Flying with Fritz

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					Flying with Fritz in Switzerland
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.”
     Paragliding 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.

Photo of Interlaken mountains with caption: Daredevils from
around Europe come to the Alps near Interlaken to jump off
cliffs. (file name: 07-26-07-Interlaken.jpg; credit: Rick Steves)

Rick Steves ( writes European travel
guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public
radio. Email him at, or write to him c/o P.O.
Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

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