Switzerland’s Jungfrau region
HEINRICH HARRER’S HORROR STORIES thump around in my head as I’m dragged helplessly up towards the Eiger’s scowling north face.
Partially paralysed by the confines of my situation, I feel the White Spider’s cold eyes stare down menacingly at me from where it lays in wait for victims on the furrowed brow of the ice ogre.
My appraisal of the situation, it’s fair to say, lacks some of the poetry that graces Heinrich Harrer’s own elegant observations of the Eiger’s scowling face from his first ascent.
“Oh bollocks!” I yodel into the rapidly thinning Swiss air. “I’m on the wrong bloody lift…”
Switzerland’s Jungfrau region
As much as I love playing on peaks, I’m a death-defying alpinist only in the heady heights of my wildest imaginings.
Sadly, my status as an expert snow boarder also belongs to the same fantasy realm, and yet here I am being transported to the top of the Eigernordwand, a red/black run down the lower flanks of the Eiger’s north face that is closer to being in the death zone than in my comfort zone.
There’s nothing I can do about it now, though, and unless I remain on the lift for the downward dangle of shame, my only option is to take it on.
“Fortune favours the brave,” I mutter as I disembark and fall flat on my face, to the amusement of the lift guy.
Such is life in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region in the Bernese Alps – a top destination for snow lovers; the kind of place where kids are seemingly born with skis on their fortunate little feet, and everyone is used to travelling at a 45-degree angle to the ground, whether they’re speeding down a run in winter, or hiking up a track in summer.
It is for the extraordinary diversity and quality of its skiing conditions that the Jungfrau region is justly famed.
“There are over 200km of marked skiing trails in this area,” Johnny Parsons tells me over a cider in Wengen.
Johnny, an experienced ski instructor, is Australian, but he’s been here for more than 20 years and isn’t considering checking out any time soon.
And why would he, when he gets paid to ski the slopes and go on off-piste backcountry adventures in some of the planet’s best snow conditions by winter, and teach sailing on alpine lakes during summer?
“The longest run around here is about 16km, from peak to village,” says Johnny. “But it’s not a purpose-designed ski resort. There are cowsheds all over the slopes. It’s messy. Things don’t connect properly and there are places where you have to pole your way along for a bit. That’s just the way it has always been, and I think that’s the beauty of the place.”
I’ve arrived in the gateway town of Interlaken (meaning “between lakes”) in the dying days of the European winter, to join comfortable numbers of villagers and visitors enjoying a last hurrah on the slopes of the Bernese Oberland before the snow melts into the rivers and fills the gorgeous lakes below.
The skiing and boarding is, of course, superlative, and the lift queues non-existent, but sliding down a hill is just one small element of the activities that can be enjoyed here.
Which is lucky, because the sun has turned the heat up, and spring is pulling the white tablecloth off the hillsides faster than an enthusiastic magician performing a sideshow trick.
Meeting the Eiger
Home to Ueli Steck – aka the Swiss Machine, the speed climber who recently condensed Harrer’s three-day epic ascent of the Eiger’s north face into a 2 hour 47 minute virtually unprotected vertical sprint – Interlaken is abuzz with activity all year round.
With its backdrop of three mighty peaks – the Jungfrau, the Mönch and the Eiger – it’s certainly hard to think of a more adventurous-looking town.
The 4158m Jungfrau, which means “young woman” (or “virgin”, depending on who you talk to), is the biggest of the three, while the Mönch (“monk”), stands 4107m tall by her side.
However, it’s the history of the smallest of the three peaks – the 3970m Eiger, or Ogre – that casts the most chilling shadow over the area.
The Ogre put up a terrible fight, killing eight men, before finally being outwitted by Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Fritz Kasparek, and Ludwig Vörg on 24 July 1938.
At one stage the north wall’s reputation was so bad that the press began calling it the Mordwand – the Murderwall – and over the years it has continued to claim lives.
Since 1935, at least 64 climbers have died attempting the ferocious face.
Calamities on the Eigerwand were made all the more dramatic because the north face overlooks the popular Jungfrau region, and a number of tragedies took place in front of an audience comprised of tourists, fellow climbers and journalists, who watched the macabre events unfold through set up telescopes.
