Stepping out of the train from Interlaken on a late afternoon at the end of June, I am beginning to think I have been inadvertently sucked down a Black Hole and spat out somewhere in the Japanese Alps. All around me is a sea of Japanese faces, clustering into groups around tour guides who are holding brightly coloured umbrellas in the air. A quick check of the platform signs reassures me I am in fact in Grindelwald at the foot of the Eiger Mountain in the high Swiss Alps.
The next morning I make my way back from the Kirchbuhl Hotel to the station, this time to board a train to Kleine Scheidegg from where I change to the cogwheel Jungfrau Railway. Through emerald meadows awash with gentians, anemones and alpine roses grazed by white faced cattle, the train climbs before the landscape disappears, firstly into clouds and then into blackness as it enters the bodies of the Eiger and The Mönch. At Eigerwand, 2865 metres above sea level, everyone piles out of the train into the shock of 3°C and makes their way to the panorama windows hewn into Eiger’s flank. But there’s nothing more than a wall of whiteout and beads of condensation to be seen on the other side of the glass. At Eismeer we all repeat the exercise, as if, by some quirk of nature the mass of clouds will have dissipated in the last 1160 metres. They haven’t.
Finally arriving at Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station where the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau mountains meet, my companion Heidi says: “Walk like a bear”. At an altitude of 3454 metres above sea level and in temperatures of minus 4ºC it’s good advice and I plod, slowly, from the train to…Disneyland on ice.
Squeezing my way through hordes of browsers milling around carousels of ornamental cow bells and Jungfrau embossed golf balls, I arrive at the neon pink entrance to Alpine Sensations. Alongside the Swiss version of It’s A Small World in an oversized snowstorm paperweight, wood carvings of a giant cow and a life-sized wood cutter are draped in visitors beneath a blinding succession of camera flashes. I have a growing sense of foreboding that they’ve turned Jungfraujoch into a theme park and I might as well be anywhere, well, anywhere that’s currently below freezing and has very thin air.
Beyond the souvenir photos, a moving platform takes us along a corridor lined with historic images and information about the construction of the Jungfraujoch railway, including a section dedicated to the memory of the 30 workers who died during its creation. From Alpine Sensations a revolving door opens into an ice tunnel carved out of the Jungfraufirn glacier, The Ice Palace.
For the first time since my arrival, the full enormity of exactly where I am hits me. I’m in an ice tunnel, in a glacier, on a platform alongside one of the world’s most notorious mountains. But then I turn a corner to find a series of alcoves cut into the sides of the tunnel and in each are a series of illuminated ice carvings – eagles, polar bears, penguins and marmots.
It isn’t until I exit the buildings altogether and step onto the snow and ice that I recover the sensation of awe that hit me in the ice tunnel. Leaving the crowds behind, I crunch through snow deeper than I have ever trodden in before, my feet leaving sunken, three dimensional footprints as I walk like a polar bear, out onto the Jungfraujoch. The cloud has finally dispersed and the serrated summit of the Jungfrau and her surrounding peaks rise from the eternal ice, clouds swirling at their shoulders and the wind whipping the snow into plumes snaking away from the summits like white smoke.
From the base of The Sphinx I take the high speed lift to the upper level and walk out onto the freezing platform at 3571 metres above sea level. Through the blinding landscape, beyond the ice fringe that clings to the wires that hold the platform in place, I can see all the way to the Swiss Mitteland while below me, I can see a tiny thread of people making their way along the Aletsch glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps. Were it not for the fact that I can no longer feel my fingers or toes, I would remain here until dark or I was asked to leave.
At 197CHF (£133.60), travelling on the Jungfraujoch railway from Grindelwald and getting this close to the beauty, power and desolation of The Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau is not cheap. But it’s worth every franc to be in one of the world’s most humbling and awe inspiring environments. Plus you can have your photo taken with a giant cow and a woodcutter.
Getting to Jungfraujoch
Climbing 1393 metres over a distance of 9.34 kilometres (5.8 miles), the Jungfrau Railway carries around 700,000 visitors annually through the rock faces of The Eiger and The Mönch to Jungfraujoch. Leaving Kleine Scheidegg every 30 minutes, the journey to Jungfraujoch takes an hour. You can connect with Kleine Scheidegg from Interlaken in 30 minutes on the regional train to Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald from where you pick up the connecting Wengernalp train to Kleine Scheidegg which takes a further 40 minutes.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+