A SHORT SWISS STOPOVER

TUESDAY 4TH SEPTEMBER 2018

Jungfraujoch ‘Top Of Europe’

Today I woke up, looked out of the little window in my room, and for the first time since my arrival in Grindelwald, I could see the mountain tops! So, I decided today would be the day to go to Jungfraujoch, also called ‘The top of Europe’.

I took the Wengernalp railway from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg, which climbed steeper and steeper up the mountainside. It’s an astonishing display of engineering, how these rack railways pull themselves up through some incredibly steep inclines, cutting and shaping their way through and up the extensive mountainside. This particular railway system has been connecting the town of Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg since 1893. Impressive!

They don’t move fast, so I’d suggest not travelling with a defined schedule in mind, but they get you up! The slower journey time gives you ample opportunity to admire and reflect on the incredible views! From Kleine Scheidegg I would purchase the connecting ticket to reach the ‘Top Of Europe’. I had budgeted (loosely) for this, and knew it was going to be at the pricier end of my budget restraints – the connecting ticket would cost me a further 69 CHF. Around fifty-five pounds. I thought that it was a steep (no pun intended) amount of money, but I thought I would go against my better judgement, and go and experience it whilst here, and so I reluctantly paid the onwards fare.

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View from the train on the journey up, overlooking the valley towards Grindelwald

This train journey, on the Jungfrau Railway this time, would take me up the remaining 7km stretch, and would travel through the Eiger mountain itself. It travels primarily through a tunnel, that was blasted out with an enormous amount of dynamite. The work constructing these tunnel systems began in 1898, once the lower section at Kleine Scheidegg had itself been completed. Adolf Guyer-Zeller, the mastermind behind the railway, actually died of pneumonia, one year later, in 1899, but the work carried on nonetheless. In February 1912, the breakthrough came when the workers used more dynamite than was allowed, and they managed to achieve the break through, and the highest altitude train station in Europe was born, at 3454m.

After around 25 minutes, the train pulled into Jungfraujoch station and I was officially at ‘The Top of Europe’. From here, the hordes of tourists disembarked from the train, and slowly squeezed their way, like sardines, into the first initial observation area. At this point, I was already starting to feel a little uncomfortable and I’d barely stepped off the train.

There was a large percentage of Asian tourists embarking on the trip up. It really surprised me at first, the sheer number, which must have been in their hundreds. Even the menus wherever you visit in this particular area of Switzerland are in Chinese and Japanese. On some of the trains, there’s even specific carriages reserved just for them! The sheer volume can be a little overpowering at times, and I was especially feeling that on my arrival at Jungfraujoch.

The masses of people did disperse from the train station reasonably quickly, and then you are left to wonder around at your own free will, albeit following the various directional signs that are in place. I took a lift (one that claims to be the fastest in Switzerland – climbing 108 metres in 25 seconds) to the Sphinx Terrace. Here you get a breathtaking view over the Aletsch Glacier, Jungfrau and Mönch mountains.

The views are awe-inspiring, and today was a relatively clear day, the clearest since I arrived, and so the views were breathtakingly beautiful. However, once again, I seemed to have found myself sandwiched between huge numbers of people. After spending some time up here admiring the views, and taking some photographs myself, I moved down and had a little walk out onto the Glacier. Here, there were various activities available if you wished. A small Zip-Wire and some go-karting / ice-karting from what I could make out.

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Mönch Mountain, which stands at 4107m above sea level

After a short walk, admiring and appreciating the views from a slightly different, and lower perspective than the observational areas inside offer, I then went and found the ‘Ice Palace’. This was a fun little area, where there were ice figures of many an array of animals, from polar bears and penguins, to eagles and huskies, and there was even a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie, ‘Charlie Chaplin and the kid’, carved out of ice.

However, by this point I was really starting to feel a bit out of place. I wasn’t particularly enjoying the atmosphere that filled the place. Something just didn’t seem to my individual taste. I was starting to really regret the price I had paid to get up here. I’m not sure what it was, but I just had a craving to get away from all of this, and back down into the mountains for real. Up here, it felt too much like a ‘theme-park’. I felt claustrophobic, pinned in, stuck in a major tourist trap.

I realised then, that I had fallen for the marketing and PR parade that accompanies such commercial tourist attractions. Wherever you looked, there were tourists, not just Asian, but American, German, French, and British too. And all of them seemed to be up there for one thing and one thing only – a good photo! I went out onto what was called ‘The Plateau’, and all it seemed to be was a photo hotspot. Yes, the views were incredible, and to a lot of people they’d perhaps never have seen or been able to imagine anything like this, certainly not on this scale before. Some of them may not have even seen snow before, and certainly not to this magnitude. They were views only a professional climber or mountaineer would really be privileged enough to see ordinarily. But for me it was too much. Seeing queues for photos, having to dodge endless selfie sticks, people rushing around to get in the best photo spots before the next person. It just didn’t sit right for me. And I’m a photographer!

