New on Sidetracked:

In and Out of Comfort Zones

An Adventure Around Interlaken
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Sam Dugon
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism

Mountains are a constant that ground me – but this doesn’t mean that I’m always comfortable in their presence. Comfort can mean different things. Sometimes enjoyment is about relaxation, doing something well within my capabilities. Sometimes it’s about pushing far beyond that point into the personal unknown. Comfort zones are there to be tested, broken, moved, and used to find the right balance between all the different factors that make mountain adventure so much fun.

I lean over the edge of the highway barrier, staring down the long drop to the riverbed below. Steve, our outdoor guide, is looping a rope around the barrier, and says something about lowering me down backwards. The stone wall falls steeply and then disappears beneath a ledge. I decide to stop looking down, and instead just watch the sun making its way above the trees behind us. The crew want to wait until the sunlight hits the canyon, and, thinking about the cold meltwater rushing below, I’m keen to agree.

I’ve never been canyoning before. I always assumed it was a tourist thing, and while it probably still is, it’s worth the hype. Steve leads us down the twists of the Grimsel Canyon, telling us where to aim our feet or avoid hitting our heads as we jump, slide, and at one point even rope swing down through the cascading water. It’s a fun game to turn a river into a playground. I am intrigued by this adrenaline-fuelled use of nature. Our teeth are chattering by the end, but we emerge from the deep gorge into beautiful sun and are soon basking in the warmth while refuelling on sandwiches. No major incidents, despite the abundance of opportunity to slide or jump the wrong way, and we’re all a mix of relief and energised.

Even in September, the late-summer sun is bright and the trails are dry and warm. Back in my comfort zone, in the saddle of my gravel bike, we’re exploring the trails around Interlaken – cruising through the forest, monster climbs and speedy descents, with the tranquil turquoise waters of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz below us. It’s a paradise for cycling. Official cycle route signage inspires us with a multitude of options. We see mountain bikers and roadies – and also the proliferation of e-bikes to assist riders with the incredible elevation that the Alps demand. I’ve been lucky enough to cycle in over 40 countries by now, and Switzerland is always a clear favourite.

It’s early morning when we arrive on the shores of Lake Brienz at Hightide Kayak school. I grew up around boats, but haven’t been paddling for years. I’m beyond excited to get on the water. Other than the departing paddleboat ferry from the town every hour, the lake is tranquil. My paddle strokes slice through the water – the only noise or movement on this blue-sky morning. I cut across the lake, eager to explore the rocky banks on the northern side. Intricate rock formations from the high Alps above plunge into the lake. We feel as if we’re the only people around for miles.

After a couple hours of paddling, we pull the boats onto a small rocky beach so we can run in for a swim. I’ve been eager to get into the water since first seeing the lake yesterday, and the clean, crisp water is as perfect as I imagined it would be – a comforting blanket that I pull around my body. I never want to get out, but the boats need to be returned, so reluctantly I haul myself into my kayak and paddle back across the lake. I can’t think of a better way to start a day in Interlaken than on the water.

Views from the hilltops above Interlaken are predictably marvellous. The preserved village, with its church steeples and grand hotels, is a bustling dot dropped next to the wide green lakes and majestic Alpine peaks. And I’m about to take in the view in a whole new way, stretching comfort zones a little – from the sky. My Bumblebee hanggliding instructor explains the take off to me, and before I know it we are sprinting towards a precipitous edge of the grassy hill. And voila. We’re in the air.

Hang-gliding has to be the optimal way to fly. Laying prone, with arms outstretched, you get to actually pretend you’re a bird. We cruise around, taking wide turns, looking for trails to run on later. It’s a different way to explore the mountain environment than anything I’ve known, but the feelings it elicits within me are familiar ones: joy, exhilaration, that distant-horizon sensation of exploring somewhere near. The landing comes before I know it, and we descend faster than I think I’m really comfortable with into an empty field.

A small but beautiful red train with wooden benches waits at Wilderswil station to take us up to Schynige Platte. Lurching up the impossibly steep ascent, the train takes us far above the clouds and into the Alpine. At every turn on the climb, we lean out the window, eager to take more photos as the view gets better and better.

When the train reaches its terminus at the highest point of the track, we disembark. The air is thinner at just over 2,000m altitude. Spectacular views envelop us from all sides. Countless hiking options start from here, and I can see trails darting off every which way, igniting thoughts of potential adventures. This is one thing I truly love about the Alps – the endless choice for where to go and what to do next. But, just as in life, we must eventually choose one thing to do out of many options – one view, one adventure. Followed by the next, and then the one after that. So, beyond excited, I take my first step on the rocky path towards the summit of the Schynige ridge.

We end our journey strolling through an Alpine botanical garden, lovingly cared for at altitude, before heading inside the mountain restaurant for a post-hike lunch. No Bernese hike is ever complete without a Rösti.

There couldn’t be a better way to say goodbye to Interlaken than with a trail run above the town. A packed funicular takes us up Harder Kulm. As we disembark, to one side is a beautiful restaurant where tourists enjoy fondue with a view, and to the other is the start of a lovely trail between the trees, leading up to the ridge of Harder Kulm that we had seen from the sky a couple hours ago. My feet safely on the earth for what feels like the first time today, I run excitedly up the rocky and rooty singletrack. Eventually, after a lung-busting climb, it emerges from the trees to the spiny ridge overlooking both sides of the mountain.

We eventually descend back to the top of the funicular station, joining the crowds piling on. Now, on the descent, the atmosphere amongst passengers is distinctly different to how it had been on the way up – as if the time at altitude provided a dose of serenity to everyone who made the journey up Harder Kulm. It’s a familiar feeling. No matter where I roam or how I probe my comfort zones, mountains always provide me with that sense of contentedness, and it’s affirming to see it reflected on so many other faces. Mountains are a touchstone I can depend upon, even when taking a step beyond. The carriage is quiet as the funicular makes its smooth way down the steep mountain, returning us to the village at sunset. It’s time for pizza and rest.

Written by Jenny Tough // @jennytough
Photography by Samantha Dugon // @samdugon
Film by Summit Fever Media // @sfm_films

Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism and Interlaken