The easternmost peak of a Bernese Alps ridge that includes the Mönch and the Jungfrau, the Eiger is a name that transports me back to childhood, to stories of heroic achievement and tragedy. First conquered by its west flank in 1858, to date the infamous north face of the Eiger has claimed the lives of 64 climbers. Staring up at its implacable expression as the morning cloud slowly dissipates to reveal the full extent of its monumental profile looming above the Grindelwald Valley, I have a lump in my throat.
A couple of hours later I, and around 500 mainly Asian visitors, are carried effortlessly up 1400 metres of elevation and disgorged at Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station. From there, I slowly make my way through a Disney-esque environment of souvenirs, tacky photo opportunities, and ice carved into woodland creatures, to step out onto the Sphinx platform at 3571 metres above sea level and stand shoulder high to the mighty Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger.
It’s one of the most humbling and awe inspiring travel moments of my life but I can’t help feeling like a cheat and wondering if the ease of my getting here hasn’t in some way diminished the achievement of those who have risked so much to stand where I am standing.
Hiking in the Austrian Alps last year, a pleasant stroll around the impossibly scenic Vorderer Gosausee lake at the foot of the Dachstein Mountains was given an energy sapping twist by following a relentless uphill trail to the smaller and much more remote Ht Gosausee lake. A public holiday, the Vorderer Gosausee had been teeming with visitors; families out for the day; joggers enjoying the sunshine on their lake circuit; dog walkers; climbers and strollers in their droves. Leaving the busy shores, we soon found ourselves almost alone as we climbed inexorably.
Sweating and breathing heavily, our legs bitching at the last few steps, we arrived at the remote and brooding beauty of the upper lake and made our way to the shoreline to enjoy the tranquillity. We were about to start the return walk, when a tractor arrived pulling a large trailer containing around 30 people, not a bead of sweat between them, who crowded the shoreline, shattering the peace with their endless chatter, seemingly oblivious to the beauty of their surroundings and making a beeline for the hütte at the far side of the lake which allegedly does a very nice apfelstrudel.
All sense of achievement and of seeing something that not everyone sees, vanished.
I have mixed feelings about the ease of accessibility of so many of the world’s most iconic sites that allows people to get to places purely by the power of their money. Having been on both sides of the equation on numerous occasions, I confess to harbouring a purist sense of outrage that someone can stand beside me with the minimum of effort when I’ve toiled for hours to be on that spot.
Having hiked four hours up unforgiving volcanic terrain to an altitude of 2500 metres, spent a sleepless few hours in a basic refuge, and scrabbled up rocks at 4am in the pitch dark in order to stand on the peak of Spain’s highest mountain to watch the sun rise, seeing folks in flip flops step lightly off the cable car was enough to almost reduce me to tears. Back at crater level and more exhausted than I’ve ever felt before or since, when a group of strollers asked me if getting to the peak on foot would take them more than 40 minutes, I let fly with a tirade of verbal abuse.
I am a strong supporter of access for all. I don’t want the world’s most amazing places to be reserved only for those who are fortunate or privileged enough to have the physical capability and the material wherewithal to experience them. I don’t resent that there’s almost always a way to get the reward without the effort. I just think we shouldn’t take that easy way for granted and allow it to diminish the Herculean efforts of those who got there entirely under their own auspices.
Standing on that ice platform where I had no real right to be, my sense of awe at the achievement of someone who climbs through such hostile conditions and ascends one of these peaks was, if anything, heightened. However much admiration I felt for the incredible feats of skill and endurance that climbers have performed over the centuries, actually experiencing that bone cracking, face stripping cold; feeling the uncertain stability of compacted ice beneath my feet and the needle sharp intakes of icy breath in my lungs, made their heroics all the more real.
I’m not sure the same could be said for the flip flop wearing cable car riders of Mount Teide or the strudel scoffing ladies of Gosausee.
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+