Can’t get enough of those Swiss trains. Leaving the first tracks brigade to their morning devotions on the 8.10 cable car to Schilthorn, we took the Monday morning train in the other direction for an excursion to the Jungfraujoch – ‘Top of Europe.’
The cotton magnate and railway entrepreneur Adolf Guyer-Zeller’s bold plan, outlined in a famous sketch penned after a good dinner in Mürren in August 1893, a few months after the opening of the Wengernalp railway, was for a tunnel through the Eiger via Jungfraujoch to a point directly below the summit of the Jungfrau, with a lift shaft to a building on top. There was opposition from the climbing community and sensitive bodies such as the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty, but the locals were in no doubt about the future benefit to their region. Work started in 1896 and Jungfraujoch station (3454m) opened on August 1st 1912, the 9.3km line having cost 16 million francs and 30 lives. Three quarters of a million visitors make the journey every year, paying as much as £150 for the trip. Ski pass holders pay a SF 60 supplement for the return journey from Kleine Scheidegg.
Our 8.06 departure from Mürren was well timed to coincide with the morning crush at Lauterbrunnen and Wengen, but meant that we reached Jungfraujoch at 10.30 and after an hour at the top were down in time for some skiing before lunch. Given the snow and weather conditions, there might have been a case for skiing in the morning and doing the Jungfraujoch in the afternoon.
This view of the Männlichen and Grindelwald’s ski slopes is from the first of two stops inside the tunnel, Eigerwand (2865m) a window in the Eiger beside the North Face. The army of Italian tunnel workers followed a line close to the cliff face, and pierced it at regular intervals to chuck out the spoil and create viewpoints so that the railway could attract visitors and make money to finance continuation of the work.
Eismeer (3160m) is the second stop, a window in the ‘back’ of the Eiger onto the glacial valley glimpsed from the First ski area. Until about 25 years ago it was skiable, a heroic off-piste marathon from the shoulder of the Mönch to Grindelwald. But glacier shrinkage has put paid to that. When the money ran out in 1905, permission was sought, and fortunately refused, to build a cable-car from Eismeer to the summit of the Eiger.
Europe’s biggest glacier is 900 metres thick in places, we were told. “Switzerland will not run out of water for a few years yet,” said our guide. Nor will Oxfordshire, on present trends. The Jungfraujoch’s description of itself as the top of Europe may be stretching a point, but it sits on the roof ridge in the sense of drainage. Throw a snowball towards Wengen or Grindelwald, and it will eventually find its way into the Rhine and the North Sea. The Aletsch slides gently down to the Rhone, Lake Geneva and the Med. We were invited to admire the difference of temperature between the south and north sides of the viewing platform and, improbably enough, there did seem to be a cold updraught on the Bern side. Inside the station, the main interest, apart from shops, restaurants (including Bollywood), Europe’s highest post office and a cinema presentation of the view for the benefit of visitors unlucky with the weather, is a guided walk through sculpture galleries cut in the ice. They are refrigerated to counter the warming effect of so many visitors, and are less slippery than you might expect.
At the entrance to the tunnel, Eigergletscher station (2320m), also accessible by chair lift, is the highest point of Wengen/Grindelwald’s main ski area, although the top of the First is a bit higher. The station restaurant is set back from the main ski thoroughfare, and a good bet for lunch on busy day. “The best cream slice in the world,” promised our sweet-toothed guide Roland Fontanive of Meiringen, home of the meringue.
Kleine Scheidegg (2061m), the broad pass where trains from Grindelwald and Wengen meet beneath the Eiger, is a place like no other in the ski world: Clapham Junction meets Leicester Square. Thousands of trippers, mostly from the Far East, mill about in the snow, slithering perilously across the icy track in their unsuitable shoes as impatient skiers from two big resorts wrestle with their skis and barge through the tumult. There are burger bars, wigwam pubs, loud music and a village of Alpine chalet restaurants competing for custom at the busy concourse. A sedate Victorian hotel, more than half a century older than the railway, overlooks the scene and the station offers dormitory accommodation for 45 francs a night. Kleine Scheidegg will be less hectic when the plan to build a cable car from Grindelwald to Eigergletscher comes to fruition ‘soon.’