Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland: BASE jumping at the valley of waterfalls

Inspiration comes naturally in Switzerland's Lauterbrunnen valley - just ask the likes of Lord Byron, Goethe or JRR Tolkien.

With cliffs rising up to 500 metres above the narrow, glacially carved valley, and waterfalls bursting out of mountain forests to plunge over the cliffs, local sloganeers have branded Lauterbrunnen the "valley of 72 waterfalls".

In 1816 Lord Byron stood at the foot of one of these falls and described it as "like the tail of the white horse streaming in the wind". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the poem Song of the Spirits over the Waters after a visit to the same waterfall, while Tolkien's childhood memories of the valley helped shape the geography of Middle Earth.

Waterfalls have been Lauterbrunnen's natural poetry for centuries, but times are changing. The waterfalls may still streak the cliffs, but today there's a new kind of fall in the valley.

In recent years, Lauterbrunnen has emerged as one of Europe's premier BASE jumping locations. An estimated 15,000 jumps are made from its cliff edges each year, a not-uncontroversial practice that's earned Lauterbrunnen a second moniker in the Swiss media: 'Death Valley'.

At the heart of the valley is the town of Lauterbrunnen, a long string of Alpine chalets with one church, 72 waterfalls and the vaguely unsettling feeling that somebody in a wingsuit might drop from the sky at any time.

Dominating the town is 297-metre-high Staubbach Falls, which seems almost to tumble into the town itself. The highest single-drop waterfall in Europe, it's like a backyard water feature for every chalet.

It was Staubbach Falls that inspired Goethe and Byron, the latter writing in his diary that "it looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit". The falls also mark the start of Lauterbrunnen's Wasserweg, a walking route through the valley that passes up to 15 waterfalls.

Before I set off up the valley, I head in behind the waterfall. A short but steep trail climbs to the base of Staubbach Falls then tunnels through the cliffs to the so-called Rock Gallery, a fenced alcove tucked behind the falls.

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Standing in swirls of spray, I peer through the torrent of water to the summit of nearby Jungfrau mountain. The town's church bell tolls the hour and paragliders cruise down through the valleys. But they are, of course, not the only flyers here.

At Buchenbach Falls, a few hundred metres up the valley, a protruding ledge of rock has become a popular BASE jump launch. Even as I stand below, there's a roar from the sky, and the air seems to crackle as a pair of BASE jumpers plunges into the valley. Parachutes snap loudly open as another man in a wingsuit shoots overhead, looking something like a sugar glider in an Elvis jumpsuit.

The walk through the valley is like a stroll through an art gallery, moving from piece to piece - waterfall to waterfall - leading eventually to 417-metre-high Murrenbach Falls, Switzerland's highest waterfall.

As I arrive at the turn in the trail to Trummelbach Falls, the air crackles again as more BASE jumpers plummet to earth, landing beside a windsock in a paddock beside me. Nonchalantly, they pack their chutes and amble back towards town as if they'd done nothing more than step out for milk.

Trummelbach Falls is the valley's wet showpiece. Invisible from the valley, it's a series of 10 waterfalls surging through a narrow slot canyon - at the height of the snow melt, up to 20,000 litres of water can charge through this slot each second.

From the valley floor, a stairway tunnels through the inside of the mountain, climbing steeply beside the slot canyon, which is so narrow at times it's almost a cave. Faint sunlight barely seeps through a crack overhead.

The dark walls of the canyon are polished smooth by millennia of water action, and the falls roar like a construction site as water bounces, sprays and echoes off the walls - it's white water and white noise in one.

When I emerge back into the valley, my brain vibrating with the sound and tremor of the falls, the twee cafeteria at Trummelbach's entrance suddenly seems quaintly out of place, like Jane Austen sitting outside a rock concert.

As I begin the walk back to town, I count that I've seen 15 waterfalls in just a couple of hours. I have only 57 - and untold numbers of BASE jumpers - more to see in this valley of waterfalls and air falls.

The writer travelled courtesy of UTracks and Switzerland Tourism.

Trip Notes

More information

myswitzerland.com

Getting there

Swiss International Air Lines flies to Zurich from Melbourne and Sydney. You fly to Singapore with British Airways and then to Zurich with Swiss; see swiss.com. For rail travel information, including Swiss Pass details, see myswitzerland.com/rail. A great way to enter Lauterbrunnen is on foot. UTracks has a self-guided Alpine Pass Route hike that includes a full day in Lauterbrunnen. See utracks.com.

Staying there

mylauterbrunnen.com has a complete list of accommodation options in Lauterbrunnen.

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