Cynthia wanted me to see Lauterbrunnen’s dead-end valley. She adores the valley’s high cliffs rising vertically from the valley floor, and the countless waterfalls tumbling down the mountain’s sheer cliffs. “You’ll love the valley,” she enthused. “It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Switzerland. It’s picture postcard perfect!” I was sure I would enjoy spending a day or two at Lauterbrunnen and, I thought ruefully, I would need a few quiet days in the valley to recover from the drive there. Google Maps showed our route. I didn’t like it one tiny little bit.
Getting there the scenic way involved taking the Jaun Pass which, at five thousand feet, is a fifty storey building higher than Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain. An aerial view of the road looked like a diagram of a tightly packed human intestine. Endless switchbacks climbed quickly to the pass summit before plunging steeply into the next valley. It’s not a route for the faint-hearted, especially during the difficult months before the spring thaw.
Heavy winter snowfalls regularly close the pass. The Swiss are used to cold weather road maintenance. They use rugged trucks fitted with massive steel blades to clear impassable routes quickly, leaving roadside snow banks higher than the reach of a tall basketball player. Winter tyres are essential. Carrying a set of quality chains is a sensible precaution.
We had neither.
Two front wheels wrapped in summer tyres with dubious tread drive our large and heavy Hymer. The fifteen-year-old engine’s 2.9 litres struggle on steep hills. The vehicle’s steering doesn’t like them either. We fill our garage with weighty items. The storage area is on an overhang behind the vehicle’s tag axle. Because of that our steering feels light on any hill. The steeper the climb, the lighter the steering. On roads as steep as Switzerland’s Juan Pass, our steering is marginally more effective than the spinning wheel in a static car on a child’s fairground ride.
The very thought of taking our home over this high pass terrified me.
The road lulled us into a false sense of security. It climbed gently above tree-fringed fields. Cynthia was at her enthusiastic best. “Ooh, look at the view. Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t those houses pretty? Look, there’s a tractor climbing a steep hillside. How does the farmer stop it from overturning? I’m so pleased we came this way.” At least one of us was happy. I didn’t look. I couldn’t afford to. My goal on roads in general, and on perilous mountain roads in particular, is to keep our ungainly vehicle on the asphalt rather than in the ravines and valleys below. “Very nice,” I muttered, swinging wide to negotiate the first of many tight hairpin bends. Enjoying the scenery was very low on my list of priorities.
After ten minutes of increasingly steep and twisty turns, the road changed dramatically. So did Cynthia. She doesn’t particularly enjoy steep roadside drops, especially when they are unprotected and on her side of the vehicle. We climbed above the snowline. As the road alternated between two narrow lanes and a single snow-streaked track with passing places carved out of the towering cliffs, Cynthia sank further and further into her seat.
Occasional roadside snow patches spread into a solid sheet covering everything other than the thin black ribbon zigzagging steeply upwards. Blown snow from deep roadside banks turned the smooth asphalt into a perilous skating rink. Our engine raced as the front wheels tried and failed to grip the slippery surface. Each time the motorhome lurched sideways as it slipped, there was a wail of anguish from the seat next to me.
We hit another ice patch. Cynthia put her hands over her face and peeked through her fingers. “Oh no, we’re slipping. Oh, my God! Oh, my GOD! You’re too close to the drop. Look at those rocks falling. We’ll be next. GET AWAY FROM THE EDGE!” Much as I wanted to oblige, I could see something Cynthia couldn’t.
A German tour bus swung around a hairpin bend above us completely blocking the road. The driver casually turned his vehicle towards the cliff face and then flashed his lights to warn us to move out of his way. In a desperate attempt to avoid twenty tonnes of towering steel racing downhill towards our fragile Hymer, I simultaneously veered towards the unprotected drop and stamped on the accelerator to prevent the engine stalling. Cynthia wasn’t at all happy.
“What are you doing!” she shrieked, trying her hardest to burrow into her seat’s upholstery. “We’re this far from the drop!” She demonstrated how close we were to catastrophe by briefly removing a hand from her face long enough to wave a barely separated finger and thumb in the air. “I can’t look!” She buried her head in her hands again and whimpered pitifully. Which was fortunate because she didn’t see what happened next.
In my haste to change gear, I hurriedly stood on the clutch and pushed the gearstick forward as quickly and hard as I could. Too hard apparently. With an enormous bus driven by an impatient driver bearing down on us on one side, and the crumbling edge of the ice weakened road on the other, the gearstick hit the void between first and second. I heard a loud crack and felt a sharp pain in the palm of my right hand.
The hefty gearstick knob tumbled into the footwell beneath my feet leaving me with a jagged topped steel rod to use to change gear. Cynthia, wondering why we weren’t moving, risked opening her eyes long enough to look at me. “Oh FUCK!” she squealed as she buried her head between her knees. I can’t say that I was particularly happy either.
The bus filled the space between us and the cliff face. Its large wing mirrors brushed our side. I needed to move closer to the dizzying drop to prevent us from crashing. The Hymer juddered as the engine stalled. My foot pressed harder on the accelerator, but it wouldn’t move. The recently liberated gearstick knob had rolled beneath it and jammed the pedal. Our engine stalled. The Hymer began to slide back towards the unprotected drop.
The tour bus driver seemed blissfully unaware of our plight. He inched downhill brushing one wing mirror along the cliff wall and the other down our flank. He was squeezing into the narrowing gap between the towering rock face and our rear end. I had to move quickly to avoid substantial damage to the Hymer’s flimsy sides.
As the stalled engine died, I pulled the handbrake as hard as I could and made sure the vehicle was in gear. The Hymer’s handbrake barely holds the motorhome in place on an almost flat surface. It doesn’t work at all on a steep hill. Leaving the Hymer in gear on such a steep road was all I could do to prevent a fatal mountainside fall. I unclipped my seatbelt and took my foot off the brake so I could bend down long enough to remove the jammed gear knob. The engine jumped out of gear. The handbrake slipped. The motorhome accelerated back towards the unprotected cliff. Cynthia shrieked again and pleaded for heavenly help.
I jerked the gear knob free, stamped on both the clutch and the brake, rammed the gearstick into first gear, whimpered as the jagged shaft lacerated my right palm again, and surged forward.
Our unexpected, unpowered and out of control lurch towards the cliff saved the day. It opened a large enough gap for the tour bus to pass us without damaging either vehicle and moved our front wheels onto an ice-free patch of road. The Hymer surged away from the terrifying abyss, and we climbed through deepening snowbanks to the pass summit.
We stopped briefly at the snow-fringed carpark of the pass’s Alpkäserei alpine cheese dairy. Cynthia practised breathing again while I jumped out of the Hymer long enough to stretch my shaking legs and wonder why my innards felt like the contents of the nearby dairy’s cheese vats.
This is not my video. It was taken by a car driver in winter. The road was mainly but not completely free of snow on our passage. The tour bus encounter was at about the 8:14 minute mark on the video.