Jungfraujoch Sphinx Terrace, which stands at 3454m above sea level
Long queue of tourists waiting to pose for a photo with a Swiss Flag

There is a huge amount more to Jungfraujoch than the views. How many people went and found out about the High Altitude Research Station that is positioned at Jungfrauoch? The research station up there is a crucial component in the monitoring of environmental issues and carries out extensive research, particularly those surrounding global warming. Being at such a high altitude, it is above the majority of air pollution sources, and therefore it is ideally placed for measuring our planet’s atmosphere. It also plays a big part in research relating to meteorological matters, which was the subject of the initial research carried out at Jungfraujoch, as well as for medical studies. I wonder how many out of the hundreds, if not thousands of tourists that made the journey up to Jungfraujoch that day alone, took the time to learn about that? How many people up there truly cared about the mountains, or our planet, and preserving this incredible environment for future generations? My personal feeling, they were only there for their Instagram accounts.

By this point I had finally had enough, the food was enormously expensive considering the price I had already paid for the journey up in the first place, so I went without, and ate the chocolate I had in my rucksack instead. I decided to board the next train down the mountain. I was now desperately aching to get away from the commotion and hubbub of the tourist trap, and out into the real world of the Swiss mountains. My desire to be alone, in the peace and solitude that the mountains can bring had never been greater. I decided that I was going to follow the ‘Eiger Trail’ down from Eigergletscher, the next stop below Jungfraujoch. Here, I felt, is where I would be happiest. On the mountains, simply just walking and admiring for the next few hours. Just me and any other walkers who I might inevitably pass by. This is where I would meet the people with a like-minded attitude comparable to my own, people who truly understood and cared for the environment, and the mountains we were so fortunate to be in.

On the short journey down to Eigergletscher, the train conductor gave everyone a Lindt chocolate, and that perked up my mood. Probably the most expensive chocolate I’ve ever paid for though.

View of Mönch, from the start of the Eiger Trail Walk, which would provide me with some incredible views of the Eiger’s north face
Me at the top

WEDNESDAY 5TH SEPTEMBER 2018

First and Faulhorn Mountains

Today, I decided to stay more local to my base in Grindelwald and climb up the First Mountain, via the cable car station in Grindelwald itself. I had my pre-purchased pass, so I walked straight up to the station, and hopped on a cable car immediately, by-passing the queues (after my experience at Jungfraujoch, I don’t think I could have handled being in another queue of tourists!).

I jumped in the first available cable car, and just as it was about to depart the station, a staff member, who worked up the mountain, jumped in at the last minute. He was on his way to work. A young man, mid-twenties, who spoke relatively good English. A thirty- minute cable car journey in silence would have been a bit awkward, so I did my best to strike up some conversation with him, not knowing how he would respond. Thankfully, he was forthcoming and we filled the time with some frivolous chat. I explained to him that yesterday I had been up to Jungfraujoch, and I shared my thoughts with him, and much to my surprise, he firmly agreed with me and my experience. I learnt that he had recently quit a job as a carpenter, to come and spend the summer working in the mountains, although he had ended up working on the ‘Adventure Activities’ that are available up on the First Mountain, so had spent the majority of the summer clipping tourists into a harness for a living. I didn’t get the impression he was going to last much longer in that job.

He did however, pass over some useful advice about where to go when I got to the top, suggesting that all the ‘mainstream’ tourists would walk up to Lake Bachalpsee and go no further. But, if I was prepared to walk the extra hour and a half up to the summit of the Faulhorn mountain, I would be rewarded with some spectacular views. So, once I reached the top, that is what I planned to do.

Cable car journey up to the top of First

On arrival at the top of First, there was a restaurant, shop, and some of the ‘activities’, consisting of a Zip-Wire, a Big-Bag drop, and I think some mountain carts to ride down the mountain on. For me however, I set off towards Lake Bachalpsee and Mt. Faulhorn, via a short ‘Cliff-Walk’ which was simply a short circular walk around the cliff face, which did provide stunning views of Mt. Eiger and the valley to Grindelwald below.

Ahead of me on the trail, were a young couple, who appeared to be having a slight domestic. I thought it best to quickly speed past them. Although as I was passing, I heard the woman, again probably around my age, announce, “Aww, look at the cows”, to which the guy shrewdly replied “Yeah, one day we’ll be eating them”. I thought about a reply myself, but I refrained. I didn’t feel like becoming the third-wheel in a domestic situation at above 2000m.

