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Jungfrau: the top of Europe

Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe Jungfrau Railways
17 Aug
Chris Fitch travels to the Jungfrau region of Alpine Switzerland, where anyone can get under the skin of a mountain – literally

I'm walking inside a glacier. An actual glacier. I reach out and slide my hand along the cold wall of the tunnel – it's surprisingly dry. Shades of cobalt, teal and azure streak across the tunnel roof ahead, individual electric spotlights seeming to flicker on and off as shadowy figures stride across their path.

This is the Ice Palace, a stunning network of over 1000m2 of tunnels buried beneath 30m of ice. I round a corner, and find myself standing in a room filled with eagles, penguins and other statues carved from ice. This remarkable place – which also includes a whiskey bar and a curling sheet – began in 1934, when two mountain guides decided – as you do – to begin hollowing out a glacier. Courtesy of it's unique location, some parts of the Palace move up to 15cm each year, meaning it has to be continually recut. It also has to be artificially cooled to -3°C, to counteract the impact of thousands of visitors running their warm human hands (such as my own) over the ice each day.

It's all part of the experience awaiting visitors to Jungfraujoch – atop one of the world-famous mountain triplets of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. These three peaks sit within the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site, first inscribed in 2001, and praised for being ‘of outstanding universal value both for its beauty and for the wealth of information it contains about the formation of mountains and glaciers, as well as ongoing climate change’.

At 11,333 ft, Jungfraujoch understandably carries the tagline ‘top of Europe’. And yet, I required no pickaxes, crampons or even ropes to reach this altitude. Thanks to the incredible engineering work of Swiss industrial magnate Adolf Guyer-Zeller and 300 Italian labourers over a century ago, today, it is possible to board a train in Interlaken, and – with a few brief changes along the way – ride the railway all the way up to Jungfraujoch.

‘It has to be very strict, the schedule,’ insists Brigitte Gosteli, guide, former kindergarten teacher, and part-time yodeler, as we scramble aboard the train in Wengen, a mere 4,180 ft. Tour groups shuffle along the carriage, trying to locate their personal reserved section before the train pulls out of the station, not a second late. No more than 5,000 people are allowed to ride the train to Jungfraujoch each day, for fear of overwhelming the special experience waiting at the top of the mountain. ‘It has to be controlled,’ explains Brigitte, glancing down the carriage to ensure everyone has found a seat. 

We trundle through the spectacular landscape, the air gently filling with the distinctive sound of distant cow bells. No, sheep bells. Brown and white Alpine sheep dot the surrounding green hillsides, enjoying a grassy breakfast. Apparently their efforts aren't fast enough, however, as the peace is gradually broken by the rumble of a lawn mower. The smell of freshly cut grass drifts through our carriage window. 

‘The highest point you can see here – that's the Jungfrau,’ says Brigitte, pointing to a brilliantly white, snow-capped peak rising dramatically over it's neighbours. A clear dividing line runs around each mountain at roughly 1900m high, where lush green trees give way to rocky cliffs. This region is popular with winter skiers, and we occasionally past various World Cup skiing slopes, what might have been a relatively gentle ski slope six months ago now appearing as a perilously steep field of vibrantly colourful wildflowers, packed with gentian and the infamous edelweiss.

Suddenly the bright morning sunshine disappears, and I begin to feel very, very small indeed, as the train slowly pulls into Wengernalp station (6,145 ft) and we find ourselves staring up at the Jungfrau looming over us. I have to crane my neck upwards to spot the snowy peak poking out above the wispy clouds passing overhead.

Even non-climbers will have heard of the North Face of the Eiger. Yet it's hard to truly prepare for the immensely sheer slope – reaching a peak of 13,026 ft – which greets us when our next train departs Kleine Scheidegg (6,762 ft) a quaint town which acts as the changing station for many Jungfrau Railways trains travelling this part of the world.

First climbed in 1858, the Eiger nevertheless captivated climbers for decades after, with the North Face the scene of heroics and tragedy, as countless brave souls put their lives in the remorseless hands of the slope, and attempted to scale it to the very top. Perhaps most famously, a four-man German-Austrian team attempted to scale the North Face in July 1936, a tragic event which led to all four perishing amid severe freezing weather, and has since been memorialised in numerous books and films. Their goal was eventually accomplished by a separate German-Austrian team two years later.

Thankfully, since the opening of the Eiger tunnel, which loops through the neighbouring Mönch mountain before climbing up to Jungfraujoch, we have no such problems to contend with. Instead, the ticket inspector passes out small Swiss chocolates as we ride comfortably up inside the mountain, stopping only occasionally to allow tourists to leap out and take photos of the dramatic scenery before the train crosses to the other side of the peak.

I talk my way into the driver's cockpit, where our train driver acknowledges my cheery ‘Guten tag!’ with a barely discernable nod. The immense challenges facing the engineering pioneers charged with creating this railway (which took sixteen years, between 1896 and 1912) are highlighted by the rough nooks and crannies of the tunnel lit up by our headlights as we continue our journey upwards. For several minutes, we sit in silence as the train rumbles onwards, the air getting noticeably cooler by the minute.

cogwheelThe railway uses a cogwheel system to allow trains up and down the mountain without the need for conventional brakes (Image: Chris Fitch)

When the train finally pulls into Jungfraujoch, we pull on our winter gear and make for the outdoors plateau. Despite the warm summer temperatures back down in the valley, up here layers are being piled on; gloves, hats and scarves wrapped around any exposed body parts as protection from the cold and biting mountain air.

Stepping out, I feel incredibly exposed, as the freezing wind whips across the crunchy, snowy mountain platform. An incredibly deep blue sky rises upwards towards the heavens, and I fumble for my sunglasses as protection from the intense UV reflecting off the snowy surfaces. In the distance, the Aletsch glacier (at 22km, Europe's longest) flows off into the distance, surrounded by snowy piles so perfectly preserved you'd swear they were sculpted by giant hands.

A lone Swiss flag atop a flagpole sits in the centre of the plateau, a red beacon among this whitewashed scenery, drawing all visitors towards it. Tourists from all corners of the world smile and take selfies, as I queue up for my chance to pose beneath the flag, and momentarily pretend I had conquered this mountain, like the iconic adventurers from generations past.

glacierThe Aletsch glacier has shaped the landscape of this region over thousands of years (Image: Chris Fitch)

Having eventually succumbed to the cold, re-boarded the train and been carried back down through the mountains, we reach Eigergletscher, the final stop before the train line terminates back in Kleine Scheidegg. With the warm summer sunshine allowing us to shed our various thermals, we begin the Jungfrau Eiger Walk, a 3km long trail which allows walker to take in the immense scale of this part of the world.

Various landmarks en route depict the dangerous history of the surrounding mountains, and the numerous climbers and labourers tragically killed over the past 150 years, including the Old Mittellegi hut, the Chilchli, and the Memonto Mori. Thin clouds hang low between peaks, creating a strange misty sensation as we stroll down to Kleine Scheidegg, savouring our final glances of this magnificent landscape before we leave.

With just a few hours before I need to be at Zürich airport for my flight back to London, and a quick summery dip in Lake Zürich on my itinerary before checking in, it's quick and easy ride on Jungfrau Railways, via the breathtaking scenery of Interlaken and Bern, the capital, back to the big city. After a period gazing out the window, I find myself perusing the Jungfrau map stuck up on the inside of the carriage. With a region full of glaciers, lakes and waterfalls, I feel I may need to get my hands on another unlimited Jungfrau travel pass sometime soon.

For more information on Jungfrau and Jungfrau Railways visit: www.jungfrau.ch. The Jungfrau Travel Pass allows visitors to travel as often as they like for the duration that suits them - 3, 4, 5 or 6 consecutive days - on a variety of popular routes in the Jungfrau Region. The Jungfrau Travel pass costs from 180CHF (£142) per adult for a 3-day 2nd class pass 

Return flights are available from London to Zürich with SWISS from £150 with hold luggage. www.swiss.com

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