By Betty Gordon
© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.
If you’ve ever dreamed of standing relatively near some towering Alpine peaks but have neither the time nor money to train as a mountain climber, you can still achieve your goal.
In Switzerland, all you need is the railway. In a bit over two hours, you’ll be whisked in comfort from Interlaken to the “top of Europe” — the highest train station on the continent.
From the outdoor-loving, recreationally rich city in the south-central part of the country, you can enjoy a spectacularly scenic journey through the Alps that will take you to 11,333 feet, where you disembark at Jungfraujoch, which also boasts the highest post office.
At that point, you can venture outside for a closer look at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista of the Bernese Oberland region and the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks.
All accomplished with no sweat, little risk and no problems.
More than 1 million visitors in 2018 made this excursion on a coordinated series of trains that gain more than 9,500 feet in altitude while winding through picturesque valleys, cozy villages and verdant farmland. And mountains, of course.
It’s best to start out early from Interlaken, set between lakes Brienz and Thun, so you can make the most of your experience. Also, as it gets later in the day in spring and summer and the snow melts, the chance of fog obscuring the tops of the peaks increases. The ever-efficient Swiss have a TV channel that shows continuous images of the weather conditions at altitude so that you can plan accordingly.
The train does the route year-round. Even if you go in summer, you are guaranteed to see ice and snow.
When I visited in May 2004, the temperature was in the 50s (about 10 degrees Celsius) upon departure from the Interlaken Ost station. I had the recommended light coat, sunscreen and sunglasses, and it was gloriously clear — the bluest sky you can imagine.
Many tourists were dressed lightly in ski vests and boots, with their skis and other gear stowed in another carriage.
The train began its gentle climb, passing through Wilderswil, where cows and black sheep were grazing in the meadow. Before long, rich green pastures gave way to forests heavy with pine trees and then impressive bluffs, some as high as 3,300 feet.
The waterfalls also became more numerous as we approached the U-shaped Lauterbrunnen valley, dotted with A-frame houses and small farms.
We changed trains here, and soon were surrounded by snow as we passed through the car-free village of Wengen (4,180 feet), sitting snugly on a slope above the valley floor. Think chalet and ski resort and you’ll have conjured the picture-perfect setting.
The higher the train climbed, the more tunnels we went through and the more our ears popped. The incline became more noticeable as did the pressure in our heads.
Kleine Scheidegg (6,762 feet), a village at the base of Eiger’s famed north wall, was the next stop. Another train change here put us on the Jungfrau Railway, the brainchild of 54-year-old Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a widely traveled Swiss textile magnate, who was active in politics.
Guyer-Zeller was also something of an entrepreneur. After a pleasant hike with his daughter on an August day in 1893, he hit upon the idea of making the upper reaches of the mountain range more accessible. Thus, a tourism scheme was born.
The electric cog railway from Kleine Scheidegg was begun in 1896, and took 16 years and 15 million Swiss francs to build. The project had to overcome monetary and technical difficulties, the death of 30 workers, strikes, supply issues, and weather and environmental challenges.
Construction was particularly harsh in winter, as the camp and its up to 300 workers (many of them Italian) were cut off from the outside world. To ensure that work could continue, immense amounts of food, some brought in via teams of huskies — 12 tons of flour, 2 tons of potatoes, 3,000 eggs, 4 tons of meat and more — were stockpiled. The Eiger glacier’s crevasses provided a natural freezer for the perishable goods.
Almost 20 years after Guyer-Zeller applied for the concession, the railway began operating in 1912. (Guyer-Zeller died in 1899 at age 60; his sons finished overseeing the project.)
On one stretch, the 5.7-mile railway (9.3 kilometers) tunnels through Eiger and Mönch for more than four miles. At times, the tight fit puts the rail cars just inches from the rock.
Only two stations — Eigerwand (North Wall, 9,400 feet) and Eismeer (Sea of Ice, 10,368 feet) — remained until we reached our destination.
At both stations, the train stopped for five minutes and we piled out quickly to take photographs through enormous windows.
As the railway was being built, blasted rock and other debris were disposed of through the spaces that are now covered by glass.
Today, the Eigerwand station is still the rescue-mission starting point for stranded or injured climbers.
Only a few minutes more on the train, and we reached Jungfraujoch, where passengers scattered.
Some headed to the blue-hued Ice Palace, with its slick, long tunnels and ice sculptures of penguins, birds, bears and other figures carved from the ice. The slow-moving glacier continues to advance, which means that new figures are sculpted every year.
Others made a beeline for the terrace of the Sphinx Observatory, where scientific, astronomical and environmental research is ongoing (the observatory is not open to the public).
From the terrace, Eiger (which means ogre, 13,025 feet), Mönch (monk, 13,448 feet) and Jungfrau (virgin, 13,642 feet) comprise an almost incomparable panorama. On a clear day, you might be able to make out Germany’s Black Forrest to the northwest and France’s Vosges Mountains near the German-French border.
Another stunning view is the Aletsch Glacier, at 14 miles the longest in Europe. Its snow runoff reaches Lake Geneva en route to the Mediterranean.
At two miles high, you might feel a bit dizzy or out of sorts, because of the rapid increase in altitude. On my visit, there was — shockingly — little wind, probably a rarity. The highest wind speed ever recorded is 267 kilometers per hour (about 166 miles per hour).
The temperature was just below freezing, but with the bright sun, it was warm enough to take off my coat.
In the valley, enthusiastic skiers were making the first tracks of the day, and in the far distance, slow-moving ant-size glacier hikers were inching their way up-mountain.
After wandering around this part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn UNESCO World Heritage Site for two hours, it was time to get back on the train. On the descent, I again switched at Kleine Scheidegg, but took a route heading northeast to Grindelwald, another ski-centric (22 lifts, more than 100 downhill runs) village, with far more places to stay and dine than Wengen or Mürren.
In the center of a small park in Grindelwald is a statue of a man dressed for outdoor adventure, cradling two upright skis in the crook of his left elbow. The plaque in the stone base recognizes 100 years of winter sports in Grindelwald (1888-1988).
Just the sort of commemoration Adolf Guyer-Zeller might have envisioned when he conceived of bringing visitors to this area of Switzerland and beyond.
Quick reference: At the Jungfraujoch station, tourists can dine at three restaurants (two open year-round), or shop for souvenirs featuring Swiss goods (Victorinox knives, chocolate, watches, carved wooden figures). Should you find you are not dressed warmly enough, you can purchase hats and gloves. At Snow Fun Park, snowtubing, skiing and snowboarding are among the options, for additional cost. A round-trip ticket, second class, will cost at least $210. A discount may be available for holders of a Swiss Travel Pass. Take the time to research the many options at sbb.ch. For a detailed description of the construction of the Jungfrau Railway and historical photographs, see www.jungfraubahn.ch (tickets can also be booked). For general information on Switzerland, myswitzerland.com
A version of this post appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Travel section on December 5, 2004.