This section of the trail was a little busy, but not as bad as I had perhaps thought it might be. It was mid-morning by this point. The trail, a sturdy gravel track, wound itself through the mountain, surrounded by typical alpine flora, where cattle grazed, with the familiar sound of the cowbell, of which I had become more than accustomed to by now, echoing musically around the valleys. Below, there were lush green, steep valleys, above, rugged cliff faces. To the left, the unmistakable jagged peaks so synonymous of the Swiss Alps. The walk to the lake took around forty- five minutes, stopping every so often to write in my journal.

By the lake, was a Bothy. A Bothy, is essentially a simple basic hut on the mountain, often with a fireplace of sorts inside, designed to give refuge to walkers and mountain users in the case of any bad weather. They are a common find back in the mountains of the UK. They are free to use, as long as you leave it as you found it and take any waste away with you.

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First cliff walk with views over Faulhorn
First cliff walk, with views across to Mt. Eiger

Lake Bachalpsee, also often referred to as the ‘Blue Jewel’ is actually split into two small lakes, separated by a small dam. The lake itself, sits at 2265m. It was fairly busy up here, a mixture of tourists, and the more serious walkers amalgamating from various other paths that crisscrossed over at this point. It was an undeniably beautiful spot, with spectacular views over to Mt. Eiger and the surrounding peaks. The stunning landscape of the Swiss Alps was cast majestically, directly in front of you. There are almost no words to adequately describe the scene. The deep blue colour of the lakes softly glistening. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, a true and unquestionable beauty spot.

From here, most people would head back to First and the Cable Car, or head down an alternative path to Grindelwald if after a more serious walk. However, for me, I was going to take the advice of the young Swiss man I had shared the Cable Car ride up with and continue following the path up to the summit of Faulhorn. The path to the lake was an easy walk, with some gentle inclines, but nothing particularly strenuous. But, from the lake, the path would rise at a much more considerable rate. The path zig-zagged its way up through the mountain, cutting its way through and up the valley. The green flora was now starting to fade away, to be replaced with a much more inhospitable, rocky environment. In places, there were patches of snow and ice, laying to the side of the path.

The climb was steep, and more demanding that I had anticipated. But with the ever- increasing height gain, the views behind got even better and better, so allowing yourself regular stops seemed justified. Halfway up, another hut stood looking out towards the magnificent views. Above the door, a wooden sign, stating ‘Reeti-Hutte. 1997’. From here, the summit was almost visible, and would take a further twenty-five-minute ascent, up to the 2680m summit.

Lake Bachalpsee, the ‘Blue Jewel’
Reeti-Hutte. Built to give walkers some refuge.
The view looking back past Lake Bachalpsee, on the way up to the Faulhorn summit

The views up here were once again awe-inspiring. The weather was decent, not perfect, but clear enough to get a worthy view of the surrounding areas, and certainly worth the climb up. The sun was shining over Lake Brienz, highlighting its exquisite, blue waters, trapped in by the steep, rugged, rolling landscape that consumed it.

After 20 minutes or so at the summit, I decided to make my way back down. The journey back would inevitably be quicker. I was torn as to whether to walk all the way back down to Grindelwald, which would have taken me around three hours, and it was only around one o’clock by this point, so plenty of time. However, as it was my last day, I was keen to catch a train into Interlaken, as I hadn’t really been to explore any other nearby towns on my super short stay. So, I opted to walk back to the cable car. Again, there wasn’t any large queue for the cable car down, so when I got back, I jumped straight into one. There were some people waiting behind me, but none of them seemed to want to share the journey down. So, I had a carriage all to myself. That was until the final stop on the journey down (there are 3 stations in total, in order to get to the top and bottom of the mountain) when, somewhat coincidentally, the couple who I had witnessed having a domestic on the walk to the lake, hopped into my carriage. It turned out they were from Australia and were going on to Milan the next day. Let’s hope they make it without any more disagreements! I’m sure there’s a good steak to be had somewhere in Milan.

That evening, my final evening, I went to a small bar, named ‘Avocado’, a short walk down the street from where I was staying. I wanted to find a quiet spot to read and admire the views for one last time.

I ordered a beer, and sat out in the corner of the beer garden, admiring the spectacular and mighty Mt. Eiger for one final time.

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Faulhorn summit, which sits at 2680m above sea level
Views over Lake Brienz, just east of Interlaken
Panorama with the Faulhorn summit in view
2018-11-06T23:31:56+00:00September 17th, 2018|Switzerland, Travel|
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