The house seemed deserted. There were large, rusty padlocks on every door. A two-storey building of stone and mortar, its columns seemed to stoop under the weight of past centuries. Being from Australia, I was tempted to caress the walls with wonder and admire its longevity. Except that it looked like every other house on the narrow, cobble-stoned street. It had to be it though. The picture of a kayak, painted on a plank of wood and nailed to the wall confirmed our guess.
‘I think we just have to wait for him to turn up?’ Said Yasmin, sitting down on a stone step. I took my phone out and took a photo; ancient houses, empty street, and a backdrop of a giant green hill.
When he did turn up, behind the wheels of a battered and bruised van, I secretly hoped it wouldn’t be him. He was tall and wiry. At just over six feet tall, he had probably been a strikingly handsome specimen in his youth; with a square chin and wavy black hair. Today, however, he sported a rugged stubble and a loose fitting jacket over a red t-shirt. His hands, told of a life spent outdoors. Which was a relief, because had we not already booked our canyoning day tour with his company, there was no way I would have guessed him to be a tour guide.
‘You know, you guys are the first group I’m taking out canyoning.’ He announced, as he wrestled with dozen of black wet suites lined up on an old metal rack in the dark, gloomy basement of his house. ‘I bought this whole business from a friend of mine. He needed the money. I thought it would be an interesting change to be an outdoors guide. Run my own tours.’
I looked at Yasmin. Was this guy being serious? What had we got ourselves into?
I can’t swim. I also carry a passive fear of water. Yet I somehow had talked myself into trying canyoning, a sport which combines abseiling, swimming and diving to navigate a stretch of river. I had been terrified before I signed up, had been terrified all the way to this gloomy little room and now our guide was telling us that we were his first experimental guinea pigs.
He handed us each a pair of special rubber shoes, a wetsuit, a helmet and a harness. We loaded them onto the back of the van, and piled onto the passenger seats. He fired the engine, lit a cigarette and headed north, towards the mountains.
Gondola’s main street is a two-lane epitome of space efficiency, built with absolute disregard to the concept of your personal space on the road. But they seemed generously spacious compared to the roads which lead into the surrounding mountains. The narrow road, barely wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side with their arms stretched out, wound through steep green mountains, deep ravine and tiny villages with their population of old locals and younger, more adventurous tourists in their brightly coloured mountain gear, hiking, riding bikes, sipping coffee. He stopped briefly at his property, located a few kilometres outside of town. ‘Its good for them to get some fresh air out here.’ He said, glancing lovingly at the two mares grazing on one of the paddocks. There was a stable, a few empty plots of land covered in fiercely green grass and a small stone-slate house on his property.
‘One of them, I think, may be slightly retarded. She makes strange noises. Walks in a funny way, even though there is nothing wrong with her legs.’
‘So, have you ever done something like this before mate?’ He turned to look at me. ‘Well, I’m more of a land person I would say. But I did float down the Mekong in Laos on a tube once!’ I replied.
‘Ah, Laos. A beautiful country.’ He looked across at us, momentarily taking his eyes off the road. ‘I was only joking before, you know? I have been an outdoor guide for fifteen years.’ He revealed, as we went around another hairpin bend.
‘What?!’ Screamed Yasmin, laughing ‘I knew it!’ And so we probed him for more about his life. He lived alone, perhaps because he travelled widely for work; Australia, Ecuador, Spain, Canada. He worked as an outdoor activities instructor in summers, and did whatever odd job he could find for the rest of the year. His latest job as a labourer had had him setting the safety nets on mountain-sides, which would help minimise land-slides, protecting the roads snaking through them.
‘It’s fucking dangerous work.’ He said, unperturbed. And it sure as hell seemed that way. Just living up here in winter seemed like dangerous work. ‘But it pays well and not many other people are willing to do it in winter.’
He had picked us a beginner-level canyon to navigate that day. The most important thing was to keep the blood flowing in our feet and hands by jumping around. We couldn’t let them go numb in the cold water, he warned us. There wouldn’t be much swimming involved, he assured me, and my life jacket would keep me afloat anyway. All I had to do was not panic and I would be all right. ‘Okay! You ready mate?’ He patted me on the shoulder. I nodded.
He jumped off the first set of glistening boulders into the pool below to show us how it was done; feet together, big jump to get clear of the rocks. I let Yasmin go first, just to buy some time to get myself together. I was trembling with cold and that rush of carelessness you feel before you do something stupid. I stepped onto the edge of the rock, my feet clambering for grip, and shut my eyes. Then I jumped.
We trekked back through the thin cover of forest to where we had began. I struggled out of my wet suit like a cicada shedding my old skin. We drove back down the mountain side, and he pointed out a few of the more challenging routes he had taken on before. Even the thought of making some of those jumps, squeezing through some of those narrow gaps which must make a sea snake feel overweight made me shudder. It seemed to me that to attempt those routes, fear would have to manifest itself in one of its two extremities; either so dominant a presence that it could only be defeated by attempting something extraordinary like that, or not exist at all.
We stopped at a small restaurant overlooking the narrow valley. The owners knew him well and welcomed us like old pilgrims returning from the distant lands. And we ordered like pilgrims returning from starving lands; meat plates heaped with slices of ham and salami. Loaves of bread and two types of cheese.
‘Whats the worst incident you have ever seen working as a guide?’ I asked him, wondering if I should go for the last piece of ham while he was distracted answering.
‘The worst? It was ’99 I think. Right here in Interlaken, on Saxeten river.’ He sat back, looking at the swirling cigarette smoke he had just exhaled, his mind elsewhere.
‘Tour companies were under a lot of pressure that summer. Lots of competition between different operators and not enough clients. And so they forced their guides to take more tourists out into the canyons.’ I looked across at him. He had merely yelled out at me to keep calm and kick my legs, every time I had thought the water had trapped me in a pool. I had panicked, and he had let me face it alone, until I had pulled myself together and scrambled up onto the wet rocks, shaken, but exhilarated. Had he been responsible for a tragedy?
‘The day it happened, the weather forecast for the area was clear. But there had been dark clouds gathering around the mountains and normally, the guides would cancel out a trip under such circumstances. They didn’t that day. I don’t know why, but they went ahead with the trip. Took out a bunch of tourists. Around twenty. Most of them never returned. There was a thunderstorm upriver, and the flash flood it caused down the canyon caught them all by surprise. Nineteen people drowned. I was one of the very first people who went down to the gorge to find the bodies.’ He went quiet. Was he back there, alone, amongst the carnage and debris, the world he had loved turning into a nightmare?
A tragedy of that magnitude could make anyone run away from the canyons, or even the wilderness itself. Had he, too, had to pull himself together andd face his fears alone?
I had not expected such a tragic response. ‘That’s terrible’ was all I managed to mumble. The piece of ham sat there untouched.
Later that afternoon, he dropped us off in front of our hotel in Interlaken. We hauled our bags off and thanked him for everything.
He didn’t drive off. Instead, he wound down his window, as if he had just remembered something, and asked me; ‘would you still have done it, if I had told you about that accident earlier?’
‘I don’t know. I guess I still would. You are a good guide.’
‘Well, there were no thunderstorms up there today. But you did almost drown once or twice…’ He smiled a sad smile. And with that, the Man of the Alps was gone.