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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Top of Europe. Sort of.

We had walked along the base of the Eiger, and now we were going to ride a train right through it. This was the famous Jungfrau Railway, an engineering marvel completed in 1912. From the Eigergletscher Station at the base of the west face, the train bores through the mountain, just inside the nordwand. Soon the famed Stollenloch window, scene of many Eiger rescues and bailouts, opens onto the north face. Actually, the train doesn’t stop there but continues to a viewing gallery farther east. Still, the view from the gallery was astonishing enough when I thought of what our Grindelwald host had told us: Skiers sometimes climb out the Stollenloch, rappel or jump onto the snow, and ski the lower third of the face. “It’s not authorized, but people do it,” Martin said.

The train’s seven-kilometer tunnel arcs to the south, still inside the mountain, and stops again at the Eismeer Station, where another gallery offers superb views to the Lower Grindelwald Glacier and the surrounding peaks. Then it tunnels straight under the Mönch, a 4,000-meter peak, and comes to a stop, deep under the glacier, at the Jungfraujoch, the 11,400-foot saddle between the Mönch and the Jungfrau. Engineers originally had hoped to carry on to the summit of the 13,642-foot Jungfrau, but wiser minds (and World War I) intervened.

More than 8,000 feet above Grindelwald, the Jungfraujoch is a sight to behold. It’s an enormous complex (the schematic in my brochure looks like a blueprint for a nuclear submarine or NORAD’s underground HQ), with a bewildering array of restaurants and tourist attractions. More than 600,000 tourists visit the Jungfraujoch each year, and many of them are Asian—the canny Swiss have responded with a restaurant called Bollywood and noodle bowls on sale at the cafeteria alongside the hot chocolate and croissants. On one level is the Ice Palace, a series of slippery-floored corridors decorated with carved penguins and the like; on another is a Swiss watch shop, where you can buy a timepiece authenticated as being sold at the “Top of Europe”—which is patently a falsehood since the neighboring peaks, to say nothing of Mont Blanc or Mt. Elbrus, are, to even the most inexperienced eye, obviously higher. Still, this is likely the highest point most of the hypoxic tourists have ever reached. Inside, semi-conscious women in saris and men in baggy pants sat collapsed in corners and poking listlessly at their food, ignoring the view.

And what a view! After riding an elevator to the Sphinx viewing platform at 11,760 feet, we gaped at the surrounding mountains, from the nearby Mönch and Jungfrau (two of Europe’s most popular 4,000-ers because of the easy rail access) to distant Monte Rosa and Mont Blanc. Below us swept the Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps.

We escaped the tourists for a time by walking about 40 minutes across the flat glacier from the foot of the Jungfrau to a hut at the base of the Mönch. Here we ate a lunch of yet another cheesy käseschnitte (never enough!) and a drink called holdrio, a spiked rose-hip tea that we quickly renamed hootenanny. Then it was time to catch the train back down, so we scurried back across the glacier to rejoin the madness at the Jungfraujoch, where John discovered the ultimate Alpine accessory: an ATM overlooking the Aletsch Glacier.

Actually, I quite enjoyed the weird scene at the Jungfraujoch. The train and the tourist complex on top make for a hyper-expensive outing that has almost nothing to do with mountaineering, but it’s one of those must-dos on the European circuit, like the Mona Lisa or the Parthenon. Truly a wonder.

Next up: The Tour d'Aï. To go to the start of these reports from Switzerland, click here .


tig said...

Thanks for the reports! I'm enjoying them, as I was up there with my parents at about the same time. (Pics at http://
(Oberland starts at the bottom of page 6).

I was hoping to climb the Monch by the normal route from the hut, having done the popular hike to the top of the Breithorn in Zermatt, but logistics didnt work out.

It was fun to take my mom on the hut hike though!

Dougald MacDonald said...

A note from Mom:

"I just finished reading your account of the ride up to the Jungtfraujoch, which I did in 1954. At that time there was no development or commercialism, at least that I can remember. I remember the intermittent views from the train and how fabulous they were. At the top we went "ice skating" in that ice area and I got blasted by the altitude—at that time no one warned tourists like us that altitude problems existed. It was a lot of fun though before I had to quit!"