Flying with Fritz in Switzerland
|New ski lifts in the Alps now come with plumbing — in the 21st century, no ski resort there can survive without making snow.|
By Rick Steves
Swiss people are expert at living with nature. Like people who live along the coast have telescopes to watch the ships, Swiss mountain dwellers have telescopes on their back decks to watch the mountain face across the valley — they know their mountains intimately...where the ibex graze, where little avalanches tumble and where the rock climbers bivouac.
Their land — long a mountain fortress, is now a playground — "for big boys," my friend Fritz Hutmacher adds. Fritz, a dynamo who runs my favorite little hotel in Interlaken recently broke his collarbone. For the first time, I can keep up with him. He climbs a mountain on his bike just to see the sunset. I'm forever thankful to Fritz (who's nearly my age) for alpine mountain-biking my son Andy into the ground — and then taking him "flying."
Parasailing is Fritz's passion. He is forever nagging me to "go flying." Flying with Fritz (tandem paragliding) is his sideline. Andy still talks about his exhausting and exhilarating day riding and flying with Fritz.
As a hotelier, Fritz is tuned into the phenomenon of Indians coming to the Alps in droves. "We love our guests from India — but some need to learn manners when staying in European hotels. We rent them a double, you turn your back and you have a family of seven in the room — cooking curry on the carpet."
Fritz explained that Indians are a huge and welcome part of Interlaken's tourist business. They come to see mountain scenes made famous in Indian movies. Because of tension between Hindus and Muslims, India's mountainous Kashmir region is too dangerous for movie production. Many romantic Indian movies are now filmed in Swiss mountain wonderlands, where lovers swoon with maximum melodrama. There's even a restaurant on top of Switzerland's Jungfrau lift — which takes visitors over 11,000 feet above sea level — called "Bollywood."
I was with Fritz when a freak hailstorm pulverized Interlaken. It had been really hot. Locals — like squirrels before a storm — sensed it and were nervous. Something big was clearly coming. It got dark. Then bam — it was like a typhoon in the Alps. I parked my bike just in time to take refuge in Fritz's hotel.
Standing on my balcony, Fritz and I watched as car roofs were blanketed in dents and flower gardens hammered into pulp. The road became a river of flowing hail balls, leaves and flower petals. To people living close to the weather here in Europe's Alps, the strange and changing weather is a maddening reality.
The next morning Fritz and I went on a hike. Riding the lift to Mannlichen, high on the ridge above Interlaken, we stepped off and into a visual symphony: before us towered the mighty Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau — for me, the most breathtaking alpine panorama. Fritz, who worked at the mountaintop restaurant at Mannlichen as a kid, talked of the changes here in the last decade. Walking by a glacial pond, he recalls how there used to be hundreds of frogs singing. Now there are none.
We studied a new ski lift being built. Before, they would just build a few towers. Now, a swath is cut right up the mountain as each lift is plumbed with snow-making gear. Big water pipes stuck out of the concrete foundations seeming to trumpet a new age. Fritz said, "In Switzerland we will no longer have ski resorts in the future without manmade snow."
Today the Swiss ski industry is in crisis: a third of the lifts are losing money, a third are in trouble and only a third are good business. I pulled out the postcard Fritz gave me. Wiggling it I saw the glacier come and go. The valley in 1907...filled with ice. The same valley in 2007...dry, with a shrunken glacier hanging like a panting dog's tongue over the top of the valley high in the distance.
Gazing up at the North Face of the Eiger, Fritz tells me of speed climbers, leaving Interlaken on the early lift, scaling this Everest of rock faces and being back in Interlaken for a late afternoon business meeting. Then he adds, "But as the permafrost thaws, there are more falling rocks. Because of that, mountain guides are abandoning once standard ascents that are no longer safe."
While travelers flock to Switzerland, ride the lifts, walk the dizzying ridges and hungrily dip their bread into the bubbling cheese after a long hike, it seems to me it is the Swiss themselves who get the most joy out of their mountains. They know the story behind every peak, the flower behind every rock and the natural treasure that is their breathtaking land.
This article appeared earlier in Rick's syndicated nationwide column. If you'd like to get your travel tips fresh, contact your local newspaper and ask them to start running the "Rick Steves' Europe" column weekly (distributed by Tribune Media Services). For more information on these topics and destinations, see the Plan Your Trip section of our website.