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Adventure Faceoff: The Alps vs. The Rockies

Why would a native Coloradan want to visit Switzerland? Oh, let me count the reasons!

by Heather Mundt

 

Waiting in line at one of Switzerland’s most legendary alpine destinations, Jungfraujoch—a wintry panorama of breathtaking 11,000-feet-plus high peaks alight in gleaming-white snow, even in late June—an Australian man asked my husband and me where in America we lived.

“Colorado,” I said. “We have amazing mountains like these near our home. They’re even higher.”

“You have mountains throughout your whole country,” he gasped. “Why in the world would you come all this way to see more mountains?”

“It’s the Swiss Alps, you dolt,” is what I wanted to say. “Because you can’t ride a train to the very top of a mountain in Colorado,” I actually said. “We don’t have the same activities as The Alps. We don’t have the Alps.”

Obviously, this Swiss mountain range is legendary for a reason, not the least of which is its pristine beauty. But it’s also because of what you can do in them—all the uniquely Swiss pastimes—that make them special, even as someone who’s lived her whole life near mountains. 

Here are a few of my favorite Swiss Alps experiences I can’t get in my Rocky Mountains back home:

Climbing to the heavens without hiking.

We have trains traveling through mountains in Colorado—like the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train that heads up one of the most remote and beautiful mountain towns in southwest Colorado, Silverton, where miners once pulled “silver by the ton.” And we can ride gondolas to the tops of our twenty-six ski areas. We can even drive cars to the top of a handful of tall mountains, like Pikes Peak, a Fourteener (14,000 feet or higher) located in Colorado Springs (about 70 miles south of Denver).

However, our trains certainly aren’t the multi-stop kind you see throughout Europe. And they won’t deposit you at 11,332 feet, like the Jungfrau Railway, the highest railway station in Europe ending at Jungfraujoch, a saddle connecting two 4,000-meter peaks (about 13,123 feet), Jungfrau and Mönch. Transporting passengers through quaint Swiss villages tucked amid green peaks and flowering meadows toward stark-cold tunnels piercing massive mountains–eventually ending at glaciers and snow-covered vistas–it’s no wonder the destination is billed as “The Top of Europe.”

If you aren’t able to take a train to the top of a mountain, chances are you can ascend a mountain via funicular or cable car, like Europe’s highest: the Klein Matterhorn Aerial Tramway that offers a 45-minute ride over stunning glaciers, rock fields, and glacial lakes up to the highest viewpoint in Europe (more than 12,700 feet). Even better than the gorgeous views of the iconic Matterhorn? No “sweat equity” from hiking-averse kids.

Landing in lofty tourist traps.

I am all in on tourist traps, and we have more than our share in Colorado. The thing is, though, Switzerland’s are located so high, I still can’t get over how someone created such engineering marvels.

A ride up the Klein Matterhorn Aerial Tramway, for instance, transports you to an impossibly high world (roughly 12,740 feet): The Matterhorn Paradise, a complex containing an ice palace, a cinema and a café/gift shop. There are also jaw-dropping viewing platforms offering 360-degree views of thirty-eight “alpine giants” throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland, according to the website. Enjoy indoors only or go play in the snow, tube down a year-round sledding hill or take a guided hike amid the glacial paradise.

But my favorite was “The Top of Europe,” Jungfraujoch, a gravity-defying, architectural wonder that’s one of Switzerland’s most popular (and pricey) tourist destinations. It’s filled will amenities: several restaurants, an ice palace, an “alpine sensation” tour, a Lindt Swiss chocolate shop, and souvenir and watch shops. And the Sphinx Observation Deck provides spectacular views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks and Aletsch Glacier. Once outside, you can spend yet more hours riding a zipline, tubing down the glacier, or hitting a golf ball onto a putting green below.

While the excursion requires a full day—riding Jungfrau Railway roughly 90 minutes each way from where we stayed in Interlaken—the journey was worth every penny and minute spent getting there and back, even with children.

Dangling on DIY ropes courses.

