It’s often a surprise, when out on a hike, to find a footbridge. You might be under the impression that the trail you’re hiking has just always been there or simply maintains itself (both erroneous notions), however, seeing a bridge makes it clear that some serious effort and design skill has been employed by persons unknown to you, in order to make your passage more convenient. Often the span is only a ten-foot platform over a tiny creek, and it serves more to keep your clomping boots from messing up the stream than it does to save you from wet socks, but still, it’s a civilized luxury in the wilderness. The concept of the footbridge to help a walker across difficult terrain can of course go much, much further, and help the walker go much farther, faster. Lots of river crossings have suspension bridges for hikers when going through the water would be dangerous or not possible, and these can be many tens of feet long. And they get longer—a lot longer.
They also get more palm-sweatingly daunting in their minimalist design—some are little more than a walking plank connected to two ropes for your quaking hands. On others, you may wish you at least had a continuous plank. People in remote areas have had to deal with river and canyon crossings for thousands of years, and though poor and far from sturdier materials, have built serviceable crossings with great ingenuity. The locals use them regularly, and have probably gotten over the fear factor, and now the spread of worldwide wilderness adventuring has brought many of these suspended spacewalks to the greater attention of the outside world. Most peoples’ understanding of bridge physics and load-bearing capacity is rather limited, but visual inspection alone can be the basis for a no-go call. Trouble is, such a mental obstacle may be encountered many miles into a trek, and choices are limited. One must press on.
It’s probably helpful to be aware of the scariest of the scary in order to more fully appreciate the strength and safety of modern footbridges, no matter their length or how far down it would be if you….well, let’s not think about that. Steel cables and wide, slip-proof tread (preferably not see-through) can hold a great deal of weight and be quite stable. Given that some of these bridges cross wide canyons, there is a wind factor, so you have to be prepared for the sway that the breeze induces, as well any movement your fellow crossers may create, if the structure allows for multiple passengers at a time. Some individuals may take keen delight in creating waves, swings, or other disturbances for the pure torture of those less surefooted, but they will, of course, have to deal with the wrath of the terrified once they have reached the far side of the bridge.
The Kokonoe “Yune” Suspension Bridge—solid, secure, and not the least bit scary.
The rickety handmade bridges on trails between poor villages have a certain limit on their length, but those on hiking trails in affluent countries, designed by computer and constructed of high-quality steel and whatever space-age materials are needed for strength and durability—those bridges seem to have no limits. In 2006, the Kokonoe “Yume” Grand Suspension Bridge opened in Oita, Japan. Spanning 1,279 feet, it set the mark as the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge at that time. It’s easy to say from the comfort of my desk, but crossing this span doesn’t appear much more daunting than strolling along the Golden Gate. The bridge looks like those built for cars, trucks, and buses, only smaller. With its huge anchor towers and big sweeping support cables, there’s nothing the least bit edgy here. Just about eight years later, when the Olympics came to Sochi, Russia, in 2014, the Sochi Skybridge was built and took the title as world’s longest. At 1,440 feet, it crosses the Krasnaya Pollyanna valley in a decidedly different style. Still, it is another engineering triumph, boasting the ability to support 30,000 people walking 679 feet above the gorge at once. I’ll take their word for it, and go on a less crowded day. This bridge comes with some added features: you can ride a zip line alongside it or, if that isn’t enough to get your pulse rate going, you can bungee jump from the low point and hurtle toward the river in the valley below. You want thrills, Sochi’s got ’em.
However, Sochi had to give over the crown in July of this year, because there is a new world’s-longest span. This time it’s those master engineers, the Swiss, who have re-set the bar. Blowing Russia’s record out of the water, the new Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge near Zermatt measures out at 1,621 feet. And it being Switzerland, the setting is also incomparable, with Alps as far as the eye can see, including the Matterhorn. The new Swiss bridge is no less sturdy than the previous two record holders, but it is the essence of simplicity, at least in this class of modern steel footbridges. Just one long thin bridge path with chainlink sides to bolster your sense of security. Despite it being a word-record length, it took a mere 10 weeks to construct. The bridge runs across a valley that sits between Zermatt and a town called Grachen. Hiking along the Europaweg, a two-day walk between the towns, the bridge shortens a three-or-four-hour section down to ten minutes. At its highest point, the bridge hangs nearly 279 feet above a valley near the town of Randa. If you look down at your feet, you’ll see all the way down because the tread is a grate, probably to keep it lighter and to shed rain more easily. It might be best to keep your eyes up to enjoy the spectacular mountain views and forget about the yawning chasm below. That could be good advice on any footbridge.
The new world’s-longest: the Charles Kuonen Suspension Footbridge
Are you dying to cross that scenic Charles Kuonen Footbridge yourself? Then get ready for Swiss travel with this Lonely Planet guide to Switzerland, available from Maps.com: