Gimmelwald is a tiny village in the Swiss alps. It hangs on a slope, half-way up the mountain. One avalanche and it would be all gone. But it’s been there for a long time. It’s at the far end of a long, narrow valley with majestic waterfalls throwing themselves down hundreds of feet from sheer cliffs. You get to the village by taking a gondola lift from the valley floor way down below.
I arrived in Gimmelwald on a very rainy afternoon in 1977. Stepped out of the gondola and quickly walked over to the Youth Hostel which was an old, rambling chalet. My plan was to just spend nights up here and head down into the valley each day to explore. In fact I’d just left a couple new friends down in Interlaken, an hour away by train, and thought I might go back down there to see more of them tomorrow.
A few days later, I hadn’t left the Youth Hostel other than for walks along the mountainside the entire village clings to so precariously. It was my final day there and it dawned with sunshine and blue skies. Very welcome after all the rain. Time for a longer hike.
Several of us — a guy from the Bronx, a gal from Australia, one from Canada, a guy from somewhere in the US and me — decided to do a day hike up the valley. The Swiss are very efficient and there were several foot paths, many even neatly paved with asphalt. We picked one that meandered up the mountain side, wondering what was up there, beyond the trees, where mountain met sky.
Going was really pretty easy, even if it was constantly uphill. Villagers were out in the fields making hay. Soon the houses was far below us. We were all walking along, chatting, having a good time.
Then we came to the Abyss. So far the mountain side had been meadows with trees higher up. Not so ahead of us. An expanse of bare rock stretched upward like a big slide. Below the path, a giant chunk of the mountain side was gone. Like somebody came in with an enormous ice cream scoop and just took a few dips. So if we continued on, we’d be walking right above this straight-down abyss. It all looked like it could all give way at any moment.
Not much conferring. We decided we weren’t that brave (or foolish). Besides, what we really wanted was to go up the mountain and this way just went straight towards the inner part of the valley. We decided we’d taken a wrong turn at some point. So we had a choice: Backtrack down the way we’d come up and at the next fork, pick the other option going up.
Or do a shortcut. Because we were a lot higher than that fork in the path was. So if we just walked along the mountainside at this level, we’d eventually cross the other path and not have to go back down and then up again. Brilliant idea!
We made our way forward among trees on the slope. I wondered how they hung on there. After a while the abyss was way behind us. Still looking for the path that we were sure to cross at any moment now. But instead we came to a ravine. Down there, well below us, water was tumbling and cascading over rocks on its steep way down. I knew where this brook was headed: To eventually throw itself out into thin air and spectacularly drop a few hundred feet to the valley floor. Yeah, not going down to try to walk on slippery stones next to those rapids.
So again we turned and inched our way back in the direction we’d come from, but a little higher (always higher), looking for a safe place to make some vertical headway to find the path again.
We came to a small clearing. I stood in tall grass on a slope of about 45°, looking at a sheer wall of rock, about 10 feet high. Beyond were more trees. We needed to get up there. I figured that if I fell down while climbing that rock face, the trees below would catch me after I’d rolled maybe a hundred feet down the slope. Not encouraging. But we all agreed that going back down was not an option. Because we were all 20something and invincible. And too scared to walk down the steep slope.
So like the bunch of knuckleheads we were, we climbed the rock face.
I truly wasn’t dressed for this. I wasn’t even wearing hiking boots like some of the others. Just sandals. And I had a shoulder bag with 20lbs of camera gear to balance. But there were cracks and outcroppings and grass to grab on to. So I climbed, trying not to look down.
I remember thinking how insane this all was. Here we are. A random bunch of kids, on a way-too-steep slope in the Alps. Not going to end well. And if one of us fell, how long before any help came? Would anyone miss us or even know where to look? My family back in Sweden had no idea what country I was even in this week.
Surely this couldn’t be it. I just couldn’t die here, on this rock precipice in Switzerland, on a day with infinitely deep blue skies and snow covered mountain peaks all around. It didn’t make sense. There had to be more. This wasn’t it for life. It couldn’t be. It’d all be stupid if it was.
I felt my feet slipping on rocks and my fingers scratched for a grip. The climb seemed to take an eternity. In reality, I’m sure it was only a few minutes. I prayed. I climbed. I didn’t look down — I have a fear of heights!
Then there was a hand from one of the others who was ahead and I crawled up onto the tiniest of mountain meadows. Soon I helped others behind me get up and next we sat there, enjoying a truly magnificent view over the treetops below us. On the other side of the valley (that we couldn’t see the bottom of), the Eiger and the Jungfrau rose majestically.
After resting a bit, we headed up the mountain side again and before too long, the slope became less steep. Then all of a sudden, there it was among the trees: a paved path. We followed it up to a high meadow and of all things a restaurant! Clearly all those middle-aged people there hadn’t come up the way we did.
There had to be another way. There was. The rest of the day we spent wandering paved paths among high pastures with Swiss cows and enjoying the view from the top of Europe. Being on the roof of Europe was truly awesome. Something I’ll never forget.
I learned something important that day: Life is precious and can change in a moment. It’s not just about me. What I do has an effect on others, even when I don’t plan to. I decided I would do things with my life, using the skills that God has given me, to benefit others. Each day of my life.
And it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my working life helping improve the lives of others. Anything else would be a waste of a precious gift that is indeed very fragile. I glimpsed just how fragile on that mountainside.
Did you have an experience that changed how you view your life? How is it still affecting your life today?