Aerial courses and ziplines are nothing new in Colorado or throughout the U.S. And I’ll admit to being apathetic when my husband signed us up for the courses at the Forest Fun Park Zermatt, set in Zermatt, the world-renowned mountain resort in southern Switzerland.

“I’ve already done this,” I griped to my husband as a cheerful staffer buckled me into a harness and helmet. “Like, a million times.”

“C’mon, Mom,” my younger son, Colin, urged. “You’ve got nothing better to do.”

Not only was he right, but my “been there, done that” attitude couldn’t have been more wrong.

Unlike in the States, where guides typically accompany participants on zipline platforms, we were on our own after having a brief tutorial on the course’s continuous belay system Saferoller. A technology that allows guests to remain “hooked in” the entire length of each of the five available routes without the help of a guide, the ropes course ranges from what I’d call “easy” to “no friggin’ way am I doing that.” Over a three-hour time period, visitors can experience whichever parts of the course they choose, comprising more than 110 platforms, 25 ziplines and 83 obstacles—all within perfect view of the Matterhorn.

Next, near Lucerne in central Switzerland, we experienced the Pilatus rope park on Mount Pilatus, a nearly 7,000-foot peak overlooking the famous medieval town. With similar technology and after a quick safety tutorial, we were left to our own devices on the course. So that meant no guide coaxing me off a 60-foot, straight-down drop.

“Are you okay down there?” I peeked over the ledge at my family, who’d gone before me.

“Yes” they droned, annoyed.

“Is it scary?” I yelled, my voice echoing through the treetops.

“NO!” They answered, more annoyed.

They lied.

But I did it (albeit clumsily and while screaming). My core muscles ached for days afterward from the park’s elements, which feature ten different parkours (courses)—from “easy” to “quite demanding,” the site says—each with six to eleven stations. Additionally, there’s a zipline next to the ropes course. For “the littles,” ages 4 to 8, the PILU rope park is perfect.

Trying crazy modes of descent.

Sure, mountain bikes are plentiful throughout Colorado’s Rockies, and there are myriad of ways to hurt yourself riding one down a mountain—as I can attest to after tumbling down a thorny ridge in Crested Butte last summer (231 miles southwest of Denver).

But mountain bikes feel tame in Colorado compared trying Trotti Bikes in Grindelwald, a popular ski area known as the gateway to the country’s southcentral Jungfrau region and nicknamed the “Top of Adventure.”  

Taking the cable car toward the adventure area at Grindelwald First—which included other adventure options like a zip line, bag drop, and free cliff walk—we rode the bike-scooter hybrids with bike-sized tires. Careening sideways on the footboards down a paved mountain trail, it felt like the very definition of “a bad idea.”

“The Swiss are so unlike Americans,” said my husband, Michael. “They give you a Trotti bike and a helmet, and basically say, ‘Try not to kill yourselves.’”

We survived. But it was a fast ride and our fingers ached from squeezing the brakes the entire way down.

And if speed isn’t your thing, try a slightly less terrifying but equally fun option: mountain carts (also at Grindelwald-First). Basically non-motorized, spine-juggling go-karts that are at least low to the ground, by design, they’re less likely to fling you off to certain injury.

But if you’re truly seeking a thrill ride, don’t miss one of the numerous opportunities in Switzerland to paraglide. Instead of joining the throngs of paragliders in Grindelwald, however, we chose a company just steps from our hotel in Interlaken: Paragliding Interlaken.

While the prospect of running in tandem with a stranger literally off the side of a mountain seems terrifying, the result was one of the calmest “rides” of a lifetime (allows kids ages 5 and up; minimum 55 pounds). Instead of feeling alarmed, I was calm and awed by gorgeous views of Interlaken below, bookended by icy-blue glacial lakes Thun and Brienz.

Indeed, of all the many insane ways the Swiss offer tourists ways to self-harm, ironically, paragliding felt the most sane. Yes, even with the kiddos.

Heather Mundt – September 2019

ROAM Contributor   

The Colorado native and her husband feared having kids would mean sacrificing their love of travel. Instead, they realized they could enjoy traveling just as much with our two boys in tow. Relaxing? Not really. But she wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved

 
 

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