Jungfrau region: adventure capital
Interlaken recently hosted the apex race, a World Series expedition-length adventure race. That this place, of all the possible venues throughout continental Europe, was chosen for this event is no coincidence.
Race organisers identified it as “the adventure capital of Europe” and, for once, there is serious substance to this kind of hyperbole.
With its pronounced peaks, steep valleys and rich tradition of pointy end alpine action, it’s perhaps no surprise that the area has become a Mecca for those looking for extreme adventure; Sky diving, BASE jumping, speed flying and wingsuit gliding have all taken off massively around the Jungfrau in recent years.
But there is also plenty on offer for those of us who don’t require gravity and potential sudden death to have such a large involvement in our outdoor pursuits.
One way to see the region from on high and have time to properly appreciate it is by having a crack at paragliding. Nearby Beatenberg – which happens to be the longest village in Europe – offers perfect paragliding conditions for 330 days a year.
Launching from the hills opposite the Eiger, a tandem flight serves up panoramic views of the Bernese Alps and then gently drops you down onto the Höhematte Meadow in the centre of Interlaken, a rare flat piece of land that is celebrated by locals as one of the few places in the region they can stand totally upright.
Long famous for the quality of its canyoning, it is less well known that the area boasts some top-quality paddling spots, and available aquatic adventures include whitewater rafting and kayaking on the steep, fast-paced and icy cold glacier-fed Lütschine River.
Although the coast is far distant, the long, thin town of Interlaken stretches from the banks of Lake Thun to the water’s edge of Lake Brienz, and sea kayaking on these picturesque alpine lochs is an extremely popular summer pastime.
Mountain biking the Jungfrau region
Once the snow melts, the peaks and valleys of the Jungfrau region reveal myriad crocus-lined mountain-bike trails that offer riders huge choices.
Decent Swiss mountain bikes are available for hire at Intersport Graf in Grindelwald, where you can also pick up a trail map and simply head off into the hills and explore the sublime singletrack that connects Grindelwald with places such as First, Waldspitz, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg, Leiterhorn, Männlichen, Mürren, Lauterbrunnen and Grütschalp.
To earn some respect from the locals, have a stab at the 88km route of the Eiger Bike Challenge Originalstrecke (a race held in August), or do a lap of the Grosse Scheidegg-First singletrack loop.
A ‘007 Classic Tour’ offers mountain-biking Bond fans three hours of riding along tracks surrounding Mürren, Stechelberg and Lauterbrunnen. (If you’re wondering about the connection, many scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were shot on location here.)
A slightly gentler option takes bikers from Grindelwald down to Interlaken, along a well-defined cycle path that skirts the riverbanks and weaves through several picturesque Swiss villages. If your calves and lungs are up to it, you can ride back via Meiringen and Grosse Scheidegg to complete an 80km loop.
Hiking the Jungfrau region
Hiking is possible in the region for much of the year, and the tracks number among the best in Europe. Martin Gertsch, my guide on a particularly lovely walk through the Lauterbrunnen Valley, is something of an über local.
He can trace his family’s roots in this area back to 1583, and tells me that his dad used to earn a crust by selling eidelweiss to tourists.
“The locals feared and respected the mountains,” Martin says. “And besides, they didn’t have much time for anything beyond getting enough food together to feed themselves and their families.
The English aristocracy were the first real tourists. The British really pushed mountaineering and alpine culture throughout Europe.”
The Lauterbrunnen Valley is a rare north-south gash in the ground, gouged out by a glacier during the last ice age. Martin describes it as the ‘Grand Canyon of Switzerland’, and it has a far more pronounced V shape than the neighbouring, gentler Grindelwald Valley, which runs east to west and was shaped by erosion.
Lauterbrunnen means “many fountains”, and there are 72 waterfalls in this valley, including the famous 300m Staubbach Falls, one of Europe’s biggest freefalling waterfalls. There are even hidden waterfalls here, such as the cacophonous Trümmelbach Falls in the Black Monk Mountain, where 20,000L/sec of glacier melt drops 200m over 10 falls, all hidden behind the rock face.
We’re wandering on some of the Nordic walking tracks that criss-cross the Jungfrau region like veins. Goat huts and chocolate-box-style alpine cottages speckle the hillside and it’s the kind of place where each village still has cheese-dividing parties and the locals count cow fighting as one of their top spectator sports.
It’s not all fun and fromage though. This landscape has been partly sculpted by huge avalanches, some of them frighteningly recent. Defences against nature’s wrath have been constructed in strategic positions beneath spots where snow traditionally builds up and then collapses with spectacular violence.
You could literally walk for years without crossing your own boot prints in the foothills and between the saddles and summits of the peaks in the Jungfrau region. In summer a relatively benign hiking track takes walkers right beneath the north wall of the Eiger, from Alpiglen to Eigergletscher and on to Kleine Scheidegg.
The route, which takes a little more than two hours, is marked with Eiger Trail signs. A tough summer-only hike takes experienced walkers from Schynige Platte station to Grindelwald First gondola station. It’s a long and exposed trek, taking about 6.5 hours and serving up a good vertical kilometre of overall height gain, and the altitude will have you panting.
But, with views along the Thunersee, vistas of the Niesen and the Niederhorn, plus the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen valleys, not to mention regular eyefuls of the Wetterhorn, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, with their little lakes and scree-covered flanks, this is quite the highlights package of what the area has to offer. It dishes up arguably the best walking experience in the region.
For those hell bent on getting a first-hand taste of the infamous north face, there is a way you can get up to the business end of the Eigerwand even quicker than Ueli Steck, and, as a little bonus, you don’t even need to risk death to try it.
A narrow gauge and extremely steep railway line passes right through the heart of the Eiger on its way to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe. The cog-powered locos that labour on this line have been chugging through the body of the Ogre since before the north face was first climbed, and the railway’s about-to-be-celebrated 100-year-old history often intertwines with dramatic events that took place on the wall outside the tunnel.
After leaving Kleine Scheidegg and entering the innards of the mountain, the train usually only makes two stops before arriving at the Jungfraujoch.
The first is at Eigerwand, literally a window right out onto the north face, where you can peer through thick glass onto a section of the wall below the famous Traverse of the Gods, which delivers climbers into the dangerous domain of the White Spider. The second is at Eismeer (Sea of Ice), where a view of the south side and the Eiger Glacier is available.
There is a third stop, however, at Kilometre 3.8, but when the train halts here it is rarely for happy reasons. This tiny opening known as the Gallery Window, which is actually beneath the Eigerwand, also leads out directly onto the north face.
When tragedy or drama strikes on the lower reaches of the Murderwall, it is from here that the legendary Mountain Rescue Team swing into action.
There are plenty of opportunities for adventure once you reach Jungfraujoch. From the station you can walk or ski across the glacier to Mönchsjochhütte, where at the regal height of 3650m, it’s possible to sip soup and dip bread into fondue-style local specialities.
Having survived my first unexpected descent of the Eigernordwand with little more than a bruised bum, I decide to revisit the run armed with a few more days of experience under my snowboard.
However, a menacing mist begins descending from the north wall, like a vapour from the frigid breath of the White Spider crouching above. Soon we’re enveloped by cloud on the slope, and fellow skiers disappear completely into the fog.
“These were the mists that were known out there as the Eiger’s wad of cotton wool,” writes Harrer in The White Spider, “[which] hug every contour of it ice and rock.” Suddenly, as I sit and ponder which way lies the run and which the deadly drop off, I feel utterly alone on the flanks of the Ogre. Well, not quite alone. There are too many ghosts on the Eiger to ever be totally on your own.
This is just a tiny taste of the capricious nature of the conditions that surround this most dangerous of mountains, but it gifts me a heightened sense of empathy for all those climbers who have been caught out by sudden mood swings in the weather while climbing the north face.
Those who have, as Harrer describes, been marked out by the Grindelwald gravedigger as belonging to his parish. May they rest in peace in this place of terrible beauty.