Thursday, November 15, 2007

6 August: The Jungfraujoch

The mountain panorama from our balcony was spectacular this morning – not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was downright balmy. The Hotel Adler posts a weather forecast in the lobby so we knew that today was our best chance for sunshine and clear skies; thus we planned to take the train up to the Jungfraujoch, the rocky saddle between two of the highest mountains in the Berner Oberland, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. At 3,454 meters, the Jungfraujoch boasts the highest train station in Europe and visiting it was the primary reason why we returned to Kandersteg on this trip (you’ll learn the second reason tomorrow).

We got going around 10 am and I drove us to Lauterbrunnen, where we bought tickets for the 11:30 train to Kleine Scheidegg. (It is very expensive to go all the way up to the Jungfraujoch, so don’t do it unless you know you will have good weather at the top!) We were now old hats at all this, having done the identical journey up to Kleine Scheidegg with my parents last fall, and we settled into our compartment on the cog train for the 45-minute ride up from Lauterbrunnen and through Wengen (view from the train, left). The train was quite full; we sat across from a couple of British guys and an American family with two teenagers. The mountains were totally clear on the way up and we agreed that it could not have been a more perfect day for this journey. We saw a few of my favorite Swiss cows along the way, wearing their characteristic bells (remember this detail for tomorrow, too). We had a short wait at Kleine Scheidegg so we went into a gift shop and bought some magnets (I recently started collecting magnets from all of the countries we’ve visited since we’ve been in Germany, so I had to catch up and buy two from Switzerland, one for each trip we’ve made here). For some inexplicable reason, a small herd of goats had camped out right in the middle of the train station and were eliciting lots of attention from the Japanese tourists.

We boarded our train around 1:00 and started the long, slow ascent up to the Jungfraujoch. After the first stop, we entered the 7.3-kilometer long tunnel that traverses the massive wall of the Eiger. The train stopped twice on the way up, each time for about five minutes, so we could walk out to the viewing platforms and look straight down the wall of ice, all the way to the green valley of Grindelwald far below (view from one of the windows, left). En route, a video played on board the train explaining the history of the tunnel and the construction of the station at the top. The tunnel was the brainchild of a man named Adolf Guyer-Zeller, who originally planned for the train to climb all the way to the topmost lookout platform, now known as the Sphinx. The project began in 1896 and took 16 years to complete; unfortunately the tunnel’s construction was plagued by budget shortfalls, inclement weather, and numerous accidents. In the end the tunnel stopped at the base of the Jungfraujoch saddle, but it still represents a monumental achievement in engineering.

The Jungfraujoch station is an enormous multi-level complex, most of which is built inside the rock itself (see photo, left). (Here is a good picture of the complex: We stepped off the train into what felt like a cross between a subway station and an amusement park, with an array of colored arrows pointing the way to the various attractions. We first walked through the Ice Palace, which is a network of ice tunnels and caves filled with imaginative sculptures. This is worth a look, especially if you’ve never been in an ice cave before. The whole place has an eerie green glow and it’s fun to slide around on the smooth-as-glass floor. Next we went to one of the two outdoor viewing areas, where you can walk around in the snow, take in views of the jagged peaks of the Jungfrau and Mönch rearing dramatically into the sky, and have your picture taken in front of the proudly waving Swiss flag (the mother from the family we were sitting next to on the train took our picture for us). Then we took the high-speed elevator up to the Sphinx (it climbs over 100 feet in a matter of seconds), where you can walk around outside on a circular viewing platform. From here we got incredible panoramic views of the mountains and the awesome Aletsch Glacier, which, at 120 square kilometers, is the largest glacier in the Alps. We watched a glider soaring in lazy circles just off the side of the Mönch and we could see a string of mountain climbers starting their hike up the Jungfrau.

We opted not to eat lunch at the station (the “nice” restaurant was far too expensive and the “casual” restaurant was a glorified cafeteria), and instead decided to make the short hike across the glacier to the Mönchsjochütte, a typical Swiss hiker’s lodge. The 45-minute trek across a gently rising slope covered in fresh snow was a lot harder than it looked – at 11,300 feet, we were gasping for air! It was definitely worth the effort, as the crowds dispersed as soon as we got a few hundred feet away from the station. (You can rent sleds and even ski equipment up here, but the ski slope is pretty pathetic.) Signs warned us to stay on the groomed trail, because if you head off into untouched snow you just might fall into a hidden crevasse in the ice. Walking across the blinding white snow under impossibly blue skies, with views of craggy peaks and the vast glacier spreading out before us, was simply mind-boggling (view looking back towards the Jungfraujoch, below). Finally the hütte came into view – a rugged-looking structure on stilts, clinging to the “hip” of the Mönch. Below us we could see a climbers’ camp consisting of a snug circle of dome tents clustered in a not-so-sheltered hollow and agreed that we would leave snow camping to the die-hard mountain climbers.

We were starving when we finally arrived at the hütte, so we decided to share a plate of bratwurst and potato salad along with a couple bottles of Apfelschörle (that’s German for sparkling apple juice). We sat at a window looking out beyond the Mönch to a wide expanse of rock and ice. While we were sitting there, John just happened to see a sign on the wall with the train schedule and he realized that the next train was leaving at 4:45, and then there wasn’t another departure until the last train of the day at 6:05. It was already 4:15, which gave us exactly 30 minutes to get back down to the train station. We literally ran, slipping and sliding through the snow, all the way back, and arrived at the station at 4:40. Clouds were starting to move in over the Jungfrau and the Sphinx was nearly hidden from view as we approached the station. The 4:45 train was already full and there was a line of about two hundred people already waiting for the next one. Fortunately the next train came at 5:05 and we got on it, taking the last jump-seats in our compartment. The train was absolutely packed – people were standing all around us and sitting in the aisles. Riding through a long tunnel in an overcrowded train is not so much fun, but we struck up a conversation with a nice guy named Ron from Ohio who was there with his Swiss wife, who works for Nestlé (sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?). At Kleine Scheidegg we only had a couple of minutes to change trains for our ride down to Lauterbrunnen, so we didn’t end up spending any time there today. We were glad we had explored the area well last fall. The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau were totally obscured by clouds as we headed down and we thanked our lucky stars that the good weather had held long enough for our visit. Some people find the trip to the Jungfraujoch overpriced and too touristy, but we really enjoyed it, especially the view from the Sphinx and the hike to the Mönchsjochhütte.

We arrived back in Lauterbrunnen (photo from the descent, left) at 7:30 and then made the 45-minute drive back to Kandersteg without incident. We had dinner at the Hotel Victoria across the street, where we were served by a very nice waitress from Berlin who spoke perfect English but obliged us by speaking German. We had a very good meal – I started with a house salad, then a delicious Schweinesteak on a bed of steamed spinach with a fabulous gravy, topped with shavings of a hard, salty local cheese (I wish I could remember the name – it was delicious!). John had salmon prepared three ways with a horseradish relish followed by a meat dish that we can’t remember – things are starting to blur together and I didn’t take good notes. We headed off to bed thinking gloomy thoughts about tomorrow, which was supposed to be our hiking day, because the forecast was calling for rain!

More photos from the Jungfraujoch:

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