Tag Archives: Alps

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute

Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.


No broken bones

I thought using my final week’s leave from work as a chance to spend some quality time with friends I won’t see for a year would be a nice idea. In retrospect, choosing to spend it skiing was perhaps not the wisest idea I’ve ever had: I’ve spent the past few months frantically worrying that my love for adrenaline (which translates as skiing rather faster than is wise, considering my rather sloppy technique) would inevitably lead to a broken leg two weeks before my trip – which would not be the ideal start.

Complete white-out in a blizzard

Complete white-out in a blizzard

Luckily, the weather came to my rescue: our first two and a half days were one solid blizzard, meaning that every slope was covered in huge piles of fluffy, nearly waist-deep snow. Every fall was like landing in a pile of pillows (so much so that it was almost fun to do), and therefore a hell of a lot less painful than the icy conditions on my last two trips. The extra cushioning even gave me the confidence to tackle my first three black runs, which were some of the most fun I’ve ever had, despite the regular falls (and the difficulty of first retrieving a ski that’s flipped off several metres back up the mountain, and then trying to put it back on again on a forty-five degree slope with no flat surfaces).

Perfect skiing conditions: blue skies, loads of snow, empty pistes

Perfect skiing conditions: blue skies, loads of snow, empty pistes

After it finally stopped snowing, we were then treated to glorious blue skies and warm sunshine for the rest of the week – I really couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Perfect weather for paragliding on skis

Perfect weather for paragliding on skis

As always, the mountains were the other star of the holiday, they are just breathtakingly beautiful. Which makes me very excited about all the mountains I’ll be seeing over the next year (Sierra Madre in Mexico, volcanoes in Guatemala, three months in the Andes of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia & Chile, Tongariro in New Zealand, more volcanoes in Indonesia, and the lush green mountains and limestone peaks of Laos).

Best of all was the chance to spend the week with good friends I won’t see for a while. As I’ve said before, solo travel is the only way I’d want to spend a year away; despite that, it’ll be my friends I miss the most when I’m gone.