Picturesque village

Seeking adventure, I headed to Switzerland to hike a glacier and paraglide – not to mention my lifelong fear of heights.

As our van climbs higher and higher up the narrow mountain road to the Niederhorn, a peak overlooking scenic Interlaken, Switzerland, I glimpse them: colorful crescents straddling the drafts of the valley, sliding down the spectacular backdrop of the Bernese Alps, including its most famous trio, the snow-capped Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

My heart rises a few inches higher in my throat. Soon I’ll be among them, paragliding nearly 1,500 meters above the city, chalets and lakes – flying like a bird, although strapped in a tandem harness with my local pilot, Sébastien Bourquin.

While Bourquin prepares our equipment for the short descent of the slope to inflate the kite, I try to remember how I got there. As a woman in her 50s with lifelong vertigo and fear of heights, paragliding seems, well, a little wild, if not downright ridiculous. Perhaps my recent and enthusiastic consumption of melted raclette cheese and fortifying kirsch had gone to my head.

But the truth is, I am here in Switzerland with the intention of stepping out of my comfort zone. Before the pandemic, I was an average adventurer, happy to hike marked trails and ski uphill. But after so many months of limited sensations, I can’t wait to fully relive each day. I want to feel the joy, the pain, and the transformative power of pushing my mind and body beyond old limits.

Switzerland seems to me the ideal place to test my limits. Despite its relatively small size, the country is full of outdoor activities, including hiking on alpine glaciers, first trails in the many ski resorts, and paragliding over charming mountain villages. There is no shortage of sweet and hard adventures for travelers of all styles and ages.

We can thank the 19th century British mountaineers (and their local guides) for revealing the beauty of Switzerland to the world. The legacy of their successful summits of iconic peaks like the Jungfrau – inspiring a rush of Belle Époque visitors, including Queen Victoria – has opened the country to travelers keen to experience the grandeur of the landscape.

Switzerland's snow-capped mountain landscape lends itself to gentle and challenging outdoor adventures.

Fortunately, visitors don’t have to submit to the rigors of extreme mountaineering to enjoy the wide variety of outdoor experiences, which are easily accessible in each of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

The country is home to over 65,000 kilometers of marked hiking trails, and on my previous trips I have done my fair share of scenic mountain hikes, which I haven’t found too difficult or intimidating. I’m ready for a more ambitious challenge, and this time my plan is to embark on a practically vertical ascent, hike an alpine glacier and gain height in a paraglider.

Things started badly. A swollen knee prevents me from attacking a via ferrata called Diavolo, outside Andermatt. Built by Swiss army soldiers at the crossroads of four mountain passes, this diabolical “railway” climbs nearly 500 meters to the granite wall of the Schöllenen, overlooking its famous gorges and the Devil’s Bridge. The Diavolo is classified as ‘moderately difficult’ but also ‘ideal for beginners’ but my knee is unable to climb the 265 metal stakes on this foggy autumn day.

The writer overlooks the Fee Glacier, near the idyllic Alpine village of Saas-Fee.

Fortunately, I only need a few days of rest, in preparation for my glacier hike above the idyllic alpine village of Saas-Fee. Located in the canton of Valais and surrounded by snow-capped 4000m peaks, this pedestrianized community is the mecca for all-season outdoor adventures, including walking on the Fee Glacier.

As with many glaciers in the Alps, the ice cap is retreating. I hear the water rushing below me as our small group of roped hikers navigate the blindingly white surface. I do well on the wide, flat portions of our walk, but the narrow ledges that fall into the crevices on either side make me grip my poles with sweaty palms.

I carefully plant each crampon foot one after the other until our high mountain guide stops. A two-foot-wide crevice looms in front of me and I’m suddenly rooted in place, unsure of what to do next. Obviously we have to break through the gaping breach, but the fear almost makes me hyperventilate.

“Put your pole on the other side of the crevasse, then take a big step forward,” advises Michael Schwarzl, an Austrian who has guided in Saas-Fee for almost 25 years. “And breathe normally,” he adds judiciously, a reminder I need.

I repeat an inner monologue to bring my nerves together – I can do it, I won’t fall – and do what he says. As I scan the indeterminate depths of the crevice, I see the brilliant turquoise ice transform into a black abyss. My metal crampons dig into the old glacier to gain a foothold. With a sigh of relief, I happily accept Schwarzl’s hand as he pulls me to safety across the path.

Hiking on alpine glaciers is just one of the many outdoor adventures that can be found in Switzerland.

An hour later, in a restaurant on top of a mountain, we celebrate our triumph on the edges of the cliffs and the dark and deep places. My crevasse crossing experience, however, is not the most daring part of my Swiss itinerary. The most intimidating of my planned adventures awaits me: paragliding in the skies above Interlaken.

Interlaken bills itself as the number one destination in Europe for adventure sports, and every season the skies are filled with single and tandem paragliders heading for a soft landing on the grassy Höhematte park in the middle of the city. .

It is also our flight plan. As Bourquin tightens my suspenders and checks the harness, I suppress my apprehension and smile nervously. “Ready?” he asks in French. “Yes,” I reply, still trying to convince myself. We start to run downhill, and as the kite picks up the wind, in an instant we are in the air.

Settling into our seated position in the harness, all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the flight – which, to my surprise, I do a lot. The feeling of soaring over the deep blue lakes and church spiers of Interlaken is sweeter than I imagined, but breathtaking.

As the updrafts pull us up in large circles above the city, I am stunned by the wonder of the flight. After 10 minutes, my reverie is shattered when Bourquin asks me if I want to land or continue.

All hesitation has vanished into the air. “Let’s continue,” I shout happily. I want more of this freedom, this liberation from fear that all my epic adventures in Switzerland have granted me.

Writer Claudia Laroye traveled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism, which has neither reviewed nor approved this article. The federal government recommends that Canadians avoid non-essential travel. This article is intended to inspire plans for future travel.