The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Lessons from the Canyons 

By Alex Gabriel ’23

Taoism and wetsuits: an odd combination. As I stood atop the 50-meter cliff, peering down at a drop that diminished any hope I had of becoming the next James Bond, I could not help but ponder the intense irony of it all. In an instant the purity, grandness, and cruelty of nature blended into one. A concoction of grand beauty and imminent danger. 

Only 24 hours earlier, I found myself in a very different position. Back in the TASIS parking lot, I could still appreciate the joy of being unbruised and fully dry. The canyoning Academic Travel trip (for which I signed up painfully late) was about to commence. After endless convincing from my friend, I finally agreed to partake in the trip. I, along with six other students, was to spend two days traversing the slithering trails and rivers of Interlaken. After bothering several teachers for an explanation on what canyoning really was, the general consensus was “a lazy river” or a “natural water park.” In retrospect I can guarantee that it is nothing of the sort. With a hazy image in my mind and clear hopes for the weekend, I boarded the bus.

I have been gloriously lucky so far (knock on wood) in regard to TASIS transportation. With very few exceptions, I have always found myself in overwhelmingly under-crowded buses on Academic Travel. This trip was no exception. With a mere seven students, two supervisors, and one bus driver, we embarked on a journey through the Swiss Alps. I hear too often of people claiming to be desensitized to the beauty surrounding us. The grand miracles of nature are too easily ignored for a cell phone screen. Yet, as the bus creaked along the narrow road, encapsulated by a boundless sea of deep green, no one could deny the transcendence of nature’s beauty over all else. A breezy spring morning. Outside the bird jocoser rhymed melodies in hopes of cheering us weary travelers up. A stray ray of sunshine snuck through the window, bothering the optimists who hoped for a wink of sleep.

We soon arrived at a rest stop. Following a much needed bathroom break, we indulged in assorted salads and microwaved burgers. I spent a small fortune on a sloth keychain and ventured into the world of bootleg potato chip brands. We continued our journey. 

Besides a tranquil lake, drenched in the clearest of blues, we made our lunch stop. An hour in paradise, our feet dangling above the water. After gorging on a prepackaged cheese sandwich and gossiping with some elderly French tourists, we set off to the hotel. 

We first arrived at the sports center, where our journey was to commence. Slightly nervous and all too naive, I anticipated the challenge ahead. Upon entering, we were greeted by a TV screen, projecting the latest canyoning trip. At that moment I realized I was not going to a lazy river. Yet, in all honesty, no experience could compare in difficulty to the first thing we did: put on our wetsuits. In a hot, damp changing room, we struggled and whined until we managed to put on the ill-fitting suits. Finally, we boarded the van, with the sole comfort of knowing that no matter what came ahead, it could not compare to the challenge we had just faced. Once we arrived, my lack of athletic ability was evident. Marching up the slightly inclined hill, I was sure that at any moment I would faint. On the bright side, fainting meant that I would probably be carried up, which was a plus. We arrived at the top of the river. In a straight line we headed down the slippery path, falling more times than I would like to admit. All was peaceful, until it wasn’t.

After repeated assurance from the instructors that no one has ever died doing this, I grabbed hold of the rope and prepared myself for my demise.

We approached our first challenge: the rappel wall. The guides explained that ALL we had to do was simply lean back, put our feet flat against the wall, and walk down backwards. If your heart is beating out of your chest just reading this, then you may understand my distress. One after another, my peers proceeded down the wall, silently (and unintentionally) taunting my fearful self. While the wall rose a mere 10 meters, in my mind I was climbing down Mt. Everest. Through a lot of convincing from Mr. Lill, the Director of Residential Life and one of our chaperones for this trip, I finally agreed to climb down. After repeated assurance from the instructors that no one has ever died doing this, I grabbed hold of the rope and prepared myself for my demise. Standing atop the cliff, staring at the rushing water below, I inched forward—the deafening noise of crashing and thrashing currents booming nearby. I turned my back to the drop and my efforts to silence my beating heart. With each passing moment it reciprocated the booming of the river, turning my legs to liquid. I grasped the rope, gave the instructor one last frightful look, and leaned back. It sounds simple, leaning back when your body begs you to reach forward, but it is not. Every ounce of my instincts begged, pleaded, urged me to stop, to climb back up, to do absolutely anything other than nonchalantly lean back and accept the drop. Yet, my desire to look cool going down overpowered any limited survival instincts I might have had. Before I realized it, I reached the bottom. A sense of relief overwhelmed me; we went on. 

The rest of the journey was filled with easy-going jumps, swings, and slides. While they were not especially easy, in comparison to the rappel wall they seemed doable. An hour later we were back in the sports center, removing our wetsuits and dreaming about the dry hostile beds. 

We arrived at the hostile and immediately headed to our rooms to take a well-deserved shower and to inspect our various bruises. An hour later we met downstairs. We spent the evening in an Indian Restaurant, which, after all the Italian food we eat in Lugano, seemed like heaven. Warm buttery naan was served alongside deeply red Chicken Tikka Masala. Engulfed by the scent of Indian cuisine and spices, we were finally rewarded for our efforts in the river. 

The evening concluded with a hostel lobby chat about life, birth, and Turkish Delights. We then, each exhausted from the day, headed to our rooms to prepare ourselves for the adventure ahead. 

Suspended on a rope 50 meters above ground, fear was the last thing taking my breath away. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” I thought.

The following morning we woke up painfully early. By 7:15 we were each seated eating breakfast, and at 8:00 we were headed to the sports center. Grabbing our wetsuits, we were now pros. We entered a slightly cramped van filled with spare equipment and a sense of adventure. Creeping along the narrow path up the mountains, we finally reached an open field. In the field we slid into our wetsuits with ease. I like to think it was because we were now pro canyoners, but the reality is probably that we were just not in a hot damp room. We grabbed our equipment, triple checked that our harnesses were tight, and jumped back into the van. We were warned beforehand: today was going to be more challenging. How much more, that was the mystery I was soon to solve. Exiting the van, I was questioning the horrified looks on my peers’ faces. We were standing near the edge of the road, staring down a 50-meter cliff, thinking up our last words. 

One by one, I watched my peers grab hold of the rope, slowly lean back, and walk down. One by one, I watched them safely reach the bottom. As one by one they descended, my heart dropped further. After delaying my turn for as long as possible, I was left with the choice. Refuse and regret it or face it like a woman—bizarrely enough I chose the latter. I doubtfully placed my feet at the edge of the cliff, fully expecting it to crumble beneath me. I tightened my grip around the rope and began to inch backwards, each step more painful than the last. I glanced at the road above one last time and made my first step. Steadily, I began descending, inch by inch, step by step. Yet, as I made my journey down, incidentally enough, fear was the last thing on my mind. 

The grand landscape that engulfed me superseded any realization I may have had of my situation. Suspended on a rope 50 meters above ground, fear was the last thing taking my breath away. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” I thought. In comparison to the landscape, ancient as time, worn down over eons, my trivial issues seemed just that: insignificant. For a few moments, while tightly harnessed and hanging above, I felt truly liberated. School, the future, the past, all seemed irrelevant in comparison to the grand forces of nature. Ever present, all knowing, cruel and gentle, accepting and unforgiving. She, nature, seemed beyond all that is rational, all that is ordinary. At that moment, 50 meters up in the air, I only felt gratitude. Gratitude to be a 16-year-old girl experiencing something eternal. 

I thought back to Mr. Lill, who earlier stated that this was his happy place. I previously thought I understood him, that an appreciation of the natural is evident. Yet, somewhere in between the sky and the earth, an adrenaline rush and complete peace, his words pierced me in a new way. I made my way down. 

Upon arrival, I collapsed on my knees, overwhelmed by a sense of euphoria. The journey went on. The day continued with countless waterslides and jumps, endless walking, and even a zip line jump. After several hours, we finally reached the end of the river and made our way back. 

On our bus ride home I had much time to contemplate. Exhausted by our day, no one was in the mood for talking. My mind drifted back to the immortal words of Mrs. Fleming, to the concept of identity. I thought of myself, my role in this world filled with millenia old mountains and untamed rivers. I thought of society, of individualism, the focus on oneself that seems so common nowadays. I could not imagine drifting to that. I could not imagine thinking that in a world of millenia-old mountains and untamed rivers it all revolved around me. I, very morbidly, thought that one day we may be gone, but cliffs will still rise 50 meters above the ground, and rivers will still rush. So, in a world where we are constantly faced with our own insignificance, how can we find meaning? I am aware philosophers have been debating this for ages, and my perspective is only one, but I think that meaning is achieved through bringing something into this world that is beyond yourself. “We are put on this earth to make a contribution, to try to leave it a little better than we found it,” said Mrs. Fleming. An ordinary man is insignificant in comparison to the grandness of nature, but what he leaves behind—lessons, innovations, art, or just love—that is immortal, that transcends, that gives him purpose. 

The birds’ jocoser still sung, the rays still permeated the bus, and I returned home, bruised, tired, and forever changed. 

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