EuropeAdventure Travel

Do-it-yourself ziplining at a Switzerland dam

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An Adventure Travel Trade Association member heads to the woodchips pit at the zipline's end.
An Adventure Travel Trade Association member heads to the woodchips pit at the zipline's end. Photo Credit: Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels

One of the things that separates the Adventure Travel Trade Association from other industry groups is that, when members assemble for its annual World Summit, the organization's core mission is not only on the agenda, it's brought to life.

Prior to the start of the assembly, attendees can opt to take a pre-summit adventure. This past September, the meeting was held in Lugano, Switzerland, and a variety of options, from bouldering to wine tasting, were offered across the country.

I joined a program in the French-speaking canton of Vallais. The three-day itinerary included a day of hiking, another of e-biking and, on Day 3, a tour of a dam and ziplining.

To be honest, I wasn't excited about that final day. I've toured dams from Nevada to North Korea, and I've ziplined in countries from Nicaragua to Ukraine. Regarding the latter, it's fun, but the thrill is, if not gone, somewhat diminished by familiarity. 

As it turned out, I've never toured a dam as interesting as Grand Dixence nor had a ziplining experience quite like the one offered with the tour.

The guided walk through the dam's innards was fascinating; the late Swiss-French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard made one of his first films about its construction.

Typically, these types of operations go to great lengths to reassure you about the safety of their procedures. It certainly seemed a basic part of the experience that there'd be personnel at both ends of the operation.

That practice, however, was never embraced by the creators of the Alpin Line zipline. Shortly after stepping off a cable car at the top of one end of the massive concrete dam, I was fitted into a harness and unceremoniously handed a helmet and a trolley (the mechanism you hold onto after it's attached to the zipline cable). I was then told to walk across the top of the 1,000-foot-high dam and at the end, "turn right at the stairway."

Ziplining trolleys are, by necessity, sturdy; they have to ensure you stay on the cable. And as a consequence, they're not lightweight, and climbing the steep, rough-cut stairs at 7,760 feet elevation added to what was becoming, literally, breathless drama.

My group formed a line up the stairs and looked down at the dam and the lake just behind it that the structure had created. It felt very, very high up.

The zipline cable is about 900 feet in length, making it "the longest zipline in western Switzerland," an Alpin Line boast I felt was undermined a bit by its specificity.

I think I can safely speak for the group to say we were glad to see that the cable ran parallel to the face of the dam rather than over and across the lake, whose water, we were told during the tour, would induce hypothermia long before help could arrive. 

A British expatriate who worked for the zipline company asked, "Who wants to go first?" There was, amazingly, an eager volunteer. She climbed onto a platform.

Once she was connected, we were all instructed: "Put your legs out straight in a sitting position, crossed at the ankle, and keep them up. If you start to swivel to one side or the other, recross your ankles the other way."

So far, nothing atypical. But then:

"You're going to be stopping yourself. At the other end is a pit with woodchips. Lower your legs into the pit to stop. If you don't, you're going to hit your head on the post at the end, and it's really going to hurt.

"Detach the trolley and carry it back up to where we started."

And then she gave the eager volunteer a shove, and down she went.

I soon regretted my place toward the end of the line. What if everyone before me displaces woodchips when they stop and all I'm left with is a cleared path to a bad headache?

The first of our group arrived at the other end of the line unharmed, as did the next and the next. My position toward the rear of the line, however, gave me ample time to visualize the ever-lengthening trench of woodchips my predecessors would be creating with their heels as they stopped.

But, I reasoned, surely Alpin Line wouldn't still be in operation if participants were regularly concussed?

When it was finally my turn to get the shove, I found that my legs were being pushed rightward by the wind. I recrossed my legs. It didn't help. I began to be concerned that my body, twisting so far rightward, would create enough torque that the trolley would hop off the cable. Pondering that, I completely forgot my woodchip fears.

But suddenly, there I was, approaching the pit. It looked about 50 feet long, but I couldn't tell how deep the remaining chips were or know how long it would take me to stop.

I put my legs down. It took less than four feet to stop.

Adventure, one has to conclude, is internal. That first volunteer and I had the same experience; she went down joyfully and I nervously. Both, I believe, found it adventurous. 

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