Mike Yardley: Riding to the Roof of Europe

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sunday, 28 January 2018, 5:26p.m.
The snow white mountainside has unobstructed, sigh-inducing views of the glacier-encrusted giants. (Photo / Supplied)

I had struck the jackpot with the weather. It was late November and Interlaken had dawned crisp and clear. The region had been carpeted in snow in the days prior to my visit, transforming the region into a mid-winter wonderland well ahead of schedule.  Over breakfast, excited locals were talking up the ski season, holding the promise of it being one of the best and longest on record. But rather than lining up my poles on a slalom course, I had a date with a train and the Roof of Europe in the Jungfrau region.

Situated in the absolute heart of the Swiss Alps, you may find your ticker skips a beat a two, because the scenery is simply gob-stopping. Home to the “big three” peaks of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau (all higher than Mt. Cook), these glacier-encrusted behemoths enjoy a rarefied place in mountaineering legend.  Year-round snow amplifies their majesty and lustre, heightening their indelible imprint on the landscape.

The queen of the three is Jungfrau, named by nuns from the convent in Interlaken, derived from the German word for virginal and untouched. Folklore says the young virgin was protected from the menacing ogre (Eiger)by the monk (Monch.)Underscoring the formidable nature of the topography, most attempts at reaching the summit of its neighbour, Eiger, have resulted in death. Its North wall is nicknamed Murder Wall for obvious reason.

In a country over-spilling with choice when it comes to spell-binding rail journeys, the day-return rail jaunt to Juangfraujoch is second to none, for its intimate, high-altitude encounters. Just ask the two million people who take the trip, every year. Jungfraujoch is the highest railway station in Europe, situated on a saddle just beneath the summit of Jungfrau mountain, encircled by swirling glaciers and the tallest turrets in this icy alpine wilderness.

From Interlaken, it’s a compellingly picturesque two hour ride venturing up to the station. But don’t rush – there’s an abundance of treats, along the way. Under a china-blue sky, with a landscape dappled in glistening snow, as church bells tolled, I departed Interlaken Ost station, darting across the valley floor, bookended by lakes Thun and Brienz, before entering the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Gliding by Wilderswil, even the most modest of alpine foothills were thickly coated in snow.

The lively chalet-studded village of Lauterbrunnen is a visual symphony, heavily clad in snow, as the train rolled to a stop. The view was ethereally beautiful, like stepping into a storybook. In this valley of 72 waterfalls, backed by vertiginous rock faces, the granddaddy is the sublime Staubbach Falls, which plunges nearly 300 metres, right behind the village. From a distance, the falls look like a gentle, wispy cascade, but venture behind the direct drop and it’s quite the gusher! Trust me, you will get saturated.  Lauterbrunnen is a fabulous gateway into the Bernese Alps, liberally laced with a plethora of captivating hiking trails, spanning all levels of fitness and endurance.

From Lauterbrunnen, the train began its particularly steep ascent, hauling us up to Wengen, gracefully positioned on a snow-white mountainside, with unobstructed, sigh-inducing views of the glacier-encrusted giants, piercing the skyline. The train is the only means of transport. Higher and higher we climbed, passing Allmend and Wengeralp, as those quintessential alpine chalets implausibly continued to speckle the landscape, clearly undaunted by the altitude extremes and polar climate.

Donkeys sheltered in barns, men measured the depth of the snow while others struggled to plough pathways, in a landscape cast under a Narnia-like spell. The far-reaching vistas took on an otherworldly watercolour dreaminess, so far removed from my usual daily grind. As the altitude level crossed 2000 metres, my train reached the railway terminal of Kleine Scheidegg, as the fang-shaped Silberhorn peak shuffled into shot, inducing my oohs and aahs.

Kleine Scheidegg is an alpine hiking mecca in the warmer months, with one of the most beloved walking tracks being the 6km-long Eiger Trail. The station lies directly at the foot of the famed trio of peaks, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. A rambling clutch of weathered lodgings and eateries fringe the station, but my fellow travellers were more than happy to embrace the chill, posing for selfies and lustily making snow angels, before boarding the onward train.

From Kleine Scheidegg, the final haul to Jungfraujoch is on a cog-wheel railway, traversing 9km and zipping you up to over 3500 metres above sea level. No other train reaches such astonishing heights in Europe. The Jungfrau Railway burrows deep into the Eiger and Monch mountains, with the tunnel terminating at Jungfraujoch. We enjoyed two brief stops within the tunnel, at Eiger Wall and Sea of Ice, to soak up the novel views from the panoramic windows carved into the rockface, where thick tongue-shaped glaciers slithered down the valley.

The railway took 16 years of back-breaking and dangerous slog by 3000 men, prior to its triumphant opening in 1912. Over a century on, it undeniably ranks as one of the world’s greatest ever feats of railway engineering. Comparable in altitude to our highest mountain, just imagine if a train could reach the summit of Mt. Cook!  Last year, the railway modernised its rolling-stock and he enhanced rail-cars have shaved 30 minutes off the round trip. 

On arrival at the station, I headed to the Sphinx Observatory building and surrendered to the blindingly beautiful alpine wilderness. The monstrous Aletsch glacier, the longest ice stream in the Alps, unfurled its grandeur, guarded by 4000 metre-high peaks. On this eternal blue-skied day, the horizon-wide views reached as far as France and Germany’s Black Forest.

Outside on the terrace, whispers of icy breeze swept across my face, as I was left breathless by the celestial view (and the thinner air) in this pristine high-alpine world. Yes, at this altitude, you don’t want to rush about. I soon noticed my lungs working harder to suck in enough oxygen.  There’s a variety of on-site attractions including the wraparound panorama film, an Ice Palace featuring sculpted ice art, a hands-on Lindt chocolate shop, a fabulous gallery showcasing the history of the railway construction including a giant snow globe, and a spree of outdoor activities.

Sledges, snow tubes, skis and snowboards are all available for hire. I ventured out on to the Plateau, where the Swiss flag proudly flapped, as it has since the railway’s opening ceremony in 1912. A group of Chinese visitors were frolicking in the virgin snow. They had never touched it before. After revelling in this extraordinary world, it was time for the homeward run. Day-trippers have various route options and I decided to return to Interlaken via Grindelwald. 

On the steep descent from Kleine Scheidegg, cameras soon lunged as we looped past the jagged features of Eiger’s North Face and more sprawling glaciers, as snow-covered pastures and geranium-wreathed chalets of Grindelwald entered the frame, backed by the piercing limestone peak of Wetterhorn.  This old-school alpine resort is so movie-set perfect, it felt just plain wrong not to abandon the train and stay a night or two. As the low angled sun started to droop low on the horizon, we glided through more charming mountain hamlets, like Schwendi, Bunglauenen and Schynige Platte. After a pixel-burning day of unabashed sky-high scenic splendour, I was soon back in Interlaken. Dog-tired, but utterly contented, I was ready for rest. www.interlaken.ch

The riveting Jungfraujoch rail journey is operated by a private railway company, not covered by the likes of a Eurail Pass. There’s a wide range of excursion options. For full information and to book online, head to www.jungfrau.ch

Planning a magical trip to Switzerland? The official tourism website is a trusty one-stop-shop. www.myswitzerland.com

I zipped my way around Switzerland and Austria with a Eurail pass. It’s the comfortable, hassle-free and reliable way to get about. Sort your rail plans in advance, by booking tickets or a rail pass to suit with the experts on the tracks, Rail Europe. www.raileurope.co.nz

I flew to Zurich with Cathay Pacific who operate ultra-contemporary A350-900s, the newest aircraft in the world, from both Auckland and Christchurch. The cabin air quality is decidedly better, I experienced minimal jet-lag, the refreshed CX Entertainment system kept me suitably engaged with excellent movie selections and live news channels, plus in-flight WiFi. www.cathaypacific.com

Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Monings.