sun goes down we will have two hours to find a path before it’s completely dark’ he warned. This was when my fear of heights crept back up on me. It felt like a video game and there was a ticking clock running at the bottom of the screen.
Slopes were getting steeper and more precarious. My legs were already shaking and weak from the hike up hill. Every step I took my muscles were begging to collapse. Every fibre inside my body wanted to sit down, throw a tantrum and refuse to move a step further.. but my brain had the sense to know that wouldn’t get us very far either.
Time was ticking and we could no longer see the sun anymore. ‘Shit. How much time do we have?’ I thought. Suddenly all I seemed capable of saying was ‘Ok. Ok. Ok.’ With every wobbly step I took I just repeated ‘Ok.’ as an attempt to reassure myself. Whilst climbing over one rock my knee buckled in and landed me right on my coccyx. That was painful. That was very painful. The pain didn’t really go away for months. Is it possible to break your coccyx?
Then there was the waterfall. At this point we were really in the final minutes of sunlight. Moving with more urgency and not a second spare to pause. We crossed the waterfall at the very top where it was narrow. My exhausted muscles couldn’t lift me up from the rock pool, Leon literally had to pull me up with one arm. With no time to rest, we kept walking and searching.
We were walking high above the waterfall, trying to stick to whatever resembled a path most and away from anything that resembled a cliff.
There was a small muddy section. This is where I really lost my step. It felt like I was falling for miles. What probably lasted about 10 seconds maximum, felt like ten minutes. I started by falling down a slope of crumbly, vertical mud. Every time I tried to latch on to the ground to catch myself it crumbled. I started clawing at it, as if that will help. Every tree was, tantalisingly, just out of my finger tips reach. I started to fall very fast, I felt the rush of air between my body and the cliff and there was nothing to slow myself down.
I felt like a cartoon character that had been foolishly clinging on to 3 pieces of grass at the top of a cliff. Luckily this was a muddy slope and the rocks were much further down.
My mind flashed to the waterfall. I tried screaming but all that did was fill my mouth with this crumbling dirt. This is it. Crap. This is real life death. There’s not much I can really do now. I turned my body to look at were I was falling in a last attempt to save myself. There was no time to be afraid at this point. No time for thinking about tantrums and sitting down or to tell myself ‘Ok’. My life was resting in my hands.
I saw a tree, well more of a bush really. Straight ahead of me. I positioned my foot sideways into the dirt, I kept one hand behind me clawing at the mud, directed my one foot towards this tree and caught it with my spare hand. My heart stopped. This tree, this beautiful tree/bush had grown exactly in the right spot. To stand between me and the waterfall, which was now unnervingly close. I couldn’t see it but I could hear it loud and clear.
I caught my breath and heard Leon shouting my name frantically. I shouted back, letting him know I am Ok. He soon found a way to tumble down to me. I had landed on the tree in an odd, sideways squatting position and my body refused to move an inch from it. I wasn’t badly injured so he suggested we try climb back up and carry on. If I was feeling in a sassier mood, I probably would have replied with ‘Oh hell no’. Instead, I just told him I can’t. My body was too weak at this point and there was no way I was going to risk falling down into that waterfall. So we called for a rescue team.
I was so relieved, so extremely relieved when I knew I didn’t have to move from my tree. A helicopter was on the way so all there was for us to do was to be patient.
My body still refusing to move, I remained in that awkward squat for around 45 minutes. This was probably the best work out I have ever done. It made me wonder how long I could hold a plank for if my life actually depended on it. We joked about how we still had that Swiss chocolate to look forward to. At this point, that chocolate represented everything good in the world and what I had to look forward to if I held on longer.
In the sky I saw the constellation of the sauce pan and remembered my Dad pointing it out to me on a camping trip many years before. I had to keep telling myself, I can’t die here, I still have to meet Amy in Croatia.
We persisted with the reassuring thought of how everything that goes up really will go down. We had no idea how long it would take for the team to find us. All I could do at this point was wholeheartedly place my trust in them, in my tree and in the ground we had landed on. To respect the mountain and hope it respects us back.
Eventually we heard the distant noise of a helicopter. Leon used his torch for an SOS signal and we hoped that they would come closer. The noise would keep fading in and out, causing my heart to sink every time they went further away. I felt like a young kid reaching for a piece of candy that my older brother was just moving closer and then out of reach over and over again.
Then the noise got louder, it began to get windy. I looked at the tree branch that was supporting me, the one that was no thicker than the width of three fingers. I felt it sway in the wind of the helicopter and I prayed so hard that it would be strong enough to hold. Trust. Trust. Trust. I told myself on repeat.
The helicopter had found us. The light shone right on us and with it I felt a rush of relief. It couldn’t land so some one got sent down on a rope to help us. Leon then got lifted up first in the rope and went into the helicopter. I then got attached to the harness with a member of the rescue team and we got carried out the mountain like that. It would have been a cool experience but the harness was giving me a really.. really painful wedgie..
I can’t remember the in between parts but soon I was sitting in the front seat of a helicopter, safely gliding over the mountains below. I had never been so thankful in my life. I was alive, I was safe, I was warm. I noticed how the driver of the helicopter was casually checking Facebook on his tablet which made me giggle. I admired the calm, black shadows of the immense mountains surrounding the lake. I had a whole new respect for them after experiencing them in such a way.
Street lamps in the surrounding towns created the illusion that fairies were living there. It was a clear sky, I got to gaze happily at the same stars that I had been studying whilst clinging on to my tree.
Before we knew it, we were on a train back to Leons home. We played cards and ate the well-earned Swiss chocolate. No culinary experience in my life will ever taste as good as the chocolate did that evening.
When I looked in the mirror of the toilets I was shocked at my reflection. I looked feral. Mud was coating my face and body. I looked how you picture Katniss Everdeen looking after the games.It was matted in my hair along with various twigs and leaves. I casually pulled a couple leaves out of my locks but didn’t seem to care about anything else. We certainly attracted some funny looks from the people on the train who were going about their daily lives.
Once we got back to his house, we pulled off our muddy shoes and took turns to shower. I watched as the mud swirled down the drain and finally let out a few tears that I had been holding in throughout the night. It was finally time to climb into bed. I’d done it. I’d survived. I was still in disbelief at this fact. Beds had never felt comfier too.
All night, whilst trying to get some sleep, I was experiencing the terrifying sensation that I was falling. Between the falls, I managed to drift in to a deep sleep and woke up the next morning to the sunlight gleaming